Threadless’ unique designs string along the college crowd

Andrew Gaug


Credit: Jason Hall

While walking on campus, one might notice other college-aged people wearing the usual shirts displaying their favorite band, Greek letters, witty sayings or a banana showing a crying watermelon he cannot reproduce.

If the last one seems out of place, it’s probably because it’s a Threadless shirt.

Threadless is a Web site that sells T-shirts for women, men and occasionally children. It’s also a community with more than 500,000 members who create their own profiles, blog and vote on what T-shirts make the final cut.

Bob Nanna, promotions employee for Threadless, said the idea to make it more than another site that hawked T-shirts was because of the reason they became popular in the first place – blogs and message boards.

“That was really an integral part of building. It makes people really part of the voting process and lets them critique designs,” he said. “On Threadless, people can have profiles, post pictures, have blogs. They can develop a nice personality and be part of a real community that’s based on art as opposed to other things.”

The site began from humble beginnings with two Purdue students, Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart, when Nickell won a T-shirt design contest in London. His win sparked the idea of creating a Web site that would allow everyone to do it.

Nanna said the two created the Chicago-based company and site in late 2000 and launched it in 2001. From there, it took a few years to get the word out and for it to catch on. But in 2004, he said things really picked up and it’s been an underground success ever since.

Nanna said the community of people who design shirts are anywhere from the typical to people you wouldn’t expect.

“There are really skilled graphic artists and communication design majors who get a lot of votes, but then there are a lot of winners who were people drawing freehand and converted it to Illustrator,” he said. “They just kind of had an idea and put it to practice.”

He also said it’s a community that helps refine some artists’ craft.

“I’m not a designer, but if I was, I could hear people’s thoughts on what I did wrong and what was right … it’s very encouraging,” he said.

Gina Gutshall, a junior visual communications design major, agrees with Threadless’ grassroots practice.

“I just like the fact random people can submit art and they get voted on,” she said.

Others who aren’t so much into the art of the shirts, but rather the humorous pop culture references, can find a shirt that has a silhouette of E.T. using a payphone, one where all different fast food mascots such as Ronald McDonald and Wendy are seated at a table resembling “The Last Supper” and one where the Batmobile has lost a tire and The Joker’s footprints can be found in the snow.

“I think they have creative designs and humorous stuff,” said junior economics major Dave Prystash. “There’s funny stuff on shirts I like to wear.”

Threadless also makes sure to give the people who buy their shirts incentives such as Street Team Points that can be exchanged for money off of future purchases.

“(Street Team Points) were something that came a little later once we built up a community, around the same time the site started getting popular,” he said. “They’re little kind of incentives for users to be a little more active and interactive within the site, that was another way to make that happen.”

He said people will often buy shirts and donate their points to other Threadless members.

But Threadless hasn’t caught on with just a teenage/college crowd, it’s also creeping its way into the mainstream, despite having no advertising.

“It’s a really cool thing. What’s especially cool is thinking about the Threadless users,” he said. “Being part of something that’s kind of underground and now someone on VH1 or ‘Scrubs’ is wearing it -ÿsomeone could see a celebrity wearing something they designed.”

Nanna said the site often has contests where a band or movie will give away special prizes to whoever submits the best design for a selected theme around them.

“It’s a cool way to promote,” he said. “It came up as a way to help our friends’ bands and people that we knew. Now we get many requests to (do contests), we’re trying to raise the bar with the prizes and make them really special. We give away stuff like video game systems, signed guitars, arcade games -ÿit’s something we’re happy to do.”

Although some designs have created controversy, such as one popular shirt called “Flowers In The Attic” which depicts a girl shooting herself in the head as the blood on the other side turns into butterflies. Others, such as a design called “Fart Flag Shirt,” which has a naked man with a flag coming out of his butt that says “Fart,” just get rejected. But Nanna said all complaints are responded to, though every design has the potential to get complaints.

“It’s all art when it comes down to the heart of it. It’s not going to be approved by everybody,” he said.

As Threadless gains popularity, the company plans on opening its own store in Chicago in April or May, Nanna said. The store will follow the site’s philosophy of not only offering apparel but also giving customers a chance to figure out how to make their own designs at special terminals.

Meanwhile, Nanna said they’re focusing on stretching their creative boundaries while still providing quality shirts. Along with Threadless, spin-off sites such as Naked and Angry offer things such as ties and wallpaper.

“We’ve got a few things up our sleeve,” he said. “We’re definitely not limiting ourselves to just plain old T-shirts.”

Contact ALL assistant editor Andrew Gaug at [email protected].