A Mixed Blessing

The high-end look of mixed media designs command a premium and separate decorators from the competition.

Don’t call Greg Gaardbo a “silk-screener.”
“I despise that word,” says the president and founder of Shockwaves Apparel (asi/87144). The decorator won’t be limited to just one embellishment technique. His shop in the Chicago suburbs started out traditionally enough, offering screen printing and embroidery. After purchasing equipment for dye sublimation and Hotfix sequins – and getting some expert training from industry veteran Charlie Taublieb – a new world of possibilities opened up.

Gaardbo started mixing techniques and experimenting with the crazy ideas that popped into his head. He thought: Why can’t I sublimate a design right onto a field of white plastic sequins? He could – and he did. A colorful, sparkling sugar skull on Shockwaves’ website is a testament to the technique’s success. “It’s just trial and error,” he says of his creative meanderings.
Gaardbo is one of a handful of decorators across the country who specializes in mixed-media design – a higher-end, hip niche in the world of custom apparel. The competition is limited – only 21% of screen printers use mixed media, according to the Wearables Sales Forecast.

Marrying two or more techniques on one garment is a way to distinguish your shop and up your profit margins, says Taublieb, a decorated-apparel consultant from Colorado and outspoken advocate of the trend. It’s about finding an avenue, besides price, in which to compete, he says. “Anybody can lower their price, and if you’re doing basic stuff, pretty much anyone that is halfway decent can compete with you. As soon as you throw in extra elements, it knocks out the crowd. You can be the go-to person.”

Mixed media has been the watchword in retail for a while. Taublieb points to nine-year-old Affliction Clothing, with its penchant for adding techniques like flock and foil to all-over screen prints, as one of the first to perfect the look. Consumers, he says, don’t bat an eye about dropping $80 on a T-shirt. Each Affliction shirt, even those of the same design, looks different because they’re made with a belt printer and shift around during production, Taublieb says. That hint of personalization is attractive to a lot of consumers. Taublieb suspects another reason mixed media has become so popular in retail is to curb bootleggers, who often don’t have access to or knowledge of specialty techniques like gels and foils.

Despite the mass retail appeal, mixed media has been slower to creep into branded corporate and promotional apparel. Kristin Williams, president of Minnesota-based VSA Custom Apparel (asi/700739), recalls sending one of her employees a few years ago to “secret shop” a competitor. Williams was producing garments featuring sublimated twill and other unusual techniques, and wanted to see what other decorators were doing. But the competitor steered Williams’ employee away from even a hint of mixed media, saying such designs “look silly,” she said. That competitor eventually changed his tune as the trend continued to gain traction, Williams says.
Still, many decorators are reluctant to break into mixed media, worried that it will take too much time and effort, require expensive equipment or simply that their clientele won’t be interested. But consider one example: Merely adding a few strategically placed rhinestones onto a screen-printed tee or an embroidered cap adds enough perceived value to raise your prices by a third of the original, according to information posted online by equipment dealer ColDesi. Rhinestones, crystals, nailheads and more can be very easily combined with screen printing or embroidery for an attractive mixed media design. As Gaardbo puts it: “We are in a blingy world right now, and I don’t think that’s ever going to end.”

Decorators have their reasons to avoid mixed media, but they can be eliminated. Here are three debunked myths regarding the most creative of decorative approaches.

Myth #1: Mixed Media Takes Too Much Time
It’s true that mixed-media designs are more labor-intensive and time-consuming than their single-technique counterparts. “It is a higher risk,” Gaardbo says. “It’s more of a fine-tuned craft.” He estimates that a sublimated sequin design produced by Shockwaves requires multiple steps. First, they create the two designs, one for sublimation and the other for sequins, making sure they are the same size. Then, they attach the sequins to the garment and print the sublimation paper. The sublimation paper is cut out, matched to the sequins, then heat-pressed to transfer the image to the sequins. Oftentimes, Shockwaves will add another sequin border around the whole design “to button it all up,” Gaardbo says.

Taublieb agrees that combining multiple design techniques adds time to the production process, but he doesn’t see that as a negative, since a garment’s price tag should reflect all the work that went into it. “If you’re getting an extra $3 to $4 a shirt for your added effort, you should be willing to do that all day, every day,” he says. “You’re giving them something that’s a very unique-looking piece.”
Williams says her customers, especially those in the supposedly cost-concerned education market, are more than willing to pay an extra $5 or so for mixed media pieces. “They don’t seem to have a problem with it because it’s so unique and different,” she says. “They don’t want to look like everybody else.”

Myth #2: Mixed Media Is Too Expensive
Mixed media often has high costs associated with it. For instance, adding a laser bridge for etching and appliqué to your embroidery machine costs upward of $50,000. Sublimation printers, spangle machines and other specialty machines also carry hefty price tags. “There’s definitely a big equipment investment,” says Gina Barreca, director of marketing for Vantage Apparel (asi/93390). Vantage has a laser bridge embroidery machine, plus screen-printing services, putting it in a “unique position” – ideally suited for mixed media compared with most shops, she adds.

But sticker shock doesn’t have to steer the small shop away from offering out-of-the-box embellishment. If it’s not cost-effective to do laser appliqué in-house, why not outsource? Contractors like VSA Custom Apparel and North Carolina-based Quality Embroidery say they like being able to help other decorators expand their services. It’s the ideal solution for a small screen-print shop, says David Setchel, owner of Quality Embroidery. “They can offer something they normally couldn’t do,” he says, adding that he’s able to keep the service affordable through the volume of contract orders he receives from smaller shops who can’t afford the same equipment.

To Taublieb, however, creativity is the real barrier, not equipment costs. He teaches a class on creating special effects without special equipment. A sharp pair of scissors can be just as effective as a pricy, high-tech machine. “One of the things I teach people to do is chop up a shirt,” he says. “It’s not always about adding something to a shirt. Sometimes taking away from the shirt also works.”

Myth #3: Corporate Customers Aren’t Interested
Mixed media is an easy sell for the collegiate and resort markets. Teens, especially, are trying to recreate the things they see companies like Nike and Adidas doing, Williams says. Traditionally, however, advertising specialty and corporate customers haven’t been as interested. “They all love the look, but they’re a little slower to purchase the fashion,” Setchel says. “Once they get a logo, they don’t want to change. They don’t experiment as much.”

Those attitudes are changing, however. Even the staid corporate world has wilder brands willing to take a risk with their logo, Taublieb says, noting that it never hurts to test the waters. Whenever he’s hired as a consultant, Taublieb makes sure to bring mixed media to the table, whether or not the client has requested it. “It’s worth their time and effort to look at it,” he says. When his clients end up pitching their newly acquired mixed media skills, they’re often pleasantly surprised by how well they are received.

When working with a corporate client, though, it’s important to temper expectations about how two techniques will look together, Barreca says. The retail market has a higher tolerance for variation, whereas a corporation often requires its logo to be precisely and uniformly rendered. When combining screen printing and embroidery, for example, some variance from piece to piece is unavoidable, since the garments have to run on more than one machine, she adds.

At the end of the day, mixed media is just one more way to wow your clients and meet their needs. “It’s a matter of listening to the customer and figuring out what they want to see,” Williams says. “We take a lot of time figuring out what they’re seeing in their mind’s eye.”
Theresa Hegel is a senior staff writer for Wearables.