Hillflint Reinvents the Class Sweater

After building Hillflint from a dorm-room conversation into a well-loved brand on Ivy League campuses with his line of comfy, conservatively-inspired merino wool class sweaters, CEO and Co-Founder John Shi ‘12 now has his sights set on shaking up the broader sweater market with a line of well-made, well-fitting wool sweater basics. Now launched on popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, Hillflint’s Mark One Sweater seeks to solve what Shi calls “the two major drawbacks with wool sweaters: itchiness and bagginess”.


Graduating last year with an offer in hand from Bridgewater Associates and Amazon.com, Shi chose to go west before recently leaving:

Bridgewater has some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but I really wanted to feel like I was producing something tangible, something innovative, and so I was hesitant about joining a big investment firm at 22. So I went to work for Amazon instead — which in the specific role I was placed in, ultimately didn’t turn out to be as “start-uppy” and fun as I envisioned. Fortunately, unlike many of the high-stress jobs out east, that meant I had a lot of free time to work on other projects, the most interesting of which was Hillflint.


Hillflint’s collegiate sweater line is inspired by a picture of Ed Heald D’68 from the photobook ‘Take Ivy’ – a collection of 1960s Ivy League campus fashion photographs compiled by traveling Japanese menswear enthusiasts. In the photo, Heald is sporting the iconic forest green sweater — 100% wool of course — with white 1968 block letters to signify his graduation year. Heald had just been given the sweater that morning due to making the Dartmouth freshman soccer squad and he was justifiably proud of it.


It’s a piece clearly from before the days fast-fashion: thick stitching and 100% wool. Durable, practical, and good looking. He still has it at his cabin in New Hampshire and wears it to football games. It is a garment that signifies camaraderie and pride and spirit – values that have always run particularly deep at Dartmouth – and also an era where clothes were made to last.


I was never a big fan of bookstore apparel — I mean a cookie cutter athletic hoodie with a Dartmouth screen print for $65? That just feels overpriced. So I was just like, okay, I’m going to try to bring back class sweaters for ‘12s because that was a product that was actually cool.  


Ed Heald ’68 Sports His New Class Sweater in Thayer Dining Hall

So I did the designs and fit testing and put together the manufacturing piece. I then found out where the big luxury brands — guys selling sweaters for $300+ at retailers like Nordstrom — were getting their wool, and I got that wool. I presold a first run of 2012 class sweaters at a small loss but it basically paid for all of my overhead and ensured that the next order would put Hillflint in the black. Shortly thereafter, I brought on Woody Hines (Princeton ‘12) – who interned with me at Bridgewater and who knows a lot more about menswear than I do – as co-founder. He’s much more in touch with the fashion industry and the trends and is passionate about menswear, and so having him on the team really helped to shape the brand.

In order to grow the Hillflint brand, Shi is banking on a new class of young consumers that he calls “product connoisseurs.”


I think people are just tired of the fact that collegiate apparel is so uninspired and overpriced.  So much of it is just undifferentiated, commoditized athletic wear with a logo.


But while we got our start in collegiate apparel, I think there is a growing consciousness about product value in the consumer goods market at large. I think increasingly people, particularly our generation of young savvy customers, are turning away from the default brand loyalties that drive our parents’ buying choices. We check reviews, comparison shop, get recommendations from friends, and are totally willing to jump ship to another brand if we think the other brand’s product is better. Coke or Pepsi? Whatever. And I think this shift away from being a brand connoisseur toward being a product connoisseur is making it easier than ever for new brands with great products to get traction with our generation.

With total revenue already exceeding $150,000 in the company’s first nine months, Shi and the Hillflint team have big plans to expand the brand, most notably with the launch of Hillflint’s Kickstarter for their “Mark One” line of luxury sweater basics.


Firstly, we will continue to slowly grow our collegiate product portfolio. Collegiate apparel is a $4.6 billion dollar market annually, and I think sticking to our values of well-designed, high-quality products will enable us to continue to grow in that space. Because we are currently still completely bootstrapped, we can’t afford to grow with too much abandon, but not being funded also forces us to really be critical about cash flow, diligent about how we manage inventory, and frugal about spending (neither Woody nor I have taken a salary yet) which have helped us get to profitability faster than a regular retail startup.


After doing our first few batches of class sweaters, we started getting a lot of requests for blank sweaters – like class sweaters without the class years that people could wear to dinner or to the office. I think a lot of people were blown away by the quality because their expectations of wool had been lowered so much by the scratchy, itchy stuff that by and large is what mass market sweaters are, and it’s because a lot of big brands use cheap fibers – blends, synthetics, coarser grades of wool – or cotton which is just not as technically competent of a fiber.   


So you have the really soft, well-fitting merino sweaters high-end brands are selling for $300+, but your average Brooks Brothers, J Crew, wool sweater is either too itchy or thin, or – in many cases – fits really baggy at the waist which they do because they are catering to an average American body shape.


So, we realized there was this gap – people wanted something nicer than a hoodie to wear to work or to dinner – which a sweater would be great for, but the “affordable” sweaters from the big brands either fit poorly, are itchy, or are so thin they barely keep you warm. And the really nice merino sweaters out there from European fashion houses are just way too expensive. And so the concept of the Mark 1 Sweater was born to make a luxury sweater that was priced like a regular sweater: http://www.markonesweater.com

We are doing a Kickstarter for the idea because it’s an inexpensive way to kind of interest check if the concept resonates with customers. The product itself is a basic crewneck sweater, made with 100% extra-fine grade Australian merino wool, a slightly finer grade of the merino we use in our class sweaters. The collegiate heritage is still there but we slimmed down the torso and arms and subdued the varsity detailing to make the MK1 a bit sleeker and more grown up. We kept the raglan sleeves for mobility so people can be active in it and dress it down too. We’re launching it on Kickstarter next month in 4 solid basic colors (which are actually drawn from the color palette we use for our collegiate line).  

When asked what it was like to be his own boss at the age of 23, Shi responded:

It’s energizing — I mean the main thing is just the freedom to explore and fail and learn a ton of new stuff every day has been really rewarding. Of course there are other nice perks to not being beholden to a fixed schedule, like I get to travel a lot more and I can take naps.


It’s also nice to be able to very tangibly see the output of my work. One of the reasons of why I felt angsty and why probably a lot of other recent grads can feel angsty about working at a big company is that the impact you are making is often unclear. There is kind of an ambiguous path between what you put in — which must be worth at least what they’re paying you — and the final product or impact. So there’s often this suspicion of like: does what I do most of the day matter? The journey between input and output is clearer in startups.

Having already forgone the steady paycheck, free gym access and assorted perks of working at a big company, Shi acknowledges that there is a not insignificant amount of uncertainty in his future and the future of Hillflint. However, in his interview, Shi said that the next few months will yield good signals as to Hillflint’s direction, such as how successful the Kickstarter is or whether or not he is able to raise an investment round from investors. Shi concluded that if Hillflint does well fundraising on Kickstarter or is able to work out good terms with investors, “I won’t look back.”


–John Hammel Strauss


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