When he was in the seventh grade, John Douthat had an encounter with a pig that he thought was a sure sign of his future career path.
As a member of Future Farmers of America, Douthat had a sow. One day, one of her piglets cut its stomach on a piece of glass in the pigpen. Douthat quickly retrieved a needle and thread and stitched the piglet’s wound closed.
“I thought my calling was to be a vet,” Douthat says.
As it turns out, his destiny did have something to do with sewing; it just wasn’t as a veterinarian. Instead, Douthat built a 38-year, highly successful career in the sewing industry.
Along with his wife, Annette, Douthat owns AllBrands, the nation’s largest independent online and retail dealer of sewing and knitting machines, vacuums and steamers, fabrics and accessories, plus small appliances. Based in Baton Rouge, AllBrands sells to customers worldwide through its six retail stores and its online site. Today, Douthat is considered a titan in the industry.
The idea to go into the sewing business started with Annette, who studied home economics at LSU and worked for Stretch & Sew when the couple lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “I said I’d like to have a sewing business,” she recalls. “John said we’d get that going; then he’d pursue something else.”
The Douthats decided to open a Stretch & Sew franchise, so they looked at all the markets the company had available. “We chose Baton Rouge,” says Annette, who is from Plaquemine. “We came home, essentially.”
Within a few years, the Douthats’ store was one of Stretch & Sew’s top 10 franchises out of more than 100 stores around the country. In addition to selling fabric and sewing supplies, the Douthats also offered classes.
“This was at the time when leisure suits were popular,” Douthat says. “We had lots of classes on leisure suits.”
After a few years, the Douthats wanted to expand their product mix beyond knit fabrics, so they left the franchise and opened Fashion Fabrics in Baton Rouge in 1983. The company changed its name to AllBrands as it expanded beyond fabric and moved more into sewing machines. AllBrands grew to 10 stores across Louisiana and Mississippi.
In 1996, Douthat’s then-12-year-old son, John F., asked his dad why AllBrands wasn’t on the Internet. Douthat’s reply: “What’s the Internet?”
What Douthat didn’t know about the Internet he quickly learned, and AllBrands became the first online company to sell sewing machines. Business boomed, and soon AllBrands was focusing on its online demand and closing its retail stores.
“The Internet swamped us,” says Douthat, who is AllBrands’ president but refers to himself as “owner and technician.” “It was taking all our energy and funds for expansion. We couldn’t do both retail and Internet, so we got down to one store.”
Focusing on e-commerce dramatically changed the company’s operations. “We could do so much more online,” says Annette, who handles AllBrands’ customer service and advises on product development. “Customers can find what they want, but we don’t have to stock every design, color and size.”
As the first Internet sewing and vacuum business, AllBrands blazed the trail for the industry. “John would tell everyone that it’s important to be on the Internet, even if you just have a local store,” Annette says. “He was instrumental in getting the sewing industry online.”
As the Internet matured, vendors began selling their products online directly. AllBrands worked with Amazon, but as Douthat observes, “Amazon is actually our competition, and you shouldn’t go into business with your competitor.” Douthat also wanted to focus more on customer service. “We value relationships, whether on the Internet or in our retail stores,” he says. “But the customers were Amazon’s customers, not ours.”
So, at a time when many businesses were dropping their retail stores and going all in on the Internet, Douthat began expanding his brick-and-mortar stores alongside his Internet business. “I describe AllBrands as a mature Internet company, but a growing retail chain,” he says.
AllBrands has stores in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Metairie and Slidell and, in May, the company expanded into Houston.
Blaine Austin, AllBrands’ CEO, says both physical and online outlets are important for the sewing and appliance industry.
“I always tell people that AllBrands has a very unique business plan,” Austin says. “We’re an online business, but we’ve also got brick-and-mortar stores. If you have a brick-and-mortar store, you need an online presence to support it. You’ve got to have both to be successful.” Seventy percent of AllBrands’ customers have been to the company’s website before they go to a store.
Like many industries, the sewing industry has changed significantly because of technology. Most sewing machines, for example, run on technology similar to that found in a computer. “You can now draw designs on the machine screen, scan clip art under the needle camera, transfer USB designs and add automatic quilt stippling stitches—all without the need for computer hookups or software,” Douthat says. “We are constantly adapting to the changes in sewing machine technology.”
The advanced technology in sewing machines has driven the demand for more personal and in-person contact, Austin says. “Before, sewing machines were like computers; you either knew how to sew or you didn’t,” he says. “Now you need constant education. You could spend a month training on the same machine and still not cover all it can do. I think that’s what drives the need for classes now.”
Also, not all sewing machines can be purchased online. Many dealers allow certain models of their machines to be sold by dealers only in physical stores.
“Most of the machines you can buy on the Internet are mass-produced,” Douthat says. “You can only get things like high-tech embroidery, quilting and sewing machines in a retail store. These products require more education, training, and faster service turnaround than mass merchants can give without any service departments, educators or classrooms. People can spend thousands of dollars on a sewing machine. If they do that, they want personal, immediate service. The Internet can’t handle service and support in the same way.”
AllBrands offers in-person classes and training at each of its retail stores. The company also hosts events off-site that have proven successful. For Bayou Embroidery University, a hands-on, interactive embroidery workshop, the company rents a large space in the River Center and supplies the machines.
Some feature a sewing expert, such as Paula Reid of Batts in the Attic or Anthony Ryan Auld, first-place winner of Project Runway All-Stars‘ season two and an LSU alum.
“They come because they want to get tips and tricks from an embroidery expert,” Austin says, “but they also get to train on a great machine.”
Although AllBrands’ core market today is 45- to 65-year-old women, Austin says that is changing, in part because of more high-profile events that emphasize sewing, such as Project Runway. Sewing has a growing younger audience and is appealing to more men, as well.
AllBrands’ future also includes continuing to expand its retail stores, particularly further into the Texas market.
“We’ve got a really good concept in our stores with both retail and classes,” Austin says. “I’m very proud of our business plan, what we’re offering and the direction we’re going. Bricks-and-mortar allows customers to come in and test-drive a machine, get educated about it and take classes. They can start off on our website and research machines or buy one online. They can use the sew forum, which provides a platform for people to share ideas.”
AllBrands has nearly 50 employees across its locations. Two of the Douthats’ children have joined the team. John F. is now the company’s IT director, while Barbara handles product selection, development and quality control.
Austin attributes much of AllBrands’ longevity and success to Douthat. “John is a product guru. There’s nothing he can’t tell you about a sewing machine—even if it’s a model number from 20 years ago,” he says.
“When you have someone with that good of a product base who truly understands trends and what customers want, then you’ll be successful.”
Although he has a succession plan in place, Douthat doesn’t intend to quit anytime soon. “I can’t give it up. I can’t keep my hands off a sewing machine,” he says. “I have a commitment to keep our customers, employees and vendors happy.”