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Joel Fredrickson wasn’t shopping for a side hustle when he wandered into a camping store during a recent trip to Nashville. Then an employee complimented his Micro Grid hoodie from Melanzana, a small outdoor apparel company based more than 1,000 miles away in Leadville. “You know you can buy those and sell them online for more money,” she told him. “People are doing that nowadays.” Fredrickson, a physical therapist based in Englewood, didn’t follow her advice. But plenty of others have.
Melanzana’s fleeces—available only in Leadville, at the brand’s lone store—have essentially become the Beanie Babies of the adventure world. Out-of-staters post in Facebook groups begging locals to ship them the company’s hand-sewn products in exchange for a $10 premium. On eBay, shoppers pay $50 to $100 more than the retail price for used versions of the apparel, lauded for its breathability, warmth, and odor-repelling powers. Even Coloradans reroute their weekend camping trips to snag “Melly” hoodies, sweatpants, and dresses. “It’s a little frustrating to go all the way up to the store and have them be completely sold out,” says Meggie Gildea, a 25-year-old Denverite who has planned road trips around pit stops at the shop. “But I think it makes the company and the items they sell even more special.”
Fritz Howard, a native New Englander, started Melanzana in 1994 and uses only high-end domestic material and local labor. As his fleeces became more popular, Howard refused to outsource manufacturing or buy textiles from overseas. Instead, after fabric delays and escalating demand often left him with limited product, he quit selling Melanzana online and by phone in order to build up inventory at the Leadville store. The strategy seems to have had the unintended consequence of making people want more of what they can’t easily have. “First, it was just a badge of honor that you lived in Leadville or had spent time here,” says Mike Bordogna, former executive director of the Leadville Lake County Economic Development Corporation. “Now it’s become almost a status symbol for folks.”
Being an icon, though, hasn’t exactly been a boon for the small business. Howard won’t compromise his principles by hiring more sewers at lower wages or using cheaper materials, and on a recent Sunday morning, eager patrons waited in line outside the company’s shop, which looked picked over and bare even before it opened. (Melanzana does have stoplight icons next to every item on the website to help buyers see what’s available, and patrons are permitted only two hoodies apiece.) Howard is so concerned about such scenes that he refused to be interviewed for this story. “Because of our company values, we are naturally limited in our ability to scale up rapidly,” he wrote in an email. “We are intentionally trying to keep a low profile.”
It’s too late for that—a fact that’s been tough on Howard but great for Leadville. The tiny Lake County community has seen a 100 percent rise in tourists over the past five years, thanks in part to Melanzana becoming a mecca for the adventure-minded, Bordogna says. And enthusiasts such as 26-year-old Avon resident Danielle Carp plan to keep making pilgrimages: “It’s unique in a Jeff Bezos, you-can-get-whatever-you-want-in-a-day world. Selfishly, I want more.”