How Cotton Bureau Became the Internet’s Coolest T-Shirt Store

How Cotton Bureau Became the Internet’s Coolest T-Shirt Store

You may not have realized that it was possible to become addicted to buying T-shirts. But that probably means you just haven’t stumbled upon Cotton Bureau, a year-old website that has quickly become the world’s coolest T-shirt shop.

The four-person crew behind Cotton Bureau has managed to pull this off by stitching together an impressive number of cultural, technological, and business trends into an entertaining, beautifully designed package that delivers on its promises.

As business ventures go, Cotton Bureau is not going to become the next Amazon. In an era when high-tech entrepreneurship inspires Hollywood blockbusters, the founders aren’t interested in finding investor capital and don’t even like to call themselves a “startup.”

But they have managed to create a thoroughly 21st century company—a profitable online retailer that mixes the latest trends in product development with an open-ended creativity platform and the simple, old-fashioned appeal of a secret club.

“Not too long ago, we weren’t selling anything. And a couple of short years later, it’s paying my mortgage,” co-founder Jay Fanelli says. “Sometimes, we have to step back and say, `Wow.’”

There are a million places to buy a T-shirt online. It’s one of the many specialized functions that the Internet has helped make trivial, which has in turn led to an explosion of T-shirts as totems—there’s one representing just about every company, convention, or trend that you can imagine. As writer Glenn Fleishman put it, “T-shirts are to the Internet as cigarettes are to the prison economy.”

Many online T-shirt companies have a feature that lets you add your own design, while others tend to serve as endless vacuums of pop-culture sayings and Internet ephemera, recycling anything that a person might want to put on their chest into an instant piece of disposable fashion. Some do both. 

Cotton Bureau takes the opposite approach. While just about anyone with a computer and some software savvy can submit a design, only those approved by Cotton Bureau’s curators will actually get featured on the website and have a chance of being made.

That’s what you’d expect from a group that previously ran a Web design and development agency—these people have serious opinions about good taste—but it also lends a premium, exclusive feeling to the whole thing. And it’s one reason Cotton Bureau can charge around $25 for each shirt, which are based on American Apparel blanks that might cost $5 wholesale.

“If we came out and started making T-shirts for your uncle’s carpentry company or your charity’s 5K,” the company wouldn’t have much chance of standing out, Fanelli says. “The world is just full of terrible T-shirts, and we don’t want to make any more.”

Cotton Bureau Group

(L-R) Cotton Bureau’s Jay Fanelli, Nathan Peretic, Matthew Chambers, and Sara Gardinier

The work really begins when a design gets picked for a spot on Cotton Bureau’s main page. After helping the designer pick the shirt material, color, and other features, Cotton Bureau posts the design and starts the clock: shirts have two weeks to attract at least 12 pre-orders. If they clear that hurdle, the money is collected and the shirt gets printed. If fewer than a dozen people want it, no dice.

Twelve is the magic number because Cotton Bureau says that’s the lowest point at which it can make money on each project. If the shirt gets more than 25 orders, the designer also gets paid a cut of the proceeds.

That two-tiered setup is a fun way to reward successful designers. But it also means the point of getting a shirt printed on Cotton Bureau is more about seeing your idea turned into a real-life object, and less about making money coming up with cool T-shirts.

The crowdfunding element, popularized by startup and consumer-product sites like Kickstarter, makes the T-shirt buying process into a kind of game for the consumer. Really like that cool shirt with the astronaut helmet, or the funny one with “Smell Ya Later” in squiggly script? If it gets down to the wire and there aren’t enough orders, you may find yourself begging friends to chip in and buy a few more so the shirt crosses the finish line.

Sure, T-shirt designers can guarantee success by rallying a bunch of people to their cause. But the fact that just about anybody in the world can buy a design through Cotton Bureau also highlights a fundamentally cool part of the Internet: the ability to connect groups of absolute strangers, sometimes separated by enormous distance, around a shared sensibility and cultural experience they may have thought was too small or personal to matter.

It’s probably no mistake that T-shirts are a perfect medium for this kind of connection. They’ve been a distinctly American vehicle of expression and pop-culture cool since Marlon Brando wore one in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and quickly thereafter became all-purpose personal billboards for everything from corporate brands and political statements to family reunions and banal tourist nostalgia.

Eventually, the concept of T-shirt as a medium got turned in on itself. In the early 2000s, discount retailers like Old Navy began mass-producing cheap tees with slogans and insignia for things that didn’t even exist. Cotton Bureau allows people to take the idea even further—sure, you could get the logo of your actual company or club made into a shirt. But the truly great stuff on the site seems like a one-off in the best way possible: an idea you’ll never see anywhere else, dreamed up by someone out there with an eye for style or a wry sense of humor.  … Next Page »

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The Author

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com

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