Man on the Beat: Ten terrific years of trendy t-shirts

Sammy Caiola

When Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart won an online t-shirt contest and used the winnings to start a design company of their own, they never knew it would end up being so huge.

Next Tuesday, Threadless will host an event at the Museum of Contemporary Art to celebrate its 10-year anniversary and the release of its first book.

“We started a thread for people to submit their designs and made the best ones available,” said Nickell, the 28-year-old co-founder of Threadless. “It was really just a creative project in my spare time, and it took about two years for it to start growing until it became a business to the point where I had to leave school and quit my job.”

The company, which is based in Chicago, holds an ongoing design contest in which anyone from anywhere can submit a design whenever he or she wants. Threadless members can vote online for which new design they like best, while the winners get their tees printed, along with a $2,500 prize, a $500 gift certificate and another $500 dollars cash with every reprint.

“Right from the beginning we had hundreds of artists submitting designs, and they all wanted to see it get printed and share it with others,” said Nickells. “Their friends went and voted to increase their chance of getting printed. It was like a slow build with a snowball effect. It wasn’t like a brand. It was just a community feeling that let it grow really healthily.”

Threadless’s first book contains profiles on designers, illustrations and commentary by professionals. At the upcoming MCA event, guests can visit the museum store to browse a selection of Threadless’s best shirts from the past ten years and purchase a signed copy of the book.

“Being ten years old doesn’t feel real,” said Nickell. “One thing that is great is that Threadless is timeless. A lot of brands out there are come and go and out of style. But since the designs are always changing, we’re not stuck to one style.”

Jumping on the “green” bandwagon, the company launched a new line of shirts called “Select.” The line features lighter, more eco-friendly cloth and is growing in popularity among college students.

“If I had unlimited income, I would definitely by a Threadless t-shirt,” said Ian Coley, a Weinberg sophomore. “Actually, I would buy a car made entirely out of Threadless t-shirts.”

Over the years, Threadless tees have been worn by many in the spotlight, including the lead singer of Motion City Soundtrack and on an American Idol contestant last season. Most recently, a Threadless t-shirt was even worn by a main character in the hit action-comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing to see our shirts end up there,” said Nickell. “Our mission statement is to inspire awesomeness. We’re just trying to do cool things that people will talk about and create opportunities for artists.”