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How Two Friends in the Mall T-Shirt Business Caught the Eye of the Fashion World

Airbrushed merchandise has been a boardwalk staple for ages, but thanks to a new demand for customization and a retail "experience," the pop art has made its way to the runways.

As someone who grew up in a beach town, I can firmly attest that airbrushed T-shirts, baseball caps, windbreakers and the like are instant nostalgia triggers. While I remember strolling up and down the boardwalk in my youth, seeing the colorful, customizable wares for sale in electric sunset shades, until recently, I didn't consider them much for everyday wear as an adult. Fast forward to Spring 2017 fashion week and that all changed: Aside from artists like Kanye West and Chance the Rapper including airbrushed designs in their own lines of merch, designers like David Hart, Alexander Wang and Moses Gaunlett Cheng introduced the art into their runway collections. 

Wang's #WangSquad T-shirts — first gifted to the show's models and then sold in limited quantities to the public — and Gauntlett Cheng's statement logo tees were designed in partnership with Art of Your Mind, a small New York-based design firm founded by two friends, Joseph Tanami and Betzalel Avraham, who were introduced on account of their similar experiences in the retail business. (Full disclosure: I initially met the duo after commissioning them to design Fashionista's 10th anniversary T-shirts for our editors.) After joining forces and seeing buzz build around their product — particularly at events and trade shows, where their customized design booth attracted sizable crowds — they brought their operation from Green Acres Mall in Long Island to Manhattan, where they've worked on projects for the likes of Old Navy and Tumblr.

Aside from the element of nostalgia, the partners realized there were several factors that made their product unique to the market: Not only is the artwork affordable, but it's also a joint project between the consumer and their team of artists, making it highly personal. "A magical aspect of our company is the fact that we also get to access those secret desires of people," Avraham explained. "They go, 'Wait a minute... I get to create this?' And we can make it happen. It's giving them what they want." Plus, the pieces are nothing if not fantastic Instabait, which is a huge point of consideration for both retailers and shoppers these days. 

I sat down with the Art of Your Mind founders earlier this spring to chat about the heightened popularity of airbrush art, how they turned their super-niche skills into a viable business and why customer feedback has been so crucial to their success. Read on for highlights of our conversation.

How did each of you fall into the airbrushing business separately?

BA: As far as artists go, I consider myself very traditional. I like to work with my hands. The store that I had in King's Plaza [in Brooklyn] was going under, and I was like, "Alright, I'm gonna leave, and I'm gonna go into digital art." But then this mutual friend introduced me to [Tanami], and that's when we started working together. Between the two of us, we made it really work; now have a business model. Most of the time, when people think of being a "traditional artist," [they think] you have to be a fine artist in order to make it. Either that, or a commercial artist, which generally tends to get you funneled into digital art. So we had to look for a way to make product, but still be able to interact with the client on a fast turnaround and make a model of where you interact with them — but still doing everything with your hands. So, we started out with T-shirts. It's a product, and this would be our canvas. Instead of graffiti-ing on walls or on canvas or stuff like that, our gallery would be people walking around, wearing artwork. But, not just any artwork: Artwork that they would help create. 

JT: I actually started in Jersey on the beach, printing T-shirts. One day a guy came to me and asked me, "Do you mind if I come paint [for you]?" What I saw when he was standing there painting... everybody just kept coming. It didn't matter what he was selling — they just want to watch him. When you see people standing around, more people come and that brings a lot of traffic and it creates a big buzz. Everybody was taking pictures on their phones.

When did you realize that making custom T-shirts could turn from a hobby into a viable business?

BA: We would notice that every time there were other vendors at an event [with us], no matter what, they were all vacant, and we had a crowd around us. It was just like everybody gravitated towards it. We definitely knew something was there. And after further exploration, you can see there's a "wow factor" to it. People want to watch an artist make something from point A to point B, and there's that magical experience. It's interacting with the artist. You get to partake in it. Seeing your request actually materialize right in front of your eyes... that's when we knew we had something.

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How important is the constant feedback you get from your customers to your business?

BA: It's crucial. You see what they want. Especially in fashion, which is so visually based. You get people to go, "Oh, that's ugly." Or, "Oh, that's great." If it makes them squeal or giggle or jump up and down, you're doing something right. If they look at it and everybody's bored and they're starting to walk away, you're doing something wrong. That's why I say it's the single largest influence. While doing it live right there, thank goodness, nine times out of 10 we hit the nail on the head. But, every now and then they're like, "Nope. That's not what I was thinking." I can't remember the last time that happened, but usually we use that feedback to constantly navigate the ship.

That's also one of the reasons we're good at what we do — we've had so much experience right in the face. Them telling us, "This is what I want." We can even interpret sound effects, when people start to go, "It's gotta be like, boom!" We're building things that, for them, there are no words that describe. So, for us as artists, we've gotten really good at interpreting these things. 

Have you noticed your clientele change from the time you both were working in a mall to when Kanye West, Alexander Wang and other tastemakers helped airbrushing to become "trendy?"

BA: No. Right from the get-go, one of the things that drew me to the business was how exciting and eclectic it is — everybody comes, and it's any idea. I love that it's the stranger the better. We take on any kind of request you can think of, from bowling balls to prosthetic limbs to people taking us to their house to paint the walls and stuff like that. We did so many different types of things that I think that's actually what attracted the bigger, corporate clients because they saw that we were able to tackle these projects. The fact that we were forged in that fire of retail, and with people trying to make things affordable, quick, and look good of all different natures.

An airbrushing business is a relatively unconventional idea for a fashion company, but you've made it work. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a niche operation like this?

BA: To get into something like this, or anything for that matter, where it requires an actual technical skill... practice, practice, practice. As far as a business model goes, have a vision of what problem you're solving for the rest of the world. Confidence comes from the fact that the problem that you're solving is provable. It may be difficult to get it out there, but if you believe in it, it really does work.

Part of our approach was thinking: "What's missing in the companies around you?" And it helps you fill the gaps. Usually you're looking at everything that's already working, but you should look at what's missing and ask, "Why are people not doing this, and what is the answer to make it work right?" In our business, we very regularly got people coming to us who said, "No one else said this could be done." And the truth is, it can be done. Ultimately what it came down to is everybody else was turning down the project because the scope was just too ridiculous for all of the cookie-cutter printing companies. We've pushed the boundaries. Again, we try to make a model where we can incorporate all those people with their ridiculous and crazy ideas. The sky's the limit, but every time we take on a project we set boundaries to that chaos.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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