An in-depth interview with Shanghai-based tee brand Twin Horizon

by Andy on November 1, 2013

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of interviews with t-shirt brands on blogs because they all tend to sound a bit the same and it’s not a very natural way of discussing things. I want it to be more like a conversation than a Q&A session. Twin Horizon had me intrigued though, so I chatted with founder Ivan over e-mail for the past couple of months (not constantly, this isn’t a tee version of Frost/Nixon), let’s see what I learned about them:

Can you introduce yourself and the brand?

At the heart of things, I’m just a guy who’s driven to draw and make music. I’m 27 and living in Shanghai, China, where I do freelance artwork and play in a few bands in addition to funneling all my income into Twin Horizon. Everything we do is either hand-drawn, hand-printed, hand-sewn, or some combination of those three. Right now the label is me, my girlfriend Kaine, and my friend JC, who’s based in Washington D.C. Kaine and I do all the printing in our apartment, while JC juggles other aspects of running the label with attending law school full-time.

We’ve recently stepped into more design-oriented pieces with our cycling flannels, but ideally, the meat and potatoes of Twin Horizon will always be hand-drawn T-shirts.

It’s pretty obvious that in many ways you’re just like any other indie brand, hand drawn designs, DIY work ethic, etc, but has being located in China made it tough from a marketing stand point? Do people have the ‘made in China’ impression when they hear where your from and then you have to win them over, or do you think people are over that now and understand what you are about?

The market is definitely saturated, isn’t it? And though there are many approaching apparel in a similar way to the way we are, I wouldn’t say we’re all exactly the same. For one, and I’m certainly biased, I feel as though the quality, depth and intricacy of our artwork as well as the functionality of our cut-and-sew sets us apart.

To get to your question, though, I wish I could answer that better than I can. I don’t know why people don’t buy our shirts. It’s not like they tell me, “Hey man, love the look, but the China thing…no thanks.” I think China still carries a low-quality connotation in many peoples’ minds, and from my experience here not just with fashion but in general, that’s not a totally unfair assessment. It’s our job to rise above that and prove that in our case, it’s not applicable, and from responses at least to our recent flannels, people seem to be feeling the quality.

It’s not just outsiders, either. Within China, those who can afford it tend to gravitate toward imported brands as well. I’m hoping that our new Chengyu line will help us connect with a great many more local consumers.

Regarding local consumers, do you think that the whole of China is something of an untapped market for homegrown indie brands? Like you say, in China if people can afford it then they’ll go for an imported brand since it’s a status product, is it only a matter of time before people start to treat local brands on a level with foreign counteparts?
Don’t worry, this interview isn’t just going to be China, China, China, but it’s something I’m interested in!

It’s cool. The DIY model is a great approach. And it’s sustainable. Benny Gold — my role model in all of this — still gets a lot of his pieces made by hand. Even Jeff Staple got his start hand-printing tees at night while attending Parsons. And I enjoy it. It’s satisfying to see someone appreciate, and pay for, something you made yourself.

With regard to China, I think you have to look at why the person is buying the tee. A lot of the nouveau riche here — and this is generalizing, of course — they’ll buy something that others will recognize as expensive. It might not speak to them on a personal level; it might not represent some sort of positive message or outlook, but it will convey its expensiveness. Why buy a tee from some no-name underground label (me) when you can get one from Comme des Garçons instead? You see that crudely drawn heart-with-eyes logo everywhere, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. It’s all about perceived wealth. I’ve seen people filling up their to-go Starbucks cup with convenience-store drinks, just to keep holding onto that cup.

There are some local brands that are making names for themselves, but with clothing, at least, I think it’s still going to be an uphill battle. But the status-seekers aren’t really the people I’m trying to connect with anyways.

I know what you mean about selling something that you’ve made yourself, it’s a real connection between what you’ve created and the person receiving it, you aren’t just moving a box with something in it that was made far away, you’re sending them something with a bit more meaning. It’s something that’s hard to maintain as the business scales up, but you can always have those personalised touches to your brand that remind people they’re dealing with the little guy instead of a large brand. With my shop Rigu I put a piece of candy in each order, it’s not much, just a little something to remind people there’s a human at the other end of the website, and customers love it, do you do anything to keep the sales process personal and create a connection with shoppers?

Our shirts are all hand-numbered, either on the shirt itself or on the tag, and some have the size written by hand as well. Same goes for our posters. So on every TH product you buy, there’s going to be something hand-written by me. We also hand-label all our shipping boxes, so if you order online, you get something in the mail that looks like it came from a friend rather than some faceless monolith. No escaping my poor penmanship!

I started out with hand writing and eventually ditched it because mine is so poor, people could think I was using child labour!
You’ve got t-shirts, flannels and posters at the moment, that’s more than some brands, but are there other items you want to get in to round out your offering and become more of a ‘lifestyle’ label, or would be be better to keep focused and work on the tee side of things and not get spread too thin?

I’d love to be a full-fledged lifestyle brand, with shirts, pants, sneakers, accessories, all that good stuff. And our tees would remain the focal point of the whole array. I’ve resisted getting any sort of investment yet, and so at this point I can only afford to put out one product at a time. Right now it’s the new tees, but I plan to get some more cycling flannels done for the fall.

You’ve got to grow these things organically, obviously you want to put more stuff out there, but there’s only so much risk you can take with a new-ish brand. Other than Twin Horizon do you have any other jobs to help fund the growth of the brand?

I’ve been jobless since February, but I think that will have to soon come to an end. I do freelance writing, editing and artwork on the side, but there isn’t enough to support both myself and the label. I’m really trying to avoid going back into English teaching, but if nothing else pans out, it’ll be a matter of teaching and eating, or not doing both.

What kind of work did you have and are looking for? I’m guessing from your name that you’re not a Shanghai native, where are you from originally and what drew you to China?

The job I was at was a writing position at a B2B advertising firm. They shut down their entire Shanghai office, so that was the end of that. I’d like to find something writing- or editing-related as a job job, while still doing freelance artwork on the side. I know too many frustrated graphic designers to try and go into that full-time, either in-house or at an agency.

Your intuition serves you well! I’m from New Jersey, and I moved here more or less on a whim. A couple friends and I in college did a semester abroad in Trinidad, and while there, we had some friends tell us of their experiences in Shanghai. The city sounded like a happening place to be, so the three of us moved out here together after we graduated. One’s since gone back to the US, but me and the other are still kickin’ it out here.

I’ve always thought it would be cool to live in China, I visited Hong Kong in 2008 and loved it, did it take long to adjust to life there? It must be good to deal directly with suppliers for your blank shirts (do you have them custom made?) rather than having to wait weeks on back-and-forth discussions with factories or settling for a standard blank (though I am a fan of American Apparel blanks).

Not as long as I thought it would. Wherever you live, you have no choice but to learn the ropes quickly. I had a job right when I arrived, so that helped me slip into the routine of things as well. That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of exploring and hooliganism along the way.

We get our blanks custom-cut from a factory based in Hangzhou, a smaller city nearby Shanghai. So we do have the back-and-forth, but once we agree on a prototype things ideally go smoothly from there. I also like American Apparel, but their clothes are super-expensive out here.

The flannels — I know this is a t-shirt blog, but hey — are made directly by our tailor in Shanghai. One dude, cranking them out by hand. I’d be nice to have all our clothes done that way, but we go through a fair amount of T-shirts as well.

I know it’s a bit of a standard interview question, but who would you say are similar labels to you and who do you look too for inspiration? It can’t just be Benny Gold!

As for the second bit, I’m afraid I haven’t done much paying attention to what other labels are doing. I like some of the artwork I see coming from the guys at Rook, but a lot of it is also too much for my tastes. Godmachine is also a really nasty artist — he does some collaborative tees with Disturbia — and I’ve gotta give a mention to John Dyer Baizley of Baroness as well.

There’s a fixed-gear bike shop in Shanghai called Factory Five who are doing cool things with the cycling scene. I admire the way they’ve developed the scene around themselves. Another Shanghai brand I’d like to call out is Raised in China, who started out with Shanghai-inspired snapbacks but are also moving into apparel and footwear.

I’m a big fan of Godmachine too, not my usual style but I really admire his work and have one of his prints up on the wall in my office.
So, what trends don’t you like to see in the indie clothing scene at the moment? No need to name names!

That’s a tough one. Not for lack of irritating labels, but for the way in which they seem to fall away from my mind. I think you’re giving me too much credit in terms of paying mind to what else is going on in the “industry”. Here are a few things I’d like to see less of:

– Shirts that only contain the brand’s name or logo displayed in the center of the chest. Of course, when you’re Supreme, you can get away with this, but if you’re a new label, step up your game and challenge yourself.

– Lazy design in general.

– On the other end of the spectrum, sloppy artwork.

– All-over prints are coming back. I thought we did away with those for good.

– Black Scale (not really indie anymore though)

– Big brands that appropriate from indie designers — though that’s not really a trend so much as a norm.

Thanks a lot for your time Ivan!

Really interesting stuff I’m sure you’ll agree, and I actually enjoyed it so maybe we’ll do some more interviews in the future. Be sure to check out Twin Horizon.

Previous post:

Next post:

Get smart with the Thesis WordPress Theme from DIYthemes.