BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
It’s a cinch that Chicago entrepreneur George Cleveland’s handmade needlepoint belts will be seen at some of the nation’s most merrymaking summer events. 26-year-old Cleveland and his business partner, William Anderson, lead Prep Traditions, specializing in custom needlepoint products. Customers include schools, private organizations, sleepaway camps, and yacht clubs, all of whom adore the company’s high quality and eye-catching accessories. (They report their brand is “prep adjacent,” not purely preppy.)
Like many with a passion project, Cleveland started young. “I wrote my senior paper, ‘The Evolution of Fashion at Boarding Schools,’ when I was a student at The Hill School. In tandem with the paper, I started selling ‘rival’ neckties with Hill and Lawrenceville logos on them. The ties celebrated the schools’ historic rivalry,” he says.
He teamed up with Anderson to expand on the tie business while studying at Babson College. In the process, they found that needlepoint belts were in greater demand. These handmade belts use a cross-stitch similar to that of holiday stockings and require nearly 10,000 stitches to complete.
The needlepoint pattern was used in ancient Egypt to stitch up tents, but the idea of needlepoint belts wasn’t commercialized on a large scale until around 2004. Cleveland explains, “Before that, needlepoint was mainly done as a hobby and the tradition of needlepoint in our country goes way back to colonial days. When many people think of needlepoint belts, they think of the East Coast. However, they fit right in at a Wyoming cookout or at football tailgate in the South.
“My girlfriend, who’s from Pasadena, first asked me what I was wearing when she saw one of my belts. But needlepoint is versatile and can be paired terrifically with Californian or Midwestern styles as well.” Although most needlepoint belts are worn by men, they are popular gift options purchased by women.
Cleveland, whose “day job” is as Senior eCommerce Manager at Pattern in Salt Lake City, sees the role of an entrepreneur as a problem solver: “In an effort to reduce inventory risks, we developed a made-to-order system that allows no upfront cost for organizations. This system lets customers fully personalize their organization’s belt with initials, class year, or other relevant mementos.”
Many of the belts have school or camp mottos embossed on the inside leather backing as a special remembrance of the time spent there. Indeed, alumni are 80 percent of the purchasers: “In our recent Camp Agawam promotion, there were several purchasers who attended the camp decades ago and still remembered the camp with great fondness. For the organization, keeping alumni in the loop and engaged is paramount.”
One of his designs has “Seek the Joy,” the motto of an organization, embossed on the belt’s interior. “You are the only person who knows you are wearing the hidden message, and many people enjoy that extra attention to detail,” he says. “It’s working with the client to get that one sample right or further streamlining our manufacturing process that intrigues me.”
Other bespoke products offered by Prep Traditions include coasters and key fobs (both pictured above), as well as flasks, hats, and koozies,
For further information on Prep Traditions or to customize your own designs, click here.