Austin Kowal holds up a plain gray T-shirt and ponders it like a blank canvas. He strategically places it on the wooden palette and smoothes the wrinkles. He lowers a metal-framed screen like a copy machine lid down on to the shirt, stopping just short so he could eyeball where the design would land. He spoons a glob of thick, black ink onto the screen and scrapes some of it over the design. He lifts the screen and the shirt bears the perfectly stenciled image.
His art is ready to wear.
Kowal, 23, is part of a group of local artists who have taken their passion and put it on the line, literally. He and his partner Evan Ekasala, 19, are the owner and manager of Clothesline, a screen-printing shop that makes T-shirts designed by local artists. They only print one of each design on every shirt size, so no two shirts are exactly alike.
The shop is still a work in progress, but the quality of the printing is top notch. You would never guess that only four months ago the two bought their first screen-printing starter kit for $80. “Right at the same time we were learning to screen print I was like, ‘Let’s open a shop,’” says Kowal. “Everything kind of spiraled and fit into place.”
After getting comfortable with the starter kit, the pair began pricing screen-printing machines. They couldn’t find anything under $1,000, so they decided to make their own. They bought a DVD online that explained the construction. “We kept searching for the right one; they all looked so janky,” says Kowal. With help from a woodworking friend, they slapped some wood and screws together and built their own machine. Their screen-printing operation was underway.
Kowal’s mom, Denise, has owned the Harold Square building that houses the shop in Burns Court for 25 years. She had used the retail space at 537 South Pineapple Avenue for a handmade jewelry store that Kowal helped manage. “It was hard in our economy,” Austin says. “Not a lot of people are splurging on jewelry right now.”
Not a lot of people are splurging, period, right now. In 2008, a number of small, independent Sarasota shops and restaurants have gone under. Metro, the Boathouse, Boogie Woogie, the list goes on.
Kowal ignored the negative signs and decided to use his mom’s space for his new screen-printing shop. He and Ekasala set up their DIY contraption in the upstairs apartment and started printing T-shirts.
The two believe their business will be successful because of its originality. “It’s very creative. I’m constantly changing up inventory. Nothing’s going to get stale,” says Kowal. “I’m always bringing in new people that make a lot of different things.” They plan to sell glass-blown items, handmade jewelry and other accessories created by local artists. They are starting to accept designs for T-shirts and provide a little compensation. “It’s not going to make anybody a million dollars. You just get people wearing your stuff. There is nothing better than somebody buying your art.”
Location set, the next order of business for Kowal and Ekasala was coming up with a name. The latter suggested Clothesline. “It wasn’t really a new or creative name, but what we put into Clothesline is creative,” says Kowal. “There’s no stores that show their shirts on clotheslines and have a website out with clotheslines. We just added to the whole image of the clothesline.” To complete the shop’s image they tagged graffiti on the walls. Kowal tagged one wall and their friend Dave Troxler — Ringling School graduate and fellow shirt designer — tagged a cityscape on the other. They attached an upside-down umbrella clothesline to the ceiling and the store was ready for business.
There was only one little problem – they didn’t have any inventory. “Everything was set up,” says Kowal. “I got my bank accounts, my merchant accounts, my business licenses. I just needed some inventory.” Everything with the printing process was on a trial and error basis. They had trouble at first with seams because the bumps would create gaps in the ink. They discovered how to swipe things in different directions to make a solid print. The night before their shop opened, the two young entrepreneurs stayed up late making screens and printing T-shirts.
Each member of the Clothesline crew has a different style. “Mine varies,” says Kowal. “I’ll go from stuff that is very abstract to character designs, and then a lot of intricate, fine-line stuff.” Kowal comes from an artistic background. His grandfather, Dennis Kowal, is a local sculptor who has taught art all over the country. He has pieces behind the Van Wezel, in front of the Chamber of Commerce and at other public spots around town.
Ekasala is more focused on graphic design. “First and foremost, I’m a photographer,” he says. “Like that one,” he points to a navy shirt with a design high up on the left breast, “I took a picture of an artichoke, ran it through Photoshop, traced it on my screen and made a graphic out of it.” Kowal’s wife Becky designs the women’s shirts. Their two Chihuahuas — Mac and Cheese — inspired one of her designs.
The group lists designers like Obey, Johnny Cupcakes, Upper Playground, Karmaloop and Digital Gravel as influences on their clothes line. They only buy ink in white, black and the primary colors. In other words, even if you convince them to reprint a design in your size, the color mix will be slightly different.
It’s that commitment to individuality that sets Clothesline apart from the chains. But what else would you expect from a couple kids who built their own screen-printing machine from scratch? All in all, Kowal and Ekasala spent less than $1,000 to get their business up and running — that’s less than the cost of one pre-made screen-printing machine. DIY, sure. But it’s also just good business sense.
A lot of Sarasota’s independent shops have struggled this year, but Clothesline — with its one-of-a-kind styles and bear-hug-tight budget — just might buck the trend.