Nothing about Unxpectd’s journey has gone by the book. First started in July 2019 as a high school project by incoming Henry Clay senior Ryan Sullivan, the upstart clothing brand has followed a trajectory more in line with his wildest dreams, spurred on by a now viral TikTok post that helped the brand to generate $1.7 million in sales in 2020.
That’s a big leap for a clothing company started in a Lexington basement by a bunch of students selling mismatched hoodies, sweatpants and flannel shirts.
Now based in Los Angeles, Unxpectd has continued to grow its social media following by collaborating with some of the social media platform’s biggest stars including David Dobrik, who has 26.6 million followers.
The Dec. 1, 2019, post, among the brand’s first to the platform, has generated nearly 75,000 likes since being shared. It shows Sullivan standing in front of a bathroom mirror at home wearing one of the hoodies he’d made as part of Unxpectd’s first clothing collection before panning to the room he was working out of and asking for people to share the post to help spread word of his dream and ambitions.
“I remember sitting down to work on some college essays just after posting it, but immediately became distracted by my phone, which started to buzz and light up incessantly,” said Sullivan, who at the time had been applying to the likes of Stanford, Northwestern, Loyola and DePaul University, among others, for business school. “Wondering what it was I took a peek and saw that it was TikTok notifications from people sharing and commenting on the video. Every time I refreshed the app the video was gaining a couple thousand views. I couldn’t believe it.”
The post’s success was also evidence to him of the value of the social media platform as a marketing tool.
“I had thought TikTok was just for dancing videos,” said Sullivan. “But after downloading it, seeing the tools it had and the potential it allowed for businesses to promote, made me realize we needed to be on TikTok, especially with the younger audience that accompanied it.”
Primarily selling to their classmates before jumping on TikTok, the now viral post helped to introduce the Unxpectd brand to a global audience, leading to sales in all 50 U.S. states and 58 other countries in the months since and raising their follower count to over 399,000.
The immediate boost in sales allowed the team to upgrade their sewing, embroidering and screen printing equipment along with giving them the leeway to experiment more with materials and design concepts on “Collection 2,” Unxpectd’s second small-batch clothing drop that came Feb. 2, 2020.
Sullivan recalls gathering with the rest of the brand’s team in his mother’s basement in anticipation of the collection’s midnight release.
“We didn’t know what to expect. I remember looking over at Finley and jokingly saying that if the collection generated $10,000 in sales in its first month after launching that we were going to take a gap year from college,” said Sullivan. “We ended up hitting that mark within 30 minutes. We were all in the basement crying because we were witnessing our dreams coming true before our very eyes.”
According to Sullivan, what ensued was 16-20 hour days seven days a week until the backlog of orders was filled.
“I was still living under my mom’s roof but I only saw her for an hour or so every week because how much I was spending downstairs with the rest of the Unxpectd team plugging away at fulfilling all of our orders,” said Sullivan.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sullivan focused on building the brand through influencer marketing. He began messaging top GenZ TikTok and Instagram influencers about hooking them up with free custom clothing in return for posting and spreading the word about Unxpectd.
“That’s really helped to set us apart with our networking. We’re not money-hungry older men developed by the industry with an already established business,” said Sullivan. “We’re figuring this out on the fly, designing and crafting the products ourselves, which has really helped us to stand out and gain traction with these stars.”
On May 31, 2020, Sullivan was blind-sided when TikTok star Bryce Hall shared an Instagram post, now with nearly 655,000 likes, wearing one of the company’s “Lost In My Mind” hoodies. The post led to an influx of attention, resulting in the collection reaching $100,000 in sales within 10 minutes of going live in June 2020.
Two months later, their August 2020 collection hit the $100,000 mark five minutes.
Riding the momentum of the consecutive sell-outs, Unxpectd relocated to Los Angeles in September. Sullivan said the move gave the brand a chance to be a little fish in a big pond again, with plenty of room and opportunity to grow in the industry in one of the premiere cities in the world to do so.
However, the move to L.A. hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows. Sullivan said that the cross-country move has seen the Unxpectd team hustling like never before in recent months as they fight to get noticed and meet deadlines amid a crowded and cutthroat design industry in the city. With a newly released April line, a June collection just around the corner and other influencer collaborations planned for later this year the brand is looking to cement its place in L.A. for years to come.
“This whole journey has been entirely unexpected. A year ago I never would’ve seen myself in this position, but I’m so incredibly grateful for the platform we’ve built and the opportunity to pursue my dream alongside my friends,” said Sullivan. “That being said, we are so far from where we want to be and the challenges we have faced navigating the industry in Los Angeles have been exponentially harder than the lengthy hours of working in my mother’s basement. The work ethic we built up during those early stages of the company has only grown stronger and the group has only gotten more focused on our goals since.”