The first thing you notice when you get enter the ZBQ website is that unlike any other t-shirt store out there. The website design and structure is unique and makes you want to browse around the site even if you are not in the market for a t-shirt. Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia the ZBQ stands out from the ever increasing number of t-shirt stores on the web. No ironic text or Hollywood inspired catchphrase designs will be found here. Instead you will find an eclectic bunch of designs each of which defy categorization. Unless off course ZBQ style is considered a category.
The site is a little confusing when you look at it but is quite intuitive so it isn’t difficult to get the tees that you want. Payments are made through Paypal. I could talk more about ZBQ but I was lucky enough to interview the owner and I think you would be more interested to hear what he has to say about ZBQ and future plans. Just read on. My questions are in bold. If you think my questions are lame feel free to add your own in the comments and you never know, perhaps ZBQ head honcho, Jason, will respond to them.
I noticed widespread use of the first person in your FAQ. Is this a one man operation?
Well for many years ZBQ has been primarily a one-man operation, and is at this time as well. There have been times when things got busy when I would hire people to help me out, but for the most part it’s been me, myself and I.
It also says you are based in Nova Scotia. Can you speak Gaelic?
Ha ha, no! There are people in certain areas of Nova Scotia, like Cape Breton, where that is quite common, but Halifax is a pretty urban center and I don’t know anyone who speaks Gaelic. But I’d like to learn.
And the important question: why t-shirts?
T-shirts have always been an obsession of mine: I started out making my own when I was a teenager because I was into all kinds of weird music and lived in a small town where you couldn’t find cool shirts to express your individuality. Then as I got older and moved to bigger centers I started going to lots of concerts and amassing a huge collection of punk & other tees. But I also never stopped making my own. I always thought it would be neat to pursue as a career. I guess to me the t-shirt still represents a very democratic way of sharing imagery- it’s like a wearable gallery. You can really deduce a lot about a person’s personality based on the kind of t-shirt they’re wearing. Art should be out walking around in the world, not holed up in some dusty gallery.
I notice that you have guest designers but do you also design some of them? If so which is your favorite of your own designs?
Yes I do a lot of the designs myself. My favorite of my own is probably still Vampire in Paris.
I live in Japan so am curious about which countries you have shipped to. I have to guess that you ship to the USA and Canada quite frequently.
Yes USA primarily, Canada second, but I also sell a lot in England, Australia and Germany. I have only ever had 3 or 4 orders from Japan but I would love to have more!
You got into the t-shirt biz way back in 1998. How has the industry changed since then?
There has been a massive influx of new companies and new designers- when I started, if you were doing something original, it was pretty easy to make a living because the competition was not that heavy. Now there are thousands of shirt companies and so many amazing shirt designs that it’s impossible to keep track of it all! Thanks to the internet, t-shirt culture is bigger than ever and I think it’s great. It can be kind of frustrating because it’s harder to stand out and be noticed, but it’s good because it really gives me a lot of inspiration and kind of keeps me on top of my game. I get really jealous looking at some of the incredible stuff out there, but it also makes me want to try even harder and take things to another level.
In you more than 10 years of experience do you have any tips for people hoping to follow in your footsteps?
I would say that make sure you’re getting into this for the right reasons. If you’re looking to make a quick buck and get instantly famous, you’re in for a pretty big disappointment. As I mentioned, the competition is insane these days. But if you want to do this because you have a genuine love for it, that can sustain you. It’s what’s kept me going. I’ve gone from selling a handful of shirts every month to thousands, and now back to almost where I started, but I have no intention of giving up because at the end of the day I truly love it. Seeing those shirts roll off the conveyor is my biggest thrill.
Do you have any funny anecdotes or tales of caution related to the t-shirt business?
Well if you’re doing custom shirts for people, always do a sample shirt first before you go and make 50 or 100 shirts that are the wrong color or art. I learned that the hard way! Also, I would advise against taking credit terms from your suppliers. That can get you in a lot of hot water! And beware spending a lot of money on advertising- I’ve found that most of the time it doesn’t really pay off. If you have extra money to spend on that stuff then it’s a great way to promote your brand and get the word out, but don’t expect an instant return on your investment, because you probably won’t get it.
I read a little bit about how you started off using heat transfers on tees, do you still have some of your original collection?
I do have some but not many- I wish I had saved more of them. A lot of my friends have some of those and they’ve actually stood the test of time surprisingly well.
You mentioned now that you are now printing on used polo shirts. I think they look great but I was wondering why you decided to go down this road.
Well it s one way of keeping this whole game interesting for me. T-shirts are awesome but I like to shake things up and add a little variety. That’s why we’ve always done lots of different styles, from baseball shirts to track jackets and lots of different types of ladies shirts, and why we’ve also done prints and rock banners and are producing a line of underwear. T-shirts will always be our mainstay, but I want to play around with as many different things as I can. It’s also a way of standing out from the crowd a bit I guess as well. Plus as you mentioned, the polo shirts look pretty fresh and I like wearing them myself!
Your website and t-shirts are quite different from what I am used to seeing. Is this a conscious decision to stand out from the crowd or are you just creating what you like? What inspires your designs?
Really I’m just following my gut as to what I like. I really feel like with ZBQ there’s a certain aesthetic I’ve always gone for, it’s hard to put into words, but when I see it I know it fits into the collection. It’s definitely a feeling. I don’t do things just to be different, but in a certain way I do, because there are a lot of cookie-cutter shirt companies out there doing the same things and I don’t want to be lumped in with that. A couple of years ago everyone was trying emulate Threadless with the clever vector “inside joke” designs. Then it was all-over prints, now it’s zombies, or whatever. That’s all well and good but when everyone is trying to do the same thing it just kind of dilutes itself. I’m inspired by 1950s pin-up culture, the art world, jazz, pornography, graffiti and general badassery with a comical twist.
Apart from your own store, do you have any favorite online t-shirt stores and if so what are they?
I like the Beautiful Decay stuff, Design by Humans is freakin’ awesome (speaking of jealous) and I love Imaginary Foundation. I see tons of other companies that make great stuff but honestly I don’t really follow them too closely, just kind of get a general overview of what’s going on out there from blogs such as yours, Rumplo and Emptees. Not to sound too self-centered, but I tend to focus more on what we do at ZBQ, as I really don’t want to get too distracted by what’s going on with other companies. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll start trying to imitate them.
Do you have some tricks up your sleeve yet? What can we expect from you in the future?
Well I’ve always really wanted to get more into doing ZBQ clothes. As mentioned, we’re doing ladies’ underwear, which should be available by April if not sooner, and we’re also doing a few skirts to see how those go. Hoping to do jackets, button-up shirts and other items down the road as well. I’m also kind of an amateur filmmaker and would like to incorporate that into ZBQ somehow, so you may be seeing some interesting stuff on YouTube sooner or later. And one of my dreams, which may in fact be coming true this year, is to finally open a bricks & mortar ZBQ store/gallery here in Halifax, with hopefully more to follow in other cities. But at the end of the day, for me it’s still all about the humble t-shirt. I love them.
Great tips and insight for people interested in getting into the t-shirt biz from someone who loves what he does. Thanks Jason.