Travis Conklin is an artist who explores a variety of mediums. As co-owner of F4D Studio, he photographs, films and creates beautiful imagery through his lens. But with Conkwear, his clothing company, Conklin has found a new way to share his art. What started as a way to get his design work out there has grown into a full-on company that showcases his talents in photography and graphic design by creating a mobile gallery of clients wearing his work. We recently spoke with Conklin about why he started the company, why he keeps it going, and what sorts of events he is involved with in Denver. See also:Photos of Conkwear art/clothing installation at MegaFauna
Westword: How did Conkwear get started?
Travis Conklin: Conkwear started in September of 2007. That was when American Apparel got famous with their branding, and I was just wearing a lot of those T-shirts. I was the blank T-shirt guy. I was living in Los Angeles, and I'd go into clothing stores -- the Affliction and Ed Hardy styles were popular, and other graphic styles that I wasn't really about -- so I just wanted to have my own designs. I had this photo of a zebra in a suit, and I made a graphic of it and showed it to my friends at this party I had at my house. I asked them if they would wear it, and they liked it. I printed about 100 of them and gave them away to people. I gave them to friends around L.A. and some in Colorado, and people were stoked about it. I started the website one month later.
T-shirt companies don't seem to be the most lucrative business model. Are you at the point now where the company is self-sustaining?
I don't actually make any money on Conkwear. I don't do it for the money. I do it for two reasons: It's cool to see people wearing my art, and that's an easy way to get my photography out there. It's based on graphic design, but every single one is my photo. The other reason is to raise money for charity. I also just had a meeting with Quarterly Karma, and I'm going to be sponsoring a bunch of events through them. I just did "Fire in the Sky" and I sold a bunch of shirts there. It was funny seeing my T-shirts in a fashion show on the runway, but it worked out. People loved it. I sold a lot.
How many shirts would you say you've turned out since starting the company? Over the course of its existence? That's tough. Easily over 1,000. I'd say somewhere between 2,500 and up, but that's just a guess. I am real thankful for MegaFauna here in Denver for really revitalizing Conkwear. I was dating a girl and she took me to MegaFauna for an art opening, and she talked to the owner and he was all about it. At the time, I was just selling online, and MegaFauna was all about getting it into the shop. When they were on 27th and Larimer, I was selling a lot of them. I'd go into the store and see people buying them. One time I showed up with a box of stuff, and I wasn't even done going through the gear and I sold two shirts before I took everything out.
That's pretty cool. I think it's cool to keep it simple. I put "Conk" on there once, and people didn't really like it. The graphic just does it.
It's branding itself without really branding at all?
Totally. It's anthropomorphic animals and stuff. Keep reading for more from Travis Conklin.
How can people find your stuff online?
I had a website, but I am rebuilding it right now to be a lot more user-friendly. I have an ETSY account with a bunch of sales, so my rating is really good with 100 percent positive feedback. You just can't put as much info and it's not as legit as my original website.
What about the other events you are involved with?
With Quarterly Karma, we are just sponsoring everything. The PR person there is really pushing my brand. They are holding fashion events to raise money for charities, and she's doing great things with that. She is very much a part of the local scene. She's into it for the passion and art and charity, and she's really excited about what I'm doing. People just really like my stuff. Maybe it's the animals, and maybe it's the connection with the kid inside them, but people are just really liking them.
I think if you set out to sell a bunch of T-shirts, it wouldn't be the same. It seems like your success has come from pushing your art and finding a creative means to do so. Do you agree?
It's been over six years, and it's crazy to me that it's still around. I'm really busy with F4D Studio (formerly Focus4Design), but my nights and weekends are really dedicated to Conkwear.
Have you thought about branching into other merchandise?
The thing is that's not really my thing. It's not about the fashion to me, because it's more about the design. I don't have that much money to push jackets, because that would cost too much. If I was to push that, it would take my company out. Down the road, if Conkwear were to blow up and I had a lot more cash in the bank, I would love to do that, or even my own cut and sew, but we'll see. The thing is, there are so many brands like me. You can just purchase the shirts. I see the shirts. I know the color code. I know everything about that.
What are the legalities about rebranding American Apparel shirts?
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You sign a contract that says you can't sell blank American Apparel shirts. You have to alter it in some way, and that allows you resell it with your screen print. That's what they were all about from beginning. They wanted to sell to companies like me, but they blew up by just selling to the public. They just had that cut that was really popular, and they just hit the jackpot. The cut, the fabric and the colors they use just hit the jackpot. It looks good on your body. In most shirts, the bigger sizes are just boxes on people, but American Apparel appealed to younger people who hadn't filled out yet.