Bear Market: How the Griz Coat Became a Millennial Phenomenon
“Excuse me, but what’s in that box?” a sixtysomething man asks Karl Reichstetter, 33. A cardboard cube rests at Reichstetter’s feet in Philz Coffee, in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. Two furry, triangular ears poke up out of the box’s open top. “It’s a bear coat that you can wear for fun,” Reichstetter explains as the man starts backing away. “It’s made by a brand called Griz Coat. It’s a San Francisco brand.” He pulls the product from its packaging. “This head comes with a coat that has realistic claws. It’s a whole get-up.”
“OK! Well … there it is,” the stranger replies, turning to leave. “Enjoy it.”
Griz Coat is Reichstetter’s creation. He produces and sells the garment with his fraternal twin brother, Hans, who lives in New York. Karl has a day job in finance at Apple, but Hans works on Griz Coat full-time from one of those co-working startup lofts where making faux-fur bear outfits passes as a respectable business. And it is: The brothers say they’ll sell around 500 coats this October, bolstered by Halloween, and then reach similar numbers in November and December because of a Halloween halo effect. At $199 each, that’s almost $300,000 in fourth-quarter revenue. Sales have increased every year since they started making the coats in 2011.
The Griz Coat is a particularly millennial fad, especially because today’s twentysomethings are obsessed with Halloween. Seventy-eight percent of adults age 24 and younger will dress up this year, according to the National Retail Federation. The trade organization projects Americans will spend a record $1.4 billion on adult costumes—outpacing the sales of children’s get-ups—with each outfit averaging $78. “Halloween is no longer a child’s holiday,” says NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis. “Part of that has come from certain companies creating these adult costumes that were simply not available before.”
But the Griz Coat’s not just for Oct. 31. The lifelike ursine suit has also become a sight gag in Silicon Valley offices filled with young, fratty tech bros. Karl, who’s part of that cohort, has fielded requests from Lyft, Kickstarter, Rush Order, and other companies that want to include the jacket as an amenity on their corporate campuses. “Once, we had two different groups of people wearing them at the same tech conference, in sort of similar spaces,” Hans says.
In San Francisco, a city full of offices that exalt quirkiness and workers who play dress-up, the coat’s popularity has bled into the off-hours scene. Runners don Griz Coats for Bay to Breakers, a party-slash-race that ends at Ocean Beach. The coats are similarly popular at annual bacchanals, including the Treasure Island Music Festival, where Karl and Hans have a sales booth, as well as on road trips to Coachella and Burning Man. “It keeps up pretty well in the desert,” Karl says.
Urban Outfitters, one of the leading retailers in the so-called festival fashion category, is selling its own Bear Coat for $200. The Comedy Central show Workaholics offered a $194 version, which it started stocking after a character wore a generic bear coat in an episode that went viral online. On MTV’s Real World, which took place in San Francisco last season, a producer put three Griz Coats in the house; one played a starring role in a precoital plotline between two housemates. “In a TV show like this, you’re always looking for things that are new and fun that the roommates haven’t seen before,” says Jim Johnston, the show’s executive producer. This fall the coat’s shown up in a NAPA Auto Parts commercial airing during Monday Night Football. It’s also been featured on the Twitter feed of Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who posted pictures of himself in one. Hans has noticed, anecdotally, that the coat’s popular among the hirsute gay community known as bears.
This exposure has transformed the Griz Coat into the physical version of a digital meme, something funny and shareable that owes its popularity to Internet culture. “There’s a generational aspect to a product this ridiculous that may or may not translate to an older audience,” Hans says. “Two hundred dollars is a lot of money, especially if you’re younger. But we have customers in college who say it’s the best thing they could buy—‘It’s a no-brainer. It’s so me’—and they’re just happy somebody’s out there making stuff like this.”
The Griz Coat was never supposed to be a business. In 2011, after graduating together from Dartmouth’s MBA program, Karl and Hans were living on opposite coasts and trying to figure out their usual twin Halloween costumes. “We thought, let’s go in a realistic-looking bear costume,” Karl recalls. Disappointed to learn that such a thing didn’t exist, he began prototyping the first two Griz Coats. “There’s this thing online you print out and tape all the pieces together.” He used that pattern as a stencil and tried to sew up some faux fur, but it immediately fell apart. “So I took it to my cleaners and asked them to do it.”
To finish the look, he carved a crude bear’s head out of hard Styrofoam like that used in bike helmets, completing it with eyes and plastic teeth from a taxidermy company. “The nose was a pound and a half, and clearly, the design we made was too costly, not functional, not comfortable, and didn’t really fit around the head well,” Karl says.
Then something unexpected happened: The Reichstetters were the hits of their respective Halloween parties. In one night of wearing the coats, the brothers sensed enough “interest and demand,” as Karl puts it, to try raising production money on Kickstarter. In three weeks they scored $29,000 from 180 backers, many of whom had their own ideas about colors and species. The costumes are currently offered in grizzly, polar, black bear, panda, pink agenda (10 percent of proceeds go to breast cancer research), and a newer wolf option. Hans is also researching jungle cats.
Karl took on production by teaming up with cutting, assembling, and distribution factories in nearby San Leandro, Calif. From the East Coast, Hans built the website, started social media channels, and did online research to determine how they might improve their prototype. They settled on a final design made entirely in America, rather than at cheaper factories in China, so the brothers could visit vendors and monitor samples. Each Griz Coat now comes with a surprisingly comfortable, bendable head adorned with taxidermy-grade eyes, nose, and jaw. The head buttons onto an unlined, one-size-fits-most coat, though an XL version is in the works.
Karl and Hans are able to run their enterprise—Buffoonery Factory is its official name—as the only two employees. The entire Griz Coat operation is outsourced to more than 100 vendors: Twenty of them offer physical goods to build the product, and the rest provide automated accounting, payment processing, and other back-end services. The only tasks the brothers don’t outsource are content creation, social media, and customer service.
The Reichstetters want to use this just-the-two-of-us model to launch other startups, though Griz Coat’s popularity may threaten that plan. Hans is pursuing both wholesale partnerships and NCAA mascot deals that, if successful, would likely require new manufacturers and additional employees. To cater to an underserved female customer base, they’re also planning to launch a set of bear paws that serves as a cover-up, if you can call it that, for bikinis and bras.
Last Halloween, Karl got his own polar bear costume taken off his head twice by a woman at a party before she eventually darted out the door with it, disappearing forever. Theft happens surprisingly often, he says: “Somebody e-mailed us saying they needed a new head because somebody broke into their car and left a bag, and a laptop, and only took the Griz Coat.” Their next product coming out in November should prove harder to steal. Called the Griz Rug, it provides a place to display the detachable bear head when it’s not in use.