Print on Demand

The Intersection of Retail and Art

Increasingly, discerning consumers looking for unique apparel and home décor products are turning to print-on-demand (POD) manufacturing businesses partnered with independent artists. We decided it was time to find out what the buzz is all about.

While visiting art galleries and shopping in their boutiques in pre-pandemic times, I recall seeing numerous products of giftware and apparel imprinted with works of the Great Masters – Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas, Chagall – and thinking how wonderful it would be for contemporary artists if they, too, could easily supplement their income by having their work digitally printed on quality merchandise.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who thought about this kind of fine art-business partnership. Fortunately, the other people who considered the idea did actually do something about it. The results are proving to be a success story for everyone – the artists and the print-on-demand companies, and especially fashion-lovers who are offered myriad unique, customized choices online, with the products delivered to their door.

By their very definition, print-on-demand (POD) companies abide by lean manufacturing principles, eliminating enormous and costly inventories of unsold stock that retailers must dispose of at the end of each season as fashionistas declare this colour or that style passé.

This cyclical waste is an issue plaguing both designer labels and the ‘fast fashion’ industry which mostly produces poorly made and lower priced knock-offs. While some of the leftover stock is sold at discount stores, or donated, a lot isn’t. According to articles in the Wall St. Journal (“What happens to all of the unsold clothes” by Matthew Dalton, August 13, 2020) and Eluxe (“What happens to unsold clothes may surprise you”, Dec 29, 2019), a substantial portion ends up in landfills, either because brand name designers don’t want their clothes to be seen being worn by just anyone, or in the case of fast-fashion merchandise, because there is just too much.

Sensing the plight of all of us in need of retail therapy during COVID, the POD businesses came up with a solution. It’s an opportunity to shop safely from home for a variety of apparel and gift items – women’s, men’s and children’s clothing; home décor (fine art reproductions, comforters and cushions, mugs, clocks, shower curtains and so on); phone and tablet covers; backpacks, water bottles; journals, stickers, decals and cards – essentially anything with a surface that can support digitally printed artwork.

The added benefit is that customers know that the self-employed artist, whose work makes their purchase unique, is receiving a percentage of the sale price – ranging from 10 to 25 percent, with the average around 15 percent. While that is not an impressive amount, the upside is that the artist doesn’t bear the cost of printing, maintaining an inventory, or dealing with sales, and is given access to global markets.

The artist and the POD company
While it might seem as if POD companies were tailor-made for the pandemic, some have been in existence for over a decade. One of the earliest was Redbubble.com, launched in Melbourne, Australia in 2007.

According to co-founder Martin Hosking, the company is based on “the recognition that problems are global and so are solutions.” Hosking and his two co-founders believed that through applying economies of scale and print-on-demand technology, the company could address several retail issues, including consumer demand for individualization and customization; channels for expression of the creativity of artists; and opportunities for those working in the gig economy to monetize their art. What’s more, in the process, it could solve the problem of disposing of mass produced items that no one wanted.

While Redbubble’s growth was slow in the first three to four years, it has since experienced a steady 39 percent growth rate, becoming a publicly traded company in 2016, and with the acquisition of TeePublic in 2018 (which specializes in graphic designs on T-shirts) has become extremely attractive to investors.

In addition to its Melbourne office, Redbubble has offices in Berlin and San Francisco and 32 local product-fulfillment centres across three continents, with 66 percent of its business in North America.

A choice of 700,000
Redbubble promotes the work of over 700,000 artists worldwide, serves 5.4 million customers and, according to the company’s 2019 financial report, saw a gross $328 million worth of transactions, $44 million of which was paid out to artists.

We spoke with one Redbubble.com artist, Tara Baxendale, an actor, singer and visual artist living in Toronto, Ontario who, when the pandemic closed theatres, decided to put her paintings and her extensive collection of photography, assembled during travels in Europe, Australia, Asia, and North and Central America, to work for her. She now has 61 designs in her online shop.

She says, “Initially I chose to work with Redbubble.com because they’ve made the design process artist-friendly and easy to use. But I keep working with them because of the wide range of good quality, super-cute products. I love my phone case with its ‘The Sun Sets on 2016 in Costa Rica’ design, my ‘Dragonfly Balanced on a Blade of Grass’ backback, and my psychedelic ‘The Enchanted Forest’ sundress from an acrylic pour.

“I get a thrill from knowing there’s someone I’ve never met walking around Germany with a phone case with my ‘Enchanted Forest of Luminous Mushrooms’ acrylic pour painting on it. And there’s someone in California hosting their Zoom meetings on a laptop emblazoned with my “Sunflowers on the Danforth” design,” shares Baxendale.

“In a time of quarantine and isolation, with the theatre industry benched, it’s been a wonderful way for me to continue to connect with strangers, albeit through a different artistic medium.”

In addition to the global players like Redbubble.com in the POD scene, there are smaller, boutique-style companies. Le Galeriste, for example, is a wholly-owned Canadian company, launched in 2016 in Montreal, Quebec by fashion designer and CEO Thierry Charlebois.

In love with wearable art
According to the company website, Charlebois, at the age of 27, had fallen out of love with the industry, but in love with the concept of creating ‘wearable art’ – paintings and other art forms reproduced on stylish clothing. To realize his dream, he spent several years investing in expensive manufacturing machines, researching printing and dyeing techniques, and hiring the best seamstresses in Montreal to produce mainly women’s clothing, but with some accessories and apparel for men.

The company now has over two thousand clients and ships product to over 900 cities worldwide. Among its clients are fine art galleries, for which it produces exhibition-themed products for sale in their boutiques.

We spoke with Indu Varma, a professional artist and owner of Salt Marsh Studio in Sackville, New Brunswick, about why she decided to investigate wearable art and chose to partner with Le Galeriste.

“When I create a painting, I have an emotional bond with it simply because a powerful work of art emerges only when the artist is passionate about the subject. But since there is only one original painting, once it gets sold, all I have left is a photograph of it. I had this brainwave, that if my art could be featured on clothing or accessories, many more people could own and enjoy it, instead of only the person who bought the original,” says Varma.

“Women lean toward stylish and artistically designed clothes that make us look beautiful and stand out in a crowd. I was delighted to see the artistically designed, stylish clothes on Le Galeriste’s website, which are high fashion. Unique and yet quite affordable.”

Varma has since ordered several items from her collection for herself, including a dress based on her painting ‘Hope Beyond Borders’, a top with a sunflower design and a scarf from her ‘Woman Defined’ collection. She says she’s pleased with how well her paintings have been reproduced, and found the material to be of exceedingly good quality, with the custom fitting perfect.

A bonus is the ability to share her clothing with other women without having to manage a physical storefront. “Le Galeriste leaves me free to create art, which is my lifeblood,” she says.

Spreading POD
The aforementioned businesses are far from being the only POD companies. The world of e-commerce and POD is evolving quickly, with more and more companies such as Threadless, Society6, and Printful entering the market. Some, such as Redbubble.com and Le Galeriste, offer a full service program which includes printing, marketing, and fulfillment. Others, such as Printful offer a drop-shipping service that can be integrated with e-commerce platforms such as Shopify or Etsy.

Etsy is a hugely successful e-commerce company, listed on the NASDAQ, that supports artists and artisans by providing a marketing platform, which in return for a small fee, gives them access to global markets. Artists, artisans, and collectors can showcase products which range from vintage and handcrafted items to print-on-demand items, including jewellery. With the refinement of 3D processes, 3D printers can now produce custom-designed jewellery in gold or silver.

And because the market is not yet saturated, as the printed-fabric business appears to be on the verge of becoming, it represents an excellent business opportunity.

The future of retail
We don’t think the pandemic or the rise of POD companies and online marketing platforms will spell the end for brick-and-mortar stores, although some independents and chains have closed in this past year.

But there are important lessons for traditional retailers. Consumers are turning from mass-produced goods and looking for customized quality products, produced in an environmentally responsible way.

What seals the deal is when they find the ‘perfect thing’ no one else has, and which they perceive as expressive of their own individuality. And it’s with just the click of a mouse.

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