Artists showcase work on Strip District's Cotton Bureau shirts

Online retail experiment? Side project of a side project? Close to a million dollars in annual gross revenue?

It’s all of the above for two-year old t-shirt firm Cotton Bureau.

The Strip District-based platform that allows creative types to bring their designs to wearable fruition has just announced that it’s shipping up to about 4,000 shirts worldwide each month.

And if things go as projected, Cotton Bureau is on track to make $1.25 million in 2015, says co-founder Jay Fanelli.

But it just didn’t happen overnight.

In 2009, Fanelli and co-founder Nathan Peretic were web designers with a couple of MacBooks and a few thousand dollars between them. While running their company called Full Stop, they also dabbled in making and selling their own t-shirts through a side company they owned called United Pixel Workers.

By November 2013, the two gave up web design and, turning away clients in the process, decided to develop their Cotton Bureau concept along with a third partner, Matt Chambers. They closed United Pixel Workers in December of 2014.

Now, seasoned artists from around the world, many of them professional graphic designers, submit their original designs to be selected on the site’s catalog of screen printed shirts.

“We’re looking to create a community of the absolute best of graphic designers,” says Fanelli. “We only accept one out of four submissions.”

Submitted designs must be original and on track with cutting-edge trends – fads, he adds, that could change within six months. Popular now are geographic illustrations and hard lettering, anything from calligraphy and flourishing script to simpler “sign painting” letters, he explains.

Once sketches are approved, experts at Cotton Bureau create a Photo Shop mock-up shirt and post it on their site for two weeks while the designer promotes it using anything from social media to word of mouth. If 12 shirts sell, Cotton Bureau will print the shirts at Clockwise apparel printing company in Point Breeze. Cotton Bureau also handles all the shipping and customer service.

“We walk every single designer through the process of selecting color, fabrics, ink type. We are involved in the product development,” says Fanelli.

If 25 or more sell, the designer gets a cut of the profit, but most designers are not doing this as their full-time job.

“Many just thought they would try to make a t-shirt and try their hand at selling something,” adds Fanelli.

Most shirts sell for about $28, he says.

“I’ve sold a little under 350 shirts through Cotton Bureau,” says Robyn Kanner, a freelance designer from Boston, Mass. who has done work for Staples and New Balance.

“I’ve been a fan of theirs since they were running Full Stop and have always appreciated their approach,” she adds.

Independent lettering artist and designer Ryan Hamrick of Austin, Texas has sold 315 shirts so far through Cotton Bureau.

“I tried my hand at having some shirt designs printed on my own a few years ago, and I sold a grand total of four, causing me to eat the cost of all the rest I had printed, and come far from making any kind of profit. With Cotton Bureau, it’s literally all profit, so it’s been amazing,” he says. “Working with clients on their projects every day often means having to meet requirements, work with constraints, and ultimately aim to materialize someone else’s vision. Designing shirts for Cotton Bureau is a great way for me to be able to work on my ideas and put products out myself without the massive overhead involved with going at it alone.”

Virginia Poltrack of Johnstown is another freelance designer and illustrator who has sold about 300 shirts on the site with five of her designs.

“I’ve never worked on shirts because of the logistics (printing, shipping, etc.). When Cotton Bureau came along, they solved that problem for me,” she says.

Right now, Fanelli says the big challenge is to fill orders and run the daily business while further improving their operation with laundry list items like improving the design submission process.

“We want to build a sustainable business that we can run indefinitely,” he says.

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer who has reported for many local publications. When she isn't writing she serves as a media consultant for nonprofits and other local companies.