|“I want to see Coleman in this so bad”: Fox with his T-shirt featuring the mayor
A couple of years ago, with a graphic-design degree from Ohio State under his arm, Daniel Fox began a career at Nationwide Insurance. It was a job he admits he wasn’t cut out for.
But if not for his time as a designer at Nationwide, the world might be deprived of T-shirts featuring Mayor Mike Coleman in gangsta duds.
“I was on my way to the water fountain one day at Nationwide with no shoes on, and the name “Skreened” with a “k” came into my head,” Fox said. “I thought that would be a great name for a T-shirt company.”
Nationwide’s barefoot designer took his misspelled germ of an idea and headed for the door in 2005. He spent a year as an apprentice with his uncle, who ran a small clothing embroidery company.
“He thought he would throw me a bone so I could learn about the business,” Fox said.
In August 2006, Fox took that knowledge and started his own T-shirt shop in Clintonville, complete with exposed drywall, random stacks of colored shirts, shag carpeting and, perhaps most significantly, an Internet connection. Key to his success, Fox discovered, would be tickling the funny bones of late-night web surfers who have credit cards handy.
Screen-printed T-shirts are hardly a new fashion statement, of course. Hollywood celebrities, campus slackers and shoeless graphic designers have long labored over their ironic shirt collections.
But the web has made it easy for aficionados to browse painstakingly through collections before selecting a shirt that looks like they found it on a thrift-store rack.
Thanks to websites such as SnorgTees.com, VintageVantage.com and Tshirthell.com, the ironic T-shirt industry is in the midst of a renaissance, making for both a wide range of shirts and highly specific niches.
Ten years ago you’d have been hard-pressed to find humorous shirts featuring such Columbus personalities as Coleman, TV lawyer Kevin Kurgis, Jack Hanna or Pastor Rod Parsley—let alone all at one website.
“The screen-printer business is being invaded by these version 2.0 printers,” said Terry Murphy, senior editor of Impressions magazine, a trade publication for the apparel-screening industry. “There’s endless numbers of websites that will allow you to set up a storefront.”
Murphy said operations like Fox’s are good for both the industry, since they keep American screeners employed after mass evacuation to China and elsewhere, and consumers, since they make available a wide range of choices.
“If you’re an art student or an anarchist or a fan of an obscure musician, you can upload your artwork,” he said. “You can be an individual. You do not have to wear Gap or Old Navy or Abercrombie & Fitch if you don’t want to.”
Murphy said exact numbers on the revenue of the online T-shirt business are hard to pin down because of its scattered and informal nature, but the research he’s done indicates that it’s a pretty healthy industry.
“The indie T-shirt movement, as it were, is very healthy. The profit margins are great,” he said. “You’re used to going into Abercrombie and paying $25 for a shirt, so you’ll gladly pay $25 online without even thinking about it.”
The main cost of entry for Fox was a $15,000 printing machine—sort of a souped-up ink-jet printer.
“It’s nice having a wife who works,” he said.
After that, it’s mostly a matter of having enough shirts on hand to fill orders.
Through Skreened.com, Fox offers to let customers upload their own graphics and order a shirt. At his Columbus Couture site, columbuscouture.com, he peddles his favorite designs for $22 a pop.
Among his Columbus Couture designs:
M.C. Mayor: a sketch of Mayor Mike Coleman wearing a baseball cap tilted to the side.
Get Real Paid: a picture of personal-injury lawyer Kevin Kurgis and the opening line from his TV commercials: “I’m Kevin Kurgis and I’m a lawyer.”
Man of God: the image of controversial Pastor Rod Parsley smiling and pointing.
Jungle Jack: a sketch of Jack Hanna holding a koala bear. Fox said it’s designed to show the ladies that the wearer is a sensitive guy who cares about koalas.
Yin/Yang: a $32 reversible shirt that lets the wearer choose between Columbus cult personalities Damon Zex and Zachary Allan Starkey.
Sitting in Fox’s shop is an order for two of the Coleman shirts—a yellow one for an adult and a powder blue baby tee. And the mayor apparently has no problem with it.
“It is clearly created with a touch of irony and humor, and it is not insulting to the city,” Coleman’s spokesman Mike Brown said. “Coleman’s been mayor long enough to know we get some odd tributes, and you just gotta laugh.”
Still, Fox would like more than a tepid endorsement from the mayor’s office: “I want to see Coleman in this so bad. That would be awesome.”
Fox has waded into somewhat murkier legal waters with two shirts featuring the logos of businesses. One has the logo for the Dayton-based Buddy’s Carpet and Flooring, and another is an old logo for Channel 10.
Frank Wilson, director of operations for 10TV, said he was previously unaware of the T-shirt, but he didn’t see anything too awful in Fox’s design.
“We’re honored that of all the TV stations in Columbus, he chose ours,” Wilson said. “We’re not going to overreact or anything.”
But he added it’s probably something that needs to be run by the lawyers.
“This guy is making money off our brand,” Wilson said. “He couldn’t put a Nike swoosh on there.”
There’s no sign that Fox thinks about the legal technicalities when he chooses his subjects. At 27, he still possesses youthful idealism (he won’t print on sweat-shop garments) and looks every bit the part of an ironic T-shirt designer (casual sport coat, thick-rimmed glasses, long knitted scarf, and a consciously hip, Castro-style hat).
Though he admits to using the local icons without permission, he’s counting on the fun tone of the shirts to keep him safe.
“There’s a touch of irony,” he said, “but it’s celebratory of the city we all live in.”
Fox has more than 700 people selling their designs online through his Skreened network. The Westerville native said he’s happy staying small and, in his own way, honoring Central Ohio’s most iconic characters.
“In the case of Buddy, the carpet salesman, and Kevin Kurgis: They’ve both broken into our daily lives and become celebs with their very base shtick,” he said. “If it helps round out the posse, Fred Ricart would have probably been next.”
And he’s always on the lookout for up-and-comers.
“I’ll give Ron Greenbaum (the Basement Doctor) and the Laptop Guy a few more years to establish themselves.”