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Studio Visit: Prinkshop

Kate Spade co-founder Pamela Bell taps the potential of a well-designed T-shirt to empower and engage

by Nara Shin
on 29 October 2014
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"Wear what you care about." That's the motto of NYC-based Prinkshop (short for "printed ink"), a new graphic design and production studio that's leveraging the underused potential of T-shirts (and totes) to spark action and discussion. Each piece—dedicated to a different cause like child abuse prevention or bringing local, organic food to public schools—bares a simple, bold phrase that invites friends and passers-by to ask, "What's your T-shirt about?" Furthermore, 30% of the profits of each product sold is donated to a specified organization; for example, Prinkshop's 1973 tee, which references the year of the landmark Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision, directly supports NARAL Pro-Choice New York to protect women's reproductive rights.

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"I've been studying teenagers and their patterns and their shopping, and they would buy something that says like 'St. Tropez' on it," Prinkshop founder Pamela Bell tells CH when we visited her East Village home—which also doubles as Prinkshop's headquarters and sample-making studio. "It's shocking. So why not use fashion for good? That's the whole concept." Bell has three children of her own who provide her with a continual source of inspiration, and support. Her oldest daughter sells the T-shirts at her college and her 14-year-old son—who is dyslexic—was the motivation behind one of the first designs, the Dyslexic tee, which supports Windward’s Teacher Training Institute, a resource for teachers and parents. At the bottom of that design is the figure 15/20, as a reminder that 15-20% of the population has the developmental reading disorder. When her son's friends who also had dyslexia starting wearing the tee as well, Bell realized that kids could be proud to "wear" dyslexia like their own brand ("like Wonder Woman") and also show support.

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Prinkshop tees are certainly more empowering than many options found at the mall, many of which either sport ironic phrases that emit a snort or turn the wearers into a walking advertisement for major fashion brands. But it also exposes a small weakness in many organizations—it's undeniable that those free T-shirts participants receive at fundraisers like cancer walks are more of an eyesore (often covered with corporate sponsor logos), and end up being used at pajamas. One well-designed T-shirt, however, has the potential to go viral, especially in the hands (and careful, obsessive eye) of Bell, who is one of the original four co-founders of Kate Spade.

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"I try to tie it into what will be graphically appealing. I don't just say 'Save the Whales,' I want people to have somebody ask them about what they're doing. 'What's a Dream Teen?' It empowers the individual to become an advocate. Because then they have the chance," says Bell. But to help making spreading the word a little easier, the team designed a "flip tag" printed inside, at the bottom of the shirt, with information about the specific organization.

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The shirts also serve as an opportunity to collaborate with a slew of talented designers, who have a little bit of activist blood in them too. For the new Bang Bang Bang tee—which supports the end of gun violence—Bell worked with Rob Giampietro of NYC design studio ProjectProjects, and who was recently awarded the esteemed Rome Prize. To support Lady Parts Justice (using comedy as a way to inform the public of unjust reproductive legislation), Bell dreamed up the cheeky phrase "You are not the boss of V" while Derek Brahney, a studio assistant at Tom Sachs, created the design.

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From ideation to actual production, every step of the process reflects Bell's dedication to being community-centric and purpose-driven. "We have a factory on 3rd street—it's a not-for-profit factory that we contract the work to, and they hire at-risk teens," says Bell. "Everything at Prinkshop, I make here in the United States; we try to produce in the most green or socially responsible factories. One is in North Carolina, and it's a completely green T-shirt factory. We buy from American Apparel and Alternative Apparel; ones that have good labor practices, also." Once she gets enough volume, Bell aims to start a shipping facility out of a homeless shelter. "I teach a class to homeless addicts on 3rd Street, behind the Bowery Hotel—and they all need jobs," she says.

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Upstairs in Bell's home is where the brainstorming takes place, amid cans of paint and screens for testing colors and silk-screening samples. "I was inspired by these posters," says Bell, indicating toward the framed vintage posters on the wall. "In May 1968, there was a student uprising in Paris. And they used silk-screening because you could do it quickly. An event would happen and they would post [posters] all over the city. It's one pass, one color, really graphic, they're so simple. Whatever the issue of the day was, they would post them and put them out." Bell herself had no formal training; she taught herself how to silk-screen. "That's the thing about silk-screening, it doesn't have to be perfect," she says.

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While some of the T-shirts will be making their way into retailers like Madewell, Bell notes that some of the more "controversial" designs that have been rejected can only be sold online through the site. Surprisingly, the most controversial one has been the simple 1973 tee—most likely because of its support of NARAL printed inside. "If you're a retailer, and you have stores in the middle of America where they oppose it, it's tough," says Bell. It's also a somber reminder that there's still much work left to be done—but Prinkshop makes the transition from becoming a bystander to an everyday activist a lot easier.

Prinkshop tees are $35 and totes are $58, with 30% of the profits donated to specific causes, noted in each design. Keep on eye on their webstore as it's updated regularly with new tees.

Images by Nara Shin

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