Inspired Apparel: An interview with John McElrath, president and CEO of State Traditions

In 2012, John McElrath decided it was time to take a leap.

He looked at his wife, who was holding their newborn baby, and said, “I think its time for me to quit my job and really do this.”

John McElrath is president and CEO of State Traditions, which embroiders, silk-screens or embosses private-label, state-themed products that feature all 50 states. You can find the State Traditions label online and in fine men’s stores, outdoor specialty stores, golf shops and even children’s boutiques.

He was talking about jumping full time into State Traditions, a state-themed apparel and accessory line that he and two friends created and launched in Birmingham five years prior.

Up until that point, the men had been running the business part time, first out of the trunks of their cars and then out of McElrath’s dining room, selling both online and wholesale to high-end men’s clothing stores throughout the Southeast.

“At that point, the wheels had started spinning pretty quickly,” he remembered. “It was sink or swim.”

How It All Started
State Traditions was born out of a simple observation. John remembers he and friend Keith Brown, his co-founding partner, started noticing the rise in popularity of something they referred to as “critter brands.”

“People were wearing shirts with whales, fish or some other type of animal. We thought, ‘What does that symbol actually mean to the people wearing it?’ That gave us the desire to create a brand that really meant something to the person wearing it,” said John.

The friends started with the idea that everyone is from somewhere and had special traditions created in the places they consider home. John, Keith and another friend, Marty Lyons, officially incorporated State Traditions in 2007, with their first product being a cotton polo shirt.

“We started an online site, which was much different than it is now, and our first retail customer was The Locker Room in Tuscaloosa,” John recalled.

In the beginning, they were embroidering and putting private labels on the shirts themselves. John explained the brand was more of a creative outlet for them until they went to their first men’s apparel market. That’s when the orders started flooding in, and so did the demand for products other than polo shirts. Soon after, they rolled out state-themed belts and hats followed by T-shirts and other men’s accessories.

“Once we figured it out, we allowed ourselves to continue to grow. We found that you must recreate yourselves every six months or so. You can carry items through, but you always have to have something fresh,” described John.

Keeping the Brand Fresh
The company has long outgrown John’s dining room. After first occupying a 600-square-feet office space in Pepper Place, they moved to a 4,000-square-feet space near Regions Field in downtown Birmingham before the most recent move into a facility with room to grow. The current 43,000-square-feet office and warehouse in Avondale, a revitalized and booming neighborhood and business district on the east side of Birmingham, is large enough to allow the company to remain there for some time.

“We believe Birmingham fosters new businesses very well, and we especially love being here in the Avondale district. We regularly get together with our neighbors; it’s very much a creative hub,” he said.

John continues at the helm of the company as president and chief executive officer with six full-time employees. Their products now feature all 50 states and can be found in hundreds of fine men’s stores, outdoor specialty stores, golf shops and even children’s boutiques throughout the country.

“We now say we can fit a gentleman from head to knee, we just don’t do socks, shoes or pants,” added John.

Back-To-School Shopping Season
This time of year is “go time,” John said. With summer winding down and the back-to-school season quickly approaching, John says retailers and shoppers alike are ready for new apparel.

“It’s non-stop between now and Christmas, but the biggest reason we are busy right now is in preparation for the Back-to-School Sales Tax Holiday,” he said.

Set for Friday, July 19, through midnight Sunday, July 21, Alabama’s 14th annual Sales Tax Holiday gives shoppers the opportunity to purchase certain school supplies, computers, books and clothing free of the state’s four percent sales and use tax. More than 300 individual cities and counties will also waive their local taxes, meaning shoppers in some areas can save as much as 10% on their purchases.

The timing of the holiday, which is held annually during the third weekend in July, is meant to help all families save money in preparation for school start dates that begin in early August.

Clothing and accessories must cost $100 or less per item to quality for the tax exemption, including pants, shorts, shirts, belts, hats and shoes. Books must be $30 or less per book; school supplies must cost $50 or less per item; and electronics, like computers, tablets and printers qualify if they’re priced at $750 or less.

The State Traditions team believes its core mission – spreading hometown pride, cherished memories and favorite pastimes – especially resonates in today’s consumer landscape.

The Experience of Shopping
While online sales make up nearly 30 percent of State Traditions’ sales, the largest portion of their business comes from retail stores who carry their product lines.

“We believe that, in order to be successful in today’s retail climate, you have to have both a retail location and a website. Both drive traffic to each other,” said John.

John says online shoppers expect a sizing chart, a good description and real reviews. He says their brand ensures sizing and quality remain the same, even as they launch new and different lines.

“You have to be reliable and not change it up too much. When people come back, they’ll know what they’re getting,” he said. “Even so, it is hard to replace the in-person shopping experience.”

The State Traditions team plans to continue blazing a new trail in apparel inspired by a connection. They believe the company’s core mission – spreading hometown pride, cherished memories and favorite pastimes – especially resonates in today’s consumer landscape.

“Today’s shoppers make decisions based on how it makes them feel, and we think our products make people feel good,” he added.


Founded June 2007

Number of Employees 6

Mentor No formal mentor, but many informal mentors

Smart Move Bringing our inventory and distribution in-house to our Avondale location

Learning Moment Too many to count. Learning moments happen often.  We must be aware of them, so the lessons are not lost.

Wisdom Shared Trust, but verify

MEMBER SINCE 2015: The Avondale warehouse that houses State Traditions includes a showroom with some of its signature products displayed. Those products include polos, T-shirts, shorts, hats, belts, koozies, keychains, stickers, cuff links, flasks, money clips and ties. Visit

Story by Melissa Johnson Warnke
Photos by Brandon Robbins

This article is the cover story of the July 2019 Alabama Retailer.