With over twenty-five years’ experience designing for some of the most successful brands in existence, Rafael Soto is a fashion industry veteran. His designs have been featured in the collections of such industry giants as Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, and John Varvatos.
Recently, Soto has utilized his keen design style and consumer insights to co-launch his own brand, called Proto101. Proto101 is an apparel start-up that unites the performance of athletic wear and the comfort of high-end basics – such as t-shirts and denim – all while being one of the few, and much needed, sustainable fashion suppliers.
Prior to launching Proto101, Soto assisted in the successful launching of clothing brands like William Rast, Men’s Claiborne, Women’s RocaWear, Couture, and Union. Notably during his career, Soto applied his industry insight to transform Stafford and St. John’s Bay into lucrative Billion-dollar clothing companies. Soto also contributed to JHilburn reaching the peak of the Men’s tailoring industry. Most recently, Soto aided the launch of Amazon’s top fashion brands, such as Amazon Essentials, GoodThreads, and Buttoned Down.
While working in the apparel industry, Soto noticed a lack of quality performance clothing. He recognized that consumers typically went with options made from weak materials that lacked performance features, most of which didn’t last beyond a dozen or so washes.
There was also a lack of clothing that accommodated the busy lifestyles of our generation. The need to change outfits for each activity had a lack of efficiency. This led Soto to the idea of a perfect all-around t-shirt: one that could be worn at work, the gym, at the beach, and just about everywhere else. Coupled with great quality that provides unmatched comfort and durability, along with traditional cuts and styles that can suit any warddrobe and style, Soto was on to something.
Soto then partnered with Liyin Kok and Ashleigh Corker and created Proto101, the brand that perfectly combine timeless cuts with contemporary needs, thus creating the perfect everyday-tee. Proto101 allows customers to easily embrace their active lifestyles with their “Better Basics”, which offers wardrobe favorites enhanced with advanced performance technologies.
How did you get started in this business?
There is an internal dialogue that takes place when thinking of designing furniture, gardens, homes, and clothing. From an early age I was making redesigns for everything I encountered. This practice continued into adulthood. Sometimes it can get exhausting, but the passion is totally worth it.
How do you make money?
Aligning designs with consumer trends puts my designs into a position that promotes sales. Getting a sense of customers’ wants helps me design better products. When I learn what to make and how to make it, I find success and sales.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
Directly after graduating from school, I started working at Nordstrom. Concurrently, I was dedicating time to completing my first line of clothing under the label “Prototype”. I participated in my first fashion show that fall and was hired immediately to design a collection of clothing with the private label Uno/Duo.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
I graduated from FIDM with a degree in apparel design but didn’t see the financial rewards that could come from fashion. I decided to return to school at Seattle Central Community College to study psychology and philosophy. During the third quarter of philosophy there was a debate topic around the statement “…successful people are people who do what they love.” This made me consider if I was pursuing my dreams and passion. I figured that I should follow my love of design. Though there were times of doubt, choosing to stick to design was the best decision I ever made career wise.
How did you get your first customer?
Proto101’s initial customer was my friend Dexter. He is an extremely smart hipster who has a very active life. He does a lot. He plays chess, goes on hikes, loves biking, and enjoys the ambient vibes of fishing.
The week of Proto101’s launch, Dexter put in the first order and posted his fishing outfit in our tank-top on Instagram. I have to say he is the hippest fisherman I have ever seen. The tank top he purchased now is a staple of his summer outfits. I am honored that he wears Proto101.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Honestly, making intelligently designed clothing and industrial products that people love is the best marketing strategy that generates business and income. When you decide to make the best, then business and income follow.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
My decisions are all passion based. Finding people who partner well with me is important. I like to work with people who keep me grounded. Selecting who to work with can often be the toughest decision.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
Simplicity provides the solution to achieve success. It might sound easy, however, complicating design is even easier. When I realized that understanding customer pain points and needs has a serious importance, design and entrepreneurial success became constant.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Each time my designs come to life on a person there is a moment of satisfaction. I love bringing my ideas to reality – it is a designer thing. Turning the imagination into something that is factually tangible has no parallel.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
Innovating contemporary fabrication techniques to have features that improve performance excites me the most. Proto101 has Jeans being developed for our next collection. The denim jeans will be engineered with the performance to exceed everyday needs.
What business books have inspired you?
This is an easy answer – Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. The Proto101 team read this book together and we learned quite a bit from the wise words contained within the pages. The chapters of the book set the precedence for our brand progression. The want to have a green eco-friendly product came from the book. Most importantly, the book taught us when to choose life over work.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
There is a problem dampening too many youths’ and adults’ abilities to achieve success, let alone excellence. To remedy that problem, I want to tell my younger self two pieces of advice. First, talk less and listen more. It hastens learning. Second, “No” is just an answer. Another person might say “No”, but if you could do it yourself then “No” doesn’t have any meaning.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
I love working with talent in the apparel industry. I speak annually at Seattle Central Community College and am free to mentor. Anyone who wants some guidance and mentorship should feel free to email me at email@example.com.