When Jess Kaufman was looking to give her comfy and customizable fleece clothing company Balabusta Outdoor Gear a name, she wanted something that would accurately speak to the chapter of life she’s in. Tapping into her Jewish roots, Balabusta is a Yiddish word essentially meaning badass boss lady, the matron in charge, or the head of the realm.
“I just turned 40, this is my second business, and as small as it is, I’m trying to build my empire,” she laughed. “That’s who I’m trying to be.”
Jess admits she has a lifelong habit of monetizing her hobbies, and the Balabusta story is no different. “I am an accidental serial business owner,” she laughed.
For nearly ten years Jess has maintained her happygocrafty.com site, providing in-person and virtual professional knitting instruction. And her “first born”, a tie dye and batik studio, just turned six. “I guess I didn’t have enough to do!”
It all began for Balabusta as a fun pandemic project back in 2020. With a little extra time at home in Asheville, North Carolina, Jess reacquainted herself with sewing garments, something she used to do in theater school.
“I’d take a garment I liked, turn it inside out, and literally look at how it was built,” Jess explained. “I’d mentally dismantle a piece of clothing and see how to put it back together.”
Once she nailed down the complexities of sewing with knit fabrics, she thought, “This is so cool! I can get performance fabrics and I can make whatever I want to wear!”
Jess always thought outdoor clothing overlooked the needs of curvier and fuller figured people. “I felt everything was so straight and narrow and small. Your body has to be comfortable to enjoy any outdoor pursuits, but I wasn’t seeing the clothing I wanted for myself.”
With a love of fleece, she set out to make comfy lifestyle apparel while rejecting the outdated and unhelpful concept of gendered sizing. Instead, the brand offers ‘straight fit’ and ‘curvier fit’. “Our bodies don’t have to fit into certain shapes. Instead, we can tell our clothes what shapes to be.”
“We have been pleasantly surprised that most customers (be they cisgender or not) are open to the idea, and are excited to see it. If it feels good on your body, it’s for your body!”
Balabusta sources its fleece from their Tennessee neighbors, Polartec. The Power Grid fleece has a unique four-way stretch. “If you take a square of fabric, it moves north, south, east and west. That means when the body moves, the fabric moves. It’s comfy in every single position.”
With years under her belt in the tie dye business, Jess knows a thing or two about color. After lots of R&D, Balabusta clothing is made from a carefully selected patchwork of complimenting palettes.
One thing the brand is extremely proud of is its use of waste fabric. “It’s hugely time consuming, definitely not an expedient idea, but I’m really proud of using all our scraps. It’s something we’re committed to,” Jess said.
As a “scrappy” company, this even means that anything smaller than one’s hand will be used as stuffing for the pet beds in the brand’s pipeline. “I love this fabric,” Jess said. “We’re throwing nothing away. I want to be zero waste. So, let’s commit and take it as far as we can.”
Being located in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains has positively molded Jess and Balabusta’s trajectory. From the outdoor accessibility to a rich music and art scene, Jess said, “I’m not from these mountains but I got here as fast as I could.”
Jess says she learned a lot from her six years growing a small craft business, like that elusive work-life balance.
With her first brand, she did absolutely everything herself. “It almost killed me,” she laughed. “Sleep, anxiety, I forgot how to feed myself. By the time I could afford helpers, I was strung out. With Balabusta, the minute I could hire help, I did.”
In addition to her two adored, part-time employees, Jess is grateful for the countless other people backing her and her newborn business. “My amazing partner is a voice of hope and positivity. He’s my number one client, the biggest supporter, and wears a [Balabusta] hoodie every single day,” she said. “I’m very hopeful and excited for the future.”