Millions of fans are gearing up for a new Major League Baseball season, and if you are among those who have noticed and maybe ordered from a line of shirts that seems curiously and boldly unconventional, if not downright unruly, then you are not alone. We're talking about the officially licensed SustainU apparel line, a White House-recognized innovation from a former Notre Dame football player who played against Tom Brady and is here to make you look more closely, to stand out from the crowd, to reduce your carbon footprint and, oh by the way, to bring jobs back to the Appalachian region where he and these shirts are made.
"Major League Baseball has been incredible in their support of our brand," SustainU founder and CEO Chris Yura said. "I could not ask for a better partner for our USA-made, 100-percent recycled products.
"SustainU is focused on being a brand for MLB that focuses on the fans. We have a different story and ideology than many of our contemporaries in licensed apparel. I think sports apparel is the perfect place for a purpose-driven company. Harnessing the passion of a team with the values of a generation is a winning combination. We are well positioned to represent this new consumer in MLB."
SustainU, based in Morgantown, W.Va., is a pioneer in recycled fabrics, using postindustrial cottons and postconsumer polyester to make its incredibly comfortable and durable fabrics. These innovations enable SustainU to save millions of gallons of water, petroleum, agrochemicals and CO2 emissions.
For example, among that unending flow of Cubs World Series championship gear since Kris Bryant threw to Anthony Rizzo, that Americana Crew Neck T-shirt is probably the only example of a title celebration garment that is 50 percent recycled cotton and 50 percent recycled polyester, with eco-friendly screen printing.
While Yura's favorite part of this whole endeavor is the designing process -- raise your stein to the texture of a hops flower inside a team logo -- it also has been a thrill for him to see average baseball fans modeling that fruit of his company's labor.
"I was fortunate enough to attend the 'Brewed for Her' event last summer, hosted by the Milwaukee Brewers," he said. "It was very surreal seeing people looking at the displays you created and buying the products you worked so hard on. It was and is incredibly rewarding.
"Any time I see a fan wearing a shirt we made, it makes me want to run up to them and say, 'Thank you!' As consumers, we often do not think of the people behind the products, but I can tell you as a small business owner, it matters what shirt you are wearing."
Yura learned that in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome. He was a USA Today honorable mention prep All-American, ranked 73rd among the Top 100 national players by the Chicago Sun Times after breaking Curt Warner's West Virginia state prep touchdown record. Much to the chagrin of many Mountaineer faithful, their native son chose Notre Dame, which he had fallen in love with as a boy watching the Irish when TV choices were few.
Yura played in 43 games for Notre Dame's football team from 1999-2002, seeing action at defensive back and running back, and compiling 15 tackles on special teams. Urban Meyer coached him on those special teams, imparting lessons about drive and determination. Bob Davies was the Irish head coach for the first three years, and Tyrone Willingham for his senior season, when Notre Dame started 8-0 and went to the Gator Bowl.
"I was extremely impacted by fan apparel as a college athlete," Yura said. "It is a unique identifier for people who share a common passion. When seen from far away, it bleeds into the same. I feel that clothing offers a unique opportunity to unify people, even outside of sports."
Yura was discovered shortly after college by Ford Models, and set out for a fit-model career that took him to New York and allowed him to learn the fashion textile and runway business and set the stage for his own venture. He made it purposeful in the process, reinvesting in communities and helping the planet.
"The company has grown from just me, working upstairs in my parents' house, to over 20 employees in Morgantown," Yura said. "With the launch of The MLB T-Shirt Club by SustainU, we hope to double our employment in 2017.
"I am a native West Virginian and very excited for the future in Appalachia. We are employing individuals in this region through the combination of innovation and sports. Our apparel reflects the same values as the fans that are wearing it."
Morgantown might be considered Pirates country, but their popularity there might be second to someone else in the National League Central.
"I think it is a West Virginian tradition to always root for players that come from our state," Yura said. "I remember being a big John Kruk fan when I was a kid and telling everyone that he was from my state. Now, I am rooting for [Cardinals infielder] Jedd Gyorko. He is from Morgantown and I played football with his older brothers. We are all very proud of him and his success in the Majors."
Maybe you'll see Gyorko modeling a Cardinals Navy Mapped Print T-shirt in 2017, complete with the St. Louis thoroughfares upon close inspection.
"We look for unique ways to fuse the various passions of MLB Fans into graphics they have not seen before," Yura said. "Many fans already have their basic logo apparel so we like to offer something different that also pairs well with their other interests. Whether is it a vintage punk rock poster or craft beer label, we use subtle details to create one of a kind team graphics.
"The details in a graphic can create a conversation among fellow fans. For instance, with the Battern Print, we use small bats to fill in a larger image to create a unique pattern. From afar, it looks like distressed print but when you look at the graphic closer, you can see the tiny details that went into the image. This is a small change but it creates a more unique print that has a different feel."