by Jake Nickell
A century ago America wrested its wealth out of the ground with sweat and steel. Westinghouse, US Steel, and The Union Pacific built a nation by taking the guts of the earth and rending them into an industrial powerhouse that beat back the Nazis. But today those giants are gone, bankrupt, bought out, and marginalized, only to be replaced by… get ready… art T-shirts! Eggheads from the Harvard business school flock to the Threadless Store in New York and marvel that a bunch of art students made a fortune (by Art School standards, not by Bill Gates standards) by selling T-shirts with cool graphics that people voted and paid for up front. I’ve been involved in a few T-shirt fundraisers but never made a nickel, so I give these guys points for raw capitalism.
Their business model was elegant in its simplicity. Artists submitted designs; an online community discussed them and picked the ones they liked. The owners printed the winners and never had any overstock. Along the way orders grew, designs came quicker, and every year they moved to a bigger warehouse. This glossy book tells the business story, but more importantly shows the history of their designs. Early shirts are simple, featuring blocky graphics, few colors, and iconic concepts. As the company prospered they add new lines, some featuring name designers, some using simple slogans and stock typefaces. But overall, the designs become more detailed, larger, and more subtle. Occasionally the cute and conceptual makes it in, but simple is for the past now.
Text? Is there text? Yes, but it seems cut down to the 140 characters to which modern minds are limited. That’s not a bad limit here; we want to see sexy people in tight clothing with snarky art on their chest. This business plan might work for your concept, but I’ll bet the big money comes in and gives the whole thing a bad name before long. Threadless is still a cool place with nifty products and I hope they can hold off the inevitable buyout by Sears or Target. The American Dream still has some steam left, but we are in a decade of diminished expectations. My advice? Stock up on panda shirts. Pandas will always be cool.