The uniform of America’s healthcare armies is seen by some as a disease risk for patients, but they’re also immensely profitable.
The line between symbiosis and mortal combat is a fine one, both in the C-suite and at the cellular level. Michael Singer and Ben Favret thought they had the former when they began making plans for a better, safer line of medical apparel—a super scrub, if you will.
Singer is chief executive officer of Strategic Partners, a manufacturer that controls an estimated 40 percent of the U.S. market for scrubs. Favret, a former pharmaceutical executive, is founder of Vestagen Protective Technologies, a startup launched in 2009 with the goal of making a bacteria-proof medical uniform.
“He just seemed interesting, infectious in his enthusiasm,” Singer said of meeting Favret. “And he helped convince me antimicrobial was going to be something in the future.”
Last month, the men and their respective companies faced each other across a federal courtroom in Los Angeles—each having sued the other. Their fleeting partnership had turned toxic as both accused the other of tearing their respective company apart. Vestagen was making false and illegal promises about its product, Singer alleged. Singer had poached one of Vestagen’s key employees and stole trade secrets, Favret claimed. As the Swift anthem goes, we got bad blood.
The humble hospital scrub, ever saggy and often scratchy, is never in style—or out of it, for that matter. Rather, it’s beyond sartorial judgment. Instantly recognizable, it’s simply a given for most of America’s 19 million health-care workers, as essential as latex gloves and bitter cantina coffee. At the moment, almost one in seven U.S. workers falls into the scrub-set, a metric that’s expanding quickly as baby boomers fade into their hip-replacement years.
Make no mistake, apparel seldom seems this easy. In other parts of the clothing business, fortunes are won and lost trying to forecast the fickle fashion trajectories of skinny jeans, retro sneakers, jumpsuits, and leggings. Abercrombie & Fitch is ripping off its logos and rushing to remake the kind of rugged adventure-wear that built its brand 50 years ago, and J. Crew Group has drifted to the brink of solvency as it struggles to find the right mix of rugby shirts and shift dresses. The sturdy scrub, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the safest spots in retail. Like the work-shirts and pants Americans wore back when the country was an industrial behemoth, health-care-wear is very much in demand in the modern service economy.
If medical apparel were a standalone business, it would be solidly among the world’s top retailers, bigger than EBay, Foot Locker, and Tiffany & Co. Much of those spoils, at the moment, go to Strategic Partners, a business Singer started in 1995 when he bought the scrubs business out of bankruptcy from Cherokee. “The joke at the time was the three bestselling colors were white, white, and white,” he said. He took control of 40 workers posting about $17 million in annual sales.
Over the years, the company added colors and patterns, moved production to Mexico and later to Asia while gradually building out a closet of brands. It added a studio where it created designs and cut licensing deals so it could put cartoon characters on pediatric scrubs to cheer up sick kids.
In the early 2000s, Strategic began building web stores for its retail partners, taking the orders and shipping the product directly. Most of the retailers weren’t putting much focus on the internet at the time, and it was a crafty way to box out competing brands. By 2005, the company had almost 500 employees and a deep bench of captive manufacturing partners. Five years later, it acquired the license to make a line of “Dickies” scrubs and added another 30 employees.
Around that time, Singer started talking to Vestagen and other startups about antimicrobial treatments. Vestagen, which declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the ongoing legal battle, had developed an “active barrier” to repel fluid from fabric and kill bacteria via an electrical charge.