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Wheaton startup’s shirts blend art, tech, charity

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Updated: November 21, 2012 6:05AM

A Wheaton startup is touting its “Made in America” label with a twist: It leverages new fabric technology and independent artists’ crowdsourcing to make fitted and fashionable T-shirts on demand.

“We have the belief and the commitment that we can do good locally by investing in production here in America,” said Cole Lohman, 28, director of business development for the web-based company, “The Made In America mission is connected with supporting our local economy and providing work to independent artists. We need the help right now.”

It’s also a hot topic this election season.

The T-shirts for men and women are priced from $20 to $25. They are aimed at 25- to 45-year olds who otherwise shop at Macy’s, Nordstrom or specialty, high-end retailer and who think of their T-shirts as a means of expression rather than as a joke.

“They want to send a message about themselves,” said Lohman, a St. Charles native who lives in Wheaton. Lohman co-founded the company with Steve Kanney, the owner of Socialaundry and owner and general manager of Target Decorated Apparel in Naperville, one of the nation’s largest screen-printing production companies.

Socialaundry’s business model reflects another emerging trend — for-profit companies doing “impact investing” by returning portions of their profits to charitable and good-works causes. Socialaundy is giving 10 percent of its yearly revenues to charities that support the arts, art education, healthy-children programs and military members and veterans.

Socialaundry aims to help independent artists get their designs out to a wider audience by making the T-shirt designs, and ultimately, more money. Artists are paid based on sales of T-shirts emblazoned with their designs.

Lohman said the idea is to give freelance artists a voice, and to offer shoppers unique designs.

“A lot of designs on the market are overexposed, licensed images or pop-culture mashups,” he said. “We’re offering unique ideas and expressions.”

A group of 25 artists used the crowdspring method of submitting ideas to determine the name “Socialaundry,” and independent artists helped the company set up its website and social-media strategy.

Jose Renteria, an artist and designer who grew up and lives in West Aurora, got involved in Socialaundry as part of his constant efforts to expand his visibility.

Renteria, 27, who majored in visual communications at the Illinois Institute of Art, blogs about his work at and is active on Dribbble, Behance Network, Facebook and Twitter.

As for Socialaundry, Renteria said it’s another way to let people know he designs with a hand-done touch and aims to speak in a voice his T-shirt-design buyers consider their own.

As a small business owner, Renteria said he searches out every possible venue, from online sales to trade shows.

The T-shirts sold at Socialaundry are form-fitting and create a draping rather than a boxy look because they are made of cotton, rayon and polyester — a tri-blend — that weighs 3.7 ounces per yard versus 100-percent cotton’s 6.1 ounces.

“This is like the perfect storm of material,” Lohman said. “The result is a T-shirt that is more form-fitting, comfortable and stylish than a conventional T-shirt. It takes account of the ‘hourglass curve” that many people have and stretches and gives a bit.”

The form-fitting T-shirts cost $6 each to produce versus $2 for a one-size-fits-all, all-cotton version.

Morey Mayeri, president of Royal Apparel, a Hauppauge, N.Y.-based company that manufactures Soicalaundry’s T-shirts, said he and his brother Abe, the vice president, started the better-quality T-shirt business six years ago after China’s business and labor costs started increasing and U.S. companies started to turn to quicker, more flexible at-home manufacturing.

“We offer a quick turn so that orders are finished in three to four weeks, and customers don’t have to wait 12 to 16 weeks to receive orders from overseas,” he said of the manufacturing plant in Allentown, Pa.

The company also produces orders starting at 72 pieces of a single style, color and size, compared with a typical minimum overseas of 10 times that amount.

The process reflects today’s manufacturing efficiencies such as computerized sewing and fabric finishing, and water-recycling at the company’s dye facility.

Royal Apparel employs 35 to 40 non-union manufacturing workers who make $11 to $12 an hour. Together with Royal’s private-label manufacturing business, the company’s sales have doubled in the past year.

Studies show Americans support efforts to keep work in America. A poll by research firm NPD Group showed 73 percent of Americans surveyed believe jobs in the textile and apparel industries should be protected, and that the industry should receive incentives to rebuild textile and apparel manufacturing here. And prominent menswear designers such as Brooks Brothers, Band of Outsiders, Public School and Antonio Azzuolo, are making part of their products here, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Consumers are also seeking causes that make them feel they are making a difference.

Socialaundry’s charitable goals cover an array of causes.

The proceeds this year will go to five programs: Action for Healthy Kids, a Chicago effort to prevent childhood obesity by teaching nutrition and healthy lifestyles; Army Emergency Relief, the Army’s financial assistance program; Arts for Humanity, a Boston project that provides art studios and programs for underserved children and arts employment to older kids; Do Something, a Boston group that rewards young people up to age 25 who do something to change the world; and The Resource Area for Teachers, a San Francisco-based initiative that provides low-cost and creative teaching tools to teachers.

“One of the top priorities is to spread arts and arts education to students who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it,” Lohman said.

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