Resourceful business defies sagging economy

Stephanie Woodard
2/24/04

Rez Dog Clothing Company - an Oklahoma-based firm that sells men's, women's and kids' clothes at pow wows across the nation - has gone from strength to strength this year, defying even a down economy.

"We're a niche business," explained owner Keith DeHaas, a Standing Rock Sioux who incorporated the firm through his father's community, the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, and trademarked its designs under federal, state and tribal law.

"Though we did see drops in sales at some venues - because there is less money flowing around the country - basically sales are up. We're still the only one out there doing exactly what we do for a very specific market."

The company's clothes - T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps and other casual wear - are embroidered or silk screened with edgy, humorous slogans that evoke modern reservation life. A departure from the romanticized versions of warriors, eagles, wolves and the like that are often purveyed to Native people, Keith's designs have caught the eye of cutting-edge writer Sherman Alexie and director Chris Eyre, who've put them on actors in the movies "Smoke Signals" and "Skins," among others.

"When Indian kids walk up to our booth at a pow wow, they get the sayings right away," said Keith. "Many white people are mystified."

The Native market is a tough sell, though, because it's fragmented. Keith is on the road for most of 50 weeks a year, setting up Rez Dog's booth at pow wows large and small. Though he's often accompanied by family members and his wife, Mary, who also grew up in North Dakota, it's a hard life. The couple are restructuring the company to improve both their quality of life and their bottom line.

"We've got to be home more, and we've got to get this business out of our house," said Mary. "Our garage is an embroidery factory, and our den is a warehouse."

To accomplish that, the DeHaas duo is plowing profits back into the business and diversifying. In 2003, they published a wildly popular swimsuit calendar of Native beauties. Six months ago, they introduced a phone card with the Rez Dog snarling dog logo. "If you live on a reservation and you don't have long-distance service, you're out of touch," said Keith. "With our card, you get 100 minutes and a lot of features. We based it on the Sam's Club card, and we believe it offers good quality."

"Quality" is a Rez Dog watchword. "We're looking for repeat customers," said Keith. "We're one of the few pow wow vendors that allow returns and exchanges. These days, some of the big pow wows are putting up tent cities of sellers who offer cheap knock-offs of designers like Tommy Hilfiger. My nephew got one of those shirts, and I told him he'd learn a lesson. When he washed it, it shrank and the colors ran. That's not good - for anyone .

Going forward, Keith and Mary will balance their intense focus on Indian country with a crossover line of spa products, called Native Naturals. To develop it, they heeded another Rez Dog mantra: Buy Indian. Whenever they can, they seek suppliers that are Native-owned or have a large percentage of Indian employees. For a manufacturer, they chose Cosmetic Specialty Labs, an Oklahoma operation that was able to put together an all-Native team just for them.

"We work with a Native chemist and others," said Mary. "The company also has its own aloe vera fields, and we wanted aloe vera-based formulations."

The DeHaases chose the scent of sweetgrass for their first body care products, including soap; moisturizing scrubs and bath salts; a super-sheer, non-greasy hand lotion; and a shampoo and conditioner that this writer found leave hair silky and full of body (no more bad hair days).

Before Keith and Mary manufactured and bottled the products professionally, though, they spent a year testing homemade versions at booths across the nation. "You should have seen Keith in the kitchen with a shower cap on, brewing up experimental shampoos," laughed Mary. "I wish I had a picture of that."

Keith finds that no Native or non-Native is mystified by the spa line. People appreciate the fresh subtlety of sweetgrass and the robust fruitiness of chokecherry (so far, the latter is only offered in soap form), whether or not they know about their traditional uses.

"A group of white ladies at one pow wow told me they'd like to see them in spas," said Keith. "That's a real plus for us."

The enthusiastic response inspired the DeHaases to put together a presentation that they'll roll out to Indian casinos in April, offering the body care products in hotel amenity sizes. They're hoping the casinos will agree that buying Native for their hotels is the way to go.

It's been a long haul for the couple, who met backstage at a jazz concert in 1995. Mary had booked the band, and Keith worked for the sound-production firm. "It took him a year to ask me out," she revealed. Mary is a patient woman, though.

"When we married in 2001, she was encouraging me to start my own company," said Keith. "I told her that if I went into business, we'd be on the road for at least five years."

They had an important leg up at the beginning, though. "We wouldn't be where we are without Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity," said Mary. "We've never had a loan or a grant or anything. But they helped us with our business plan, introduced us to suppliers and gave us training. They're so knowledgeable."

Keith likes to give back by mentoring other Native businesspeople. "There aren't enough Indian entrepreneurs," he said. "I don't see them as competitors." He recently spoke at a Rosebud Reservation's Sinte Gleska College, where his clothes appeared in a fashion show: "I explained how we started, so people could see it can be done."

Mary added that they also sponsor rodeo teams and donate to the Native American Cancer Research Association; their gifts honor Keith's mother, Rita Ann McLaughlin DeHaas, Miss Indian America 1955, who died of breast cancer.

Meanwhile, Keith and Mary have alerted Cosmetic Specialty Labs, which is standing by, ready to pounce on orders from casinos. Once that project is underway, maybe, just maybe, they'll get to clear out the den.

Rez Dog's products are available on the Web at www.rezdog.com or via phone order at (405) 217-8340.

Getting started in business

Got an idea? "Get training," advised Betty Olivas, director of the Oklahoma Women's Business Center, in Norman, Okla. Her Small Business Administration-funded group, and its parent organization, Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity (both are at (405) 329-3737; (800) 375-3737; www.oiooio.com), provide free classes from identifying resources to marketing and financing. Despite their names, both groups are open to all.

Outside Oklahoma, contact the SBA directly, said Olivas. The SBA offers loans and free help in many forms - mentors, classes, on-line courses and much more. Find an office in your local phone book or check the Web site www.sba.gov.

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