One of my personal favorite new brands out there is Paper Root. That was one of the reasons I wanted to interview them. Paper Root is a unique brand, one of my favorite things about them is they focus more on the art. They aren’t constrained by anything. I love how you never know what to expect next from them. Personally I don’t really like when I can predict a line, I like there to be some anticipation and for each line to look a little bit different from the one before. You can definitely expect big things to come from this brand. Thanks to Greg for the interview! And buy some tees:
1. Tell us a little bit about the story behind Paper Root, how did it come about and why did you decide to start the brand?
It actually all started in sort of a backwards way. I’ve always been a t-shirt fanatic. One of those kids that scoured the thrift store shelves trying to find weird and quirky t-shirts that I knew no-one else would have. I never thought about having my own clothing brand, but I knew that I wanted to be involved with the t-shirt business in some way. A few years ago I came into possession of an old printing press from the 70s and I spent every waking minute messing with this beast. I spent alot of time researching and learning the different aspects of screen printing and eventually started printing shirts for all kinds of businesses and events and some clothing lines. I spent alot of time testing my skills and learning new processes to get the best and most creative results. I had never really considered starting my own brand at that point, but eventually it got to the point where I had gotten increasingly dis-interested in the t-shirts that were on the shelves in the stores in my area, so I decided to use the skills I had developed over the past couple years and enlisted the help of some artist friends of mine to help bring some tee concepts to reality strictly for myself and my friends. We expanded a couple small runs of shirts and decided to put them in some local stores see what the response was. The response was overwhelmingly positive, so I decided that this could be something to pursue seriously. I’ve never been a fan of branding or logo tees, so it was always important for the designs to be all about the art and not about incorporating our logo or brand name. From the get-go, I wanted Paper Root to be about the artwork and not the branding or themes. Which I know goes against the basic rules for a tee company, but I never wanted it to be something that people could expect certain things from every season, it is meant to be something completely different every time.
2. Do you think it’s important for a brand to have a particular “theme” or style? Why or why not?
I definitely see the positives of a brand having a specific theme or style that people can identify them with, but I know it is not a necessity to be successful. Alot of people take comfort in the fact that if they like a t-shirt from a brand, then they can expect to come back every season and get more of the same, but maybe different concepts or execution. I was always on the opposite end of the spectrum, I would get really into a brand for a season, and by their next release I would be bored with it. It was like “okay, i already have a couple tees with photos of street scenes on them, why would I want any of the seven new ones you just came out with?”. I understand that when the people that follow your brand like a certain style, it’s a guaranteed money-maker if you keep making stuff in that style, but that’s when the creativity starts to die for me. Not to intentionally single anybody out, but one of my favorite brands used to be RVCA and their Artist Collections series. It was so random and creative and I was always wondering what they would put out next. But of course, once the masses caught on to the brand, the straight logo tees started selling like hot-cakes. Over time I watched as shops started carrying more and more of the logo tees and less and less of the Artist series tees. And from a business perspective: hey, if people want more logo tees, let’s make more logo tees and get money. It makes sense, but for someone like me it is disappointing to see the unique tees drop off to make way for the logo tees. We might throw the name in the design from time to time, but we’ve never done a straight logo tee. I get the fact that alot of people like that about their favorite brands, but I like to think that the people that follow Paper Root are into it because their style can change with us, and they don’t have to wear our name real big to be part of some style. I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to make new designs every season that fit into a certain “theme”. One of my favorite things to do when working with a new artist is to see what kinds of concepts or aesthetics they like to work with and then find a common theme we can agree to run away with. This way we are both personally invested in the artwork, and hopefully it’s not just another job for them. I would hate to go to an artist and say can you make a tee that is a parody of the New York Yankees, but everyone has to be an animated hot dog, because our brand is called Frank-furter apparel and all our designs have to be related to hot dogs. I mean, shit, I don’t like any one thing to base the life of my brand around.
3. What is your personal favorite Paper Root tee?
My personal favorite tee at the moment is the coral castles tee. It’s just a really simple geometric design with solid colors and the theme is an underlying homage to my current home state of Florida. A couple of my other favorites are the Run Buddha tee and the Beast tee. Just great designs with great concepts behind them. I’m working on some stuff for the fall that will probably become my new favorites, but that’s just how it goes.
4. What is the hardest thing about starting up?
The hardest thing is definitely getting people just to look. Roughly estimating, there are probably 100,000 clothing brands out there right now and the market is just completely saturated. You have to try to reach people through all the different avenues on the internet, then also spend time trying to get your stuff in front of people in a more tangible way like stores and trade shows or markets. Everything else about running a clothing line is more of an enjoyable process with the product development and order fulfillment, etc. But getting people to check it out and trying to make deals happen is always a grind. If you weren’t born with it or educated in it, you have to really hone your sales and advertising skills in order to be successful.
5. What do you prefer and why – simple designs or over the top stuff?
Personally, I prefer simple designs that manage to make an impact despite their simplicity. On some days I really want to wear those over the top 18-color prints with a thousand things going on, but for the most part I like to keep it simple. I am truly impressed by the artists that do these monster pieces that have alot of colors and insane detail (that takes some serious effort), but I am more impressed when someone does a one-color design that really captivates you. Unfortunately, I’ve found that alot of people place the value of a t-shirt in the intricacy of the design and how many colors it is, so it is seen as not as valuable when a shirt is just a one-color print or a photo or something along those lines.
6. Who comes up with the ideas for your tee shirt designs?
It really is a collaboration for most everything that I do with outside designers. I always try to ask the designers what they’re really into at the moment, so I can work off of their preferences, but then we end up collectively finding a theme that we’re both really into. When I’m really into the work of certain artists, I don’t want to come to them with something that is 100% my idea, because then I feel like it would make it just work for them. If I work on a design with somebody, I want them to be personally invested in it. For the in-house designs the ideas are all collected from my personal experiences or vices. The design process for me is especially cathartic. If there is a something that I am obsessing over or some problem I am working out, I’ll find a way to get that out of my head and onto a t-shirt, either through my own channels or an outside designer.
7. If someone gave you a $100,000 investment for Paper Root, what would you use the money for?
I’m getting some things in motion that is going to become a reality over the next couple years involving some serious cut-n-sew action and a whole new section of Paper Root that is going to be a surprise to alot of people. That kind of investment would allow me to put these plans into production almost instantly. Also, most people don’t know this, but Paper Root is actually my 3rd job. I manage a music venue/restaurant in northern Florida (great food, and i’ve put together shows with Modest Mouse, Vampire Weekend, Against Me, & more). I also have my own screen-printing shop that I run out of my house. So After I spend most of a day working at those two jobs, i’ll work late into the night on Paper Root. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for Paper Root is that I can’t give 100% of myself to it. So that kind of investment would give me the opportunity to give up those other two jobs and be able to focus all of my time on Paper Root. I would be able to participate in alot of trade shows, festivals, markets, sales trips, and all that other stuff that is important for building a brand. At this point, i’m pretty much stuck to doing what I can from a computer and phone, so to be able to step beyond that would open up alot of new doors.
8. I saw you guys have some amazing mailers. Have you gotten a lot of positive feedback on those and do you think it’s important for businesses to spend time on the details like custom packaging?
Thanks for noticing the mailers! I really love all the little details that go into the presentation of a product, and people can tell when someone really cares about their goods by what they do other than just the shirt. One time I ordered a shirt from company that looked really rad on the web, then it took about 3-4 weeks to get to me (by then I had just about forgotten I ordered it), and it arrived in a torn and tattered manilla envelope with just the shirt inside with no protection whatsoever. I’m not going to lie, it was kind of a bummer to recieve something in that manner. So, yes, I think it is imperative to a brands success to present your product as professionally, uniquely, and creatively as possible. I like to compare the situation to when a guy proposes to his girlfriend. How shitty would it be if you stopped your GF after she got out of the bathroom or something and you just handed her the ring and said something like “here ya go, now go tell all your friends”. She’s not going to want to tell anyone about that, and she probably wouldn’t marry you. On the other hand, if you do the full-on tuxedo limo to 5-star restaurant down on one knee type deal, she is gonna sing that junk to all of her friends. It’s the same situation with presenting your product. It may be the best thing in the world your giving them, but you have to go the extra mile if you want someone to really feel something for your brand and make them want to tell everyone else about you, otherwise they may just forget about you. So yeah, I do everything I can to try an make it a memorable and special experience for the people that have supported Paper Root. So when a package from us arrives in the mail and you see a package that has some ridiculously awesome limited edition artwork on the front and you open it up to see a cleanly bagged and sealed tee with custom tags and hang tags and stickers and postcards thrown in, I hope this makes you feel like we put some care into your experience. Unfortunately, conducting business over the internet is a cold-hearted bitch. I actually haven’t recieved any feedback at all about our packaging. I don’t think i’ve ever taken the time to write a company after i’ve recieved something like that, so I don’t blame anybody for not doing it either. But it would be nice to get a response like that. So thanks again for mentioning the mailers.
9. Are there any other tee brands you like or is it all just competition?
I’m one of those people that believes there is plenty to go around. People go through t-shirts like tissues, so If your doing good work, there is always going to be people that will buy it. So I don’t see anybody as competition, and there are alot of brands that I am a fan of. Always gonna be a fan of Obey, RVCA, Imaginary Foundation. Starting to really like 410BC, the Printed Mind, fyasko, and Lira, all brands that are doing great things.
10. Can you tell us about anything you have planned for the future for Paper Root? Or what we can expect for the next line?
Expect alot more tees and a variety of styles as always. For the fall we’re going to be releasing some stuff to keep you warm and some accessories, and i’ll leave it at that. From there, you’ll start to see some of the cut-n-sew stuff i’ve been hinting to. I think people will really like what we’ve got coming.
11. What would you tell someone looking to start up a business (whether it be clothing or something else)
I would tell them you will only get out of it what you put into it. Luckily I was born with a drive that keeps me up most of the night trying to make my ideas a reality. It’s so easy to feel defeated and give up when you run your own business, but that is where you have to embrace your next big idea. Failing has only made me work harder and in this economy, be prepared to hustle for your dreams.
12. What’s your favorite flavor
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