The Online T-Shirt Revolution
There is a T-Shirt revolution underway online. Over the next couple of weeks PSFK's Alex Singh will catch up with the players (large and small) in this new community of fashion companies to show you how they tick. We hope these interviews will give our readers a complete picture of the first Web 2.0 fashion companies out there.
Interview 1 – People Like Us
1) Can you explain the inspiration behind the direction and ideals of your brand and your product(s)?
Our business name is not just our business name – it’s our philosophy. We wanted to make t-shirts for people like us – people who care about where the actual t-shirts are made (i.e. American Apparel, no sweat shops, etc.) and people who care about the design and don’t want to just have a regular generic design you can find in any shops in Paddington [a popular shopping area in Sydney] – no more spray paints, no more numbers – no Industrie (http://www.industrie.com.au) stuff. And no Threadles stuff either, or BustedTees which both do purely graphic tees. Things for artists – and we really wanted to promote the artists as well. One of the other things we do is try and get them jobs. As a graphic designer I have access to a wide range of jobs and those that I get which I can’t do, don’t want to do or don’t have time to do I outsource to them, and we’ve gotten our artists several freelance gigs. But we really want to promote them as artists instead of “hey here’s a t-shirt” – which at the end is the reason why you buy it because you like the design and you like the t-shirt, but people always read what’s going on with the designer and look at their website and our artists have reported increased hits to their sites. So we wanted to create things for people just like us – what would we want to wear? What would we want to do? That’s where the inspiration is – and to promote the art and design of upcoming designers as well as more established ones and letting them do a tee when they may not have done one before.
2) So the t-shirt is essentially more of a canvas for the artwork?
That’s exactly what it is – we used to say that we make art prints and we just print them on t-shirts.
3) What keeps you coming back each day rather than calling it quits and doing something else?
The fact that we’re doing something different and being able to promote this art. I’ve got t-shirts and other clothing from major labels and I can’t find out who designed it. I really want to know about that as a designer and we market to designers and designers want to know – when they see a piece of good design – who did it and how they did it and so on. So that’s what it is – it’s about giving people access (all our designers have their e-mail addresses, and one even puts his mobile number on the packaging that goes out). So it’s accessible and affordable and something that is unique. Only 200 people in the world will wear this t-shirt – in the world! And that’s not very many people.
4) What was that one inspirational and motivating spark that invigorated you and pushed you over the edge – to go ahead and just “do it”?
I remember that moment! And we had been working on the idea and I had a full time job and Jonathan had a full time job and we never really did anything with it apart from on days off and weekends – so we just laughed and never really did anything with it. And it got to a point where it wasn’t quite finished – the boxes weren’t ready – it was going to be a part time thing for us, a very small project and I remember thinking “This has huge potential!” and I think what it was the packaging. I’ve seen it in every industry – from food to perfume to shoes to cars – packaging in a lot of cases is what sells the product. Look at a supermarket, it’s only packaging. The only industry that I can see where that doesn’t apply is apparel. I mean sure you go into Alannah Hill [an Australian womenswear designer] and buy a dress and they wrap it up nicely in paper and a lovely bag but it’s not actually in the packaging and people just throw that away. That was our huge point of difference at the time – and that’s not just a point of difference for online t-shirt companies – NOBODY has packaging. What if we could introduce packaging into the clothing world? And if people started to do it all the time – I know there are several out there like T-Box that shrink them and I think even Incu [a boutique retailer in Sydney] have a couple of pieces but it was about making it mainstream. So it was the packaging that kind of pushed me over the edge and made me think we had something unique enough to make it work.
5) Are there any plans to shake up what you’re doing right now?
Yes there are big plans..I’ll tell you the plans you can write about! Just like Threadless and Oddica and we’ve had the idea from the start – kids tees. Especially with some of the designers we’ve got at the moment. There’s a big big market and big money for kids tees. That’s probably the biggest thing I can tell you about..Yeah, that’s kind of where we’re going with that….There’s other stuff I *want* to tell you about.
6) Like the Vans stuff?
No I’m happy to tell you about that because it has nothing to do with t-shirts. The Vans stuff is just using our collective of artists and getting them to do customised Vans. We talked to Vans and they’re doing something similar down in Melbourne and we want to put on an exhibition. It’s a side project but it would be “People Like Us” branded.
7) What is your take on traditional fashion labels and are you interested in becoming one yourself?
We don’t think of our stuff as fashion. We’re in the fashion business – but we don’t do fashion. We don’t do seasons, we don’t do long sleeves. It’s about the print. It’s also about the quality of the garment and the cut as the American Apparel cut is very different to a lot of peoples. There’s a huge element of being in that fashion business but we don’t think of ourselves as being “in the fashion business”. When we deal with retailers we tell them we don’t do seasons and to jump on board when they can and to order straight away. When they like the print they should order it “now” because it won’t be there in a few months. I think a lot of the bigger companies that do tees as well as other fashion…Most of it’s branded. Somewhere on the outside of the t-shirt prominantly displayed is their name and logo. So my take is that major companies and major fashion players do branded tees – because people are buying their brand. Smaller companies don’t have that luxury but a lot of the time they don’t really want to anyway and I feel really self-conscious when I wear a branded t-shirt, so we try and stay clear of that and only do branding on the inside of our tees. I think it’s really hard for a big company to start a small project, because with the processes they have in place it’s not easy to do small runs of things and say “lets try this and try this”. When their main t-shirts and clothing are produced in the thousands when they make 500 units and no more…It’s a big deal – how do they brand it? How do they do everything else? Is it conflicting with their other stuff? And so on. So I don’t think you’ll see many large brands turn around and say “let’s do a real small end project!”. Even Nike and Adidas with their shoes do things like that, but a “limited edition” run of Adidas shoes is 10,000 pairs, so I don’t think that we’re in that much danger of having that competition with that kind of marketing power.
8) Have you considered developing your own clothing rather than using the stuff that’s already out there?
Yeah we are looking into producing our own tees. Being environmentally and socially aware we don’t want to have things made in sweat shops so it’ll be all Aussie made. I’m always looking into new ways of doing new stuff and trying to cut our costs because the minute you stop doing that you stop making any money. So we’re committed to doing that but..You never know where you’re going to be but for now it’s just t-shirts.
9) What current trends have you noticed affecting People Like Us?
With colours we’re very colour orientated. Our artists have first choice on what colour fabric they want to print on but it does come through us. We don’t want to put out three green tees at the same time, for example. We try and do more fashion colours. Threadless has all your brights and a couple other bits – a grey marle. Instead we try and mix the colour of our design with the colour of our design and incorporate a more fashion coloured tee. For example with the Cranberry colour which everybody loves – and the asphalt which is not black, but it’s not grey, but it’s not navy which people love and you can’t find anything like that. It works quite well as a dressier tee. Most of the guys tees are darker which is all very well thought out on our part. Guys wear darker tees most of the time. The girls tees are mostly all bright though. So we’re really catering for what people are looking for and what people like wearing. It’s really important to research what colours are coming in right now. In the next month or two we’re going to be doing a purple tee, the trendsetters have been wearing purple for the last four months and in the next month or two it’s going to explode and everyone will be wearing it. Now while we’re not fashion-orientated we still have to cater what people are actually going to wear and buy. So that’s the biggest thing that influences us, the colours, not the design as that’s up to the artist. While we watch for the trends we don’t necessarily follow them because that’s not what we’re about.
10) What’s the most passionate and invigorating part of the business for you?
We get great responses from customers. Every customer gets a personal e-mail from me or from Jonathan. Once we send off a tee I want them to know when it was sent and how long it’s going to take and so I start a lot of conversations and friendships through this business and it’s really nice. Some I’ve asked for help – say if they know of a store in their area – but most of the time it’s just “we sent your t-shirt out and we’re really glad you bought it”. When they get the tee they are inclined to write something about it. We really encourage generosity and you get a 10% discount for buying it as a present and anyone can tick that box. Hopefully people will be honest with it! So we get a lot of people writing back about how much they loved it or their sister or brother loved the present. We print out a birthday card with their message as well so it’s all very personalised.
11) Would you ever consider collaborating rather than competing with your traditional competitors to collectively explore and develop your products/artwork/business model/etc?
Probably not because I don’t know how much we’d gain from one another. At the core we do the same kind of thing there’s not much to be gained. All of us have slight differences and points of difference which we’d want to keep individual otherwise we meld into the same category. There’s not much to be gained either way – back and forth. Perhaps if Threadless came to me and said “we want you to start an Australian chapter” I’d say “Cool, but we want you to start an American chapter” and those kinds of intercontinental things might be cool. With that fact I’d happily collaborate with Oddica because we’re much closer to doing the exact same thing. There’s always a way but at first I don’t think there’s much that we can collectively gain in collaboration.
12) Do you think there’s an advantage for you being based in Australia rather than America or Europe? Is it an advantage?
Not really. Everything is cheaper in the States, the market is a lot bigger. It’s more of a disadvantage especially when you want to be a global company on the Internet. Shipping costs more, our materials cost more. The only advantage I can see is that we’re Australian and people like Australians and that we have immediate access to the Australian population and their resources. Given a choice and an opportunity I’d go to Europe or the States because it makes more business sense.
Interview 2 – Oddica
We are inspired by the medium itself. There’s something invigorating about taking a T-shirt, a mundane necessity, and making into something cool. The brand itself is still in its infancy, but we want to play around with the medium, try different things, and see where we go. Right now, we are
operating in a fairly safe mode, but we will experiment more as we build our Customer base.
2) What keeps you coming back each day rather than calling it quits and doing something else?
Well, Oddica is only three months old, so we’re not tired and jaded, but fresh and invigorated. There’s a passion that is being fed daily. Plus, there’s an inescapable responsibility to the Artists and Customers to continue a brand once you develop a following. In only three months, we’ve developed a network of Customers and Artists who really care about Oddica, and it would be extremely difficult to ever call it quits.
3) What was that one inspirational and motivating spark that invigorated you and pushed you over the edge – to go ahead and just “do it”?
A variety of factors led to Oddica actually happening. A corporate agreement with my business partner prevented me from pursuing something apparel-related outside of that corporation, but I was able to negotiate an out, and get permission to proceed with an untitled T-shirt project in late December. The name Oddica didn’t come till March I think. A group of friends came together, like Voltron, and as a group, we make steady progress daily, while all of us work other jobs.
4) Are there any plans to shake up what you’re doing right now? Any plans down the road? Where are you striving to have the business at in the future?
We have some new and different things on tap, nothing mind-blowing, just some fun stuff here and there.
5) What is your take on traditional fashion labels? Are you interested in becoming one yourself? Are you afraid they may begin to “catch on” and start up similar projects? (NB: A “traditional” label is one that produces a range of different garments on a seasonal basis)
We had a swimwear and apparel brand that took off, until a partner problem forced us to put the brand on the back burner. Building a traditional brand is something totally different than screenprinting on blank T-shirts. I enjoyed it, but at the time, all the trade shows didn’t really mesh well with having two small children, and I’m glad we got off that track. As far as labels starting similar projects — RVCA started an Artists Network, and was followed by several others. Everyone riffs off everyone else, and the online T-shirt space is no different.
6) Have you considered developing your own clothing rather than using the stuff that’s already out there? (AA, Hanes, Fruit of the Loom etc.). Have you considered utilising other types of clothing? V-Necks? Pants? Whatever?
We are fortunate to have a network of sources that can produce a variety of garments for us, to our specifications. Our main problem right now is that we are too small and underfunded to really act on all our impulses. But we will do more custom development in the future. We are happy with american Apparel. Our relationship with them goes back to 1998, and there are some truly wonderful people there.
7 You’ve done tees – what is the next thing you’re going to develop?
I have my head in a lot of different clouds, but the main cloud right now is Oddica.
8) What current trends have you noticed affecting Oddica?
One trend we are watching is the desire for people to wear clothes without a brand.
Most people like our Oddica logo on the shirt — some of the Artists want the logo bigger —
and we’ve received a lot of requests for Oddica logo tees. But we also understand that some people just want the Art on the shirt, with no logo. We’ve gone both ways, and we’ll continue to experiment and try to find a middle ground.
9) What’s the most passionate and invigorating part of the business for you?
No one thing. It’s fun working with a variety of people, working with Artists, watching T-shirts roll off the line, hearing great Customer feedback, designing things that help support the brand. All of that is fun. I have two wonderful kids, and watching them light up when they hear a new design is coming, and then seeing them wear some of the shirts, makes it all worth it. Having my son say, “Dad, when’s the next Kenneth Lavallee shirt coming?” tickles me to death.
10) Would you ever consider collaborating rather than competing with your traditional competitors to collectively explore and develop your products/artwork/business model/etc.
Sure. We don’t want to be tied into one approach, one structure, one way of doing things. That’s fairly boring. We don’t ever want to get complacent. And having the feeling that there are competitors nipping at your heels, is the surest way to improving your company.
12) Do you plan on giving your customers any control over your business at all?
We already give Customers that in a sense. There are a handful of changes we’ve already made where a well-reasoned e-mail from a Customer swayed our opinion and resulted in us making a change. In the future, we might surprise a loyal Customer and give them free reign
to pick the next Oddica design. Or run Oddica for a day?
13) Your packaging idea was a recent innovation in this particular area (and arguably in the fashion industry itself) – can you share with us any other plans you have to “do something different” in this or any other area of your business?
We had never seen anything like this for clothing, though it’s just basic packaging that you’d use for perishable food. So we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that others are going to copy it, and we aren’t going to sweat it. We are going to make two improvements to our packaging. We now round the corners. (They are a bit sharp). and we are going to put a small sticker on the packaging with a picture of a pair of scissors, just to prompt the Customer to cut the package because sometimes it rips unevenly. When the bags run out, we’ll come up with something else cool.
14) Threadless led with a customer approach – you went with a creative approach instead – which do you think will win out? (Or which do you feel will do better in the long term)
Hmmm, well, not sure how accurate that description is, but I understand you’re speaking in general terms. I think Jack Cheng (www.jackcheng.com) summed it up by pointing out that Threadless has the community-based approach and ours is more creator-centric. I might as well say a few things because everyone wants to put us up as a competitor to Threadless. We are not in their league. We have 3,000 people signed up on our site, Threadless has somewhere around 400,000. They started six years ago, we started a few months ago. It’s like a little cardboard ship being compared to the Titanic. We certainly respect and admire what they’ve accomplished, and as fellow entrepreneurs, we want them to keep kicking ass. There’s room for all these online T-shirt companies to reach new Customers every single day. The Customer base has barely been tapped. They will obviously do better than us in the long run. Our plan is to never get that big. The goal is to be small enough so that we always have same- or next-day shipping, same-day Customer-service replies, and that becomes increasingly difficult the larger you get. There gets to be a point where you’re so big that you lose your ability to do what you do well, and you lose that specialness that made people want to buy your stuff in the first place. So maybe we will do something crazy, like cap our Customer base at a certain manageable number, and not let any johnny-come-lately Customers in the gates, and only sell to the Customers who got us that far. :D Who knows? We are a bit odd, so that sounds like a plan.
15) We love your policy of giving 41% of the company with the artists that you work with is a very noble and original undertaking. What motivated you to do this?
Well we have a notion that Artist-based T-shirts sell because of the Art — the creative execution of a good idea — not the business model, the shiny 2.0 web site, or the people running the site. Those things factor in obviously, but if you have crummy designs, you sell zero T-shirts. But for some reason, traditionally, the Artists role always seems to be diminished, when in fact, with this type of T-shirt, it should be elevated. We’re not talking about people buying brands — like a Hurley or Lucky Brand, where the design is important, but the brand itself is the most compelling factor that leads to a purchase — but people buying expressions of Artwork on shirts. That’s the space we entered, so it was a no-brainer, given this notion, that the Artists should absolutely NOT be on the wrong end of spec work (doing work for free on the hopes it gets chosen) and work-for-hire (doing work for a specific price and signing over all rights to it) and they should not have a design reprinted to death with no further compensation, but should instead be rewarded if a design does well, or if the company does well, not forgotten about when a company does well. There are a lot of forgotten-about Artists out there, who aren’t happy when they are forgotten about. So our plan ensures that nobody is forgotten about. And in the end, we’d rather be a generous company than a greedy company. Greed is definitely not good. ;)
Interview 3 – T-Post
This is Alex Singh’s third interview in the series. This time Alex catches up with Peter Lundgren, CEO and Editor in Cheif of T-Post whose unique T-Business revolves arround creating graphic t-shirts commenting on news stories sold via subscription. Every month a new T pops through your door just like a newspaper!
1) We’ve noticed you’re trying to communicate news – are you a fashion brand or are you a media company?
I would say that we are a little bit of both. We use fashion to communicate news.
2) Can you explain the inspiration behind the direction of your business?
A lot of really important stories (big or small) get forgotten amongst all other media buzz and T-posts task, as we se it, is to pic up those stories so people get another chans to discuss them through our T-shirts.
3) What are the ideals behind your product(s)?
We´re trying to fighting for the little guy… and through our eyes reflect on the world as a whole and try to keep a happy face.
4) What keeps you coming back each day rather than calling it quits and doing something else?
I get to make T-shirts about what I believe is important to tell people about (big or small).
5) What was that one inspirational and motivating spark that invigorated you and pushed you over the edge – to go ahead and just “do it”?
It´s always been pretty easy for me to throw myself into projects that I believe in, some crash an burn, others succeed, but if I must name one thing I would say it was the challenge to combine interesting news and fashion that pushed me over the edge.
6) Are there any plans to shake up what you’re doing right now? Any plans down the road? Where are you striving to have the business at in the future?
We´ve just gone throue a face lift of T-post product, web page and changed the T-shirt to American Apparel. But down the line I can see that we will have the opportunity for our subscribers to chose a specific genre like for example news specifically about Politics, Sports, Music et.c.
7) From a fashion perspective where does this go?
We always try to come up with new fresh designers that is groundbreaking and is suitable for our story. But in the end it´s all about what we like for the time being. We´re not a slave under the latest trends, but as everybody we cant help from being inspired by them from time to time. If you like what we have done in the past you wont be disappointed. It´s just like listening to a specific movie critic that you know got the same taste of moves as you. And sometimes that critic takes you to movies that you wouldn’t have gone to, but afterwards you were glad you did.
8) How about from a media perspective?
We´re just focusing on picking up interesting stories and making nice looking T-shirts. Hopefully people will like them and will tell more people.
9) You’ve done tees – what is the next thing you’re going to develop?
That it´s possible for our subscribers to choose different models for each delivery. It could be that you can get a Tank-top one time and a huddie the next.
10) What current trends have you noticed affecting T-Post?
The growing scale of the intelligent consumer have helped us a lot. They no longer can be fooled by a print campaigning into believing something is cool, that intact have no meaning. They are looking for things that are genuine. People tend to want to have another layer on the things they wear. It could be that “my grandfather wore this jacket in the war” or to wear my favourite band on my T-shirt which will say a bit of who I am.
11) We haven’t seen a lesbian or gay couple in your gallery – is this something you’ll do the future?*
We have actually that on our schedule. In the beginning we wanted to show that we got both men and women T-shirts, but I think every have realised that now…;)
12) What’s the most passionate and invigorating part of the business for you?*
It´s to read our subscribers reactions when they get them in the mail or how they have had a discussions over a specific issue. Or things like I read on a blog yesterday, that subscribers seem to connect with other subscribers they se on the street, almost as the are part of the same secret club or something.
13) We can’t find anyone whom you compete against – who are your
I guess that it´s other T-shirt sites that sell T-shirts over the internet with a thoughtful idea behind the print.
14) Do you plan on giving your customers any control over your business at all?
Yep, our next step is to give all visitors and subscribers a chance to pitch interesting news ideas on the web page.
15) You are very open about your number of subscribers – 822. Whats the philosophy behind this?*
Our idea is to present exactly how many subscribers we have in each country, state and city. We want it to be open to everybody how many els is subscribing in the same city. If we get to many subscribers in one city we are going to apply the bar entrance rule “one out one in”. Just to make sure that our subscribers don´t get to meet 20 people on the way to the supermarket wearing the same T-shirt.
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Written by Alex of ‘Flavour Comes First’.