I have been wanting to explore a new area of the artisan world - graphic design. I feel like tee shirt and clothing designers are often overlooked as part of the artisan community despite their work and education in art and design so today, I'm introducing you to my favorite indie tee shirt designer!
Tessa Sainz is the owner and designer of Krmbal indie tee shirts! Tessa is a graphic designer that's been working in the apparel industry ever since she landed her first serious design job. She started out working as a production artist for a company that made a lot of collegiate apparel and now works for a corporation. She's always wanted to have her own indie brand and after befriending a few people who had done it on twitter, she decided to do it herself! Krmbal opened in July 2012 with 2 designs - Shop Indie & Heart Tree - and it has slowly, but steadily grown since then.
Tessa started Krmbal for many reasons. One is because she felt her current corporate job doesn't give her much of a creative outlet and designing graphics for her own line definitely helps fill that void. However, the other is because being able to see behind the scenes of a corporation that makes a lot of our clothing made her realize that so many people don't understand that lots of waste and chemicals goes into making even the most basic clothes they buy at big box retail, and a lot of that also comes because people want the cheapest possible deal they can get. She also discovered a lot of what was marketed as 'green' was actually just stuff that sounded nice and wasn't really green at all. A lot of people might want to buy things that were made in a more responsible fashion, but many organic cotton t-shirts cost an awful lot. Plus, how do you know that you're not getting greenwashed without being able to see behind the scenes? Transparency is definitely important, but no big company is going to be as transparent as the truly conscious consumer needs them to be.
Tessa believed she could make an eco-conscious graphic tee that wasn't all greenwashed marketing claims and that she could make and sell them for a reasonable price and still explain her choices to her consumers, so they could trust her decisions.
So, Tessa began with a ton of research. She found a garment made by a company that had a 3rd party come in and detail its energy usage, organic and eco-friendly claims. She also researched the best printing technique and even wrote an article about screen printing ink systems (and how water-based ink isn't really any greener than plastisol, assuming both are handled in an appropriate manner) for Impressions Magazine.
After all the research, the hard part came in choosing a name for the business. Tessa wanted something that represented her mission to offset some of the things she saw in the industry from her corporate job. The biggest driver for her to launch her business was to make her feel like she could educate people about their apparel choices and in some small way, balance her karma from her participation in the giant, corporate apparel machine. She settled on Krmbal, a nonsense word made by smashing 'karma balance' together. It might be a strange word, but it seemed to fit when nothing else did. It also seemed to represent how Krmbal is different from other indie brands and certainly from regular retail apparel. There's a greater mission behind Krmbal and the customer can trust that a lot of research and effort to find the most responsible option has gone into their Krmbal tee. Tessa also donates $1 from every Krmbal purchase to make Kiva loans that help people with small businesses all over the world make their businesses more eco-friendly. This way, Krmbal is helping create change all over the planet, on a grassroots level.
So far the hardest thing for Tessa has been learning how to do all the things she doesn't normally have to do as a graphic designer. Art and printing, that's the easy part, the hard part has been marketing, sales and finding what resonates with her fan base. Learning from other people who run indie shops has been super helpful! It's also been really great just to have that community support. Sometimes the hard part is also knowing when it's a good idea to expand some more. Krmbal runs pretty conservatively, but Tessa says she needs to find a good balance between investing too much in new things and boring our customers by having no new options for a long time.
Krmbal is actually launching two new designs right now: the Dullahan and the Lucky Cat. The Dullahan is a scary Irish faerie known for holding its own head and riding around the countryside looking for a person. The story says that anyone who sees the Dullahan will get blinded by his whip made from a human spine. The Dullahan is known as Death's Herald because he searches for a person and when he finds them, says the name of the person and they die soon after. Some believe the Story of Sleepy Hollow is based on the Irish legend of the Dullahan. The other new design is much less scary, it's a Lucky Cat or Maneki Neko, known to bring good fortune and perhaps even wealth to people, homes and businesses.
The existing Krmbal designs tended to go very much toward Tessa's personal geeky interests, so having the new designs go in two new directions - creepy and cute, is hopefully going to bring some new customers to learn about Krmbal's message.
I do think that t-shirt art is somewhat underrated as an art form. It's certainly not considered highbrow and I've had many people, in a professional sense, brush me off as a graphic designer because I work in the apparel industry and not, for example, in web design. Personally, I've always felt more comfortable and more artistic in media that I could get my hands dirty in. That's what feels like art to me, not sitting behind a computer. That's probably why I like the apparel industry so much. I can design something on my computer and then walk out to the print floor and be involved in the actual creation of the thing. I'm actually a pretty big screen printing nerd and probably annoy the printers at my day job sometimes by sticking my nose in and suggesting things they don't want to do.
My printer for Krmbal is pretty great though because he lets me do whatever I want. It's a pretty cool relationship where he trusts my judgement, but if he thinks something won't work, he'll tell me and suggest some small change and I definitely trust him and his team to understand my vision and work with me. I'm usually there on the press floor with them when they print also, so even though I'm not personally loading the machines and pushing the buttons I am right there. I like that much better than sending the art off to a company halfway across the country and having them print my stuff and send it back, which is how a lot of indie t-shirt brands produce their stuff. At least they're still getting them printed in a shop with the proper procedures for handling those chemicals though!
There's also a bit of a bias against t-shirts in the crafting community. I think because there's such an emphasis there on the handmade, which is understandable. I could hand-draw everything and hand-burn and print screens myself, if I chose to. I have the screens and could buy the chemicals and ink, but that's also an archaic process and not ecologically responsible. Screen printing involves industrial chemicals and in my opinion, printing at home without the proper containment and disposal systems is just as bad as changing the oil in your car and then pouring it down your sink at home. I think handmade is an important distinction, it denotes that someone put a lot of personal time and effort into something. However, simply because I created my art on a computer and used a local small business to create my product, I don't think it should be considered any less worthy. There are very good reasons I did so, but it can be hard to get people to listen to the reasons why. Maybe someday Krmbal will grow so large that I can purchase my own small, local screen print shop and can create responsibly on all my own equipment. Until then, I'm perfectly happy helping to give a small bit of work to my local printer.
connect with Tessa: