I'm very pleased to announce a special feature that will be running throughout August. I was contacted by the folks at the Piazza at Schmidts to promote their weekly Vendor Market, Philadelphia's largest outdoor market place. I've written about the Piazza many times on this site already because it's one of my favorite locations in Philly to shop, eat, drink, or just hang out and watch whatever's playing on their jumbotron. With over 200 vendors partaking in the Market, there's no way to cover everything, so I'll be bringing you a weekly feature on one of the many great designers you can find at the Piazza.
First up is Nicole from Rainbow Alternative, who creates [mainly but not limited to) LGBT-inspired spray painted designs on just about anything you can image. I had the pleasure of visiting her at her Gayborhood workspace to see her in action.
Tell me about the idea behind Rainbow Alternative.
The idea behind it when I first started in 2008…I had never made shirts before, I just made them for myself and my friends, and so I decided to basically give it a go and try to sell them. The whole idea was to do pride events, like Equality Forum and Philly Pride, but I wanted to do something that was completely different than run of the mill. LGBT pride events are saturated with the same shit, y’know, with a rainbow slapped on it. People buy it, don’t get me wrong, but there’s not a lot of variety. And that’s everywhere- here, Atlanta, New York….any pride event that I’ve been to has had the same wholesale, bulk order crap. So I wanted to make something a little different.
Who would you say your target customer is?
It doesn’t just have to be someone who’s gay or lesbian. That’s the niche that I think is undersaturated that I want to target, but there’s also stuff like my “Don’t Block the Box” or “No Labels” or Hall & Oates or onesies designs that are not necessarily geared towards a specific group of people. I make things that I like and that I would want to wear. I bounce ideas off my girlfriend and my friends and see what they think. When I was selling at the Piazza last year, I had a middle-aged "soccer mom" buy one of my shirts with two girls kissing and she said “Oh, my girlfriend’s going to love this!” I was pleasantly surprised. And that’s happened quite a few times. It’s not always just a younger crowd or an older crowd. It’s pretty mixed.
Where do you get your design inspiration from?
The design with the two girls kissing is one I’ve had from the beginning, and I’ve tweaked it since, changing the hair. That and the “No Labels” design are inspired by the LGBT community. Everything else comes from ideas or images that I like.
Do you do the artwork yourself, or do you manipulate existing images?
Both. Obviously I didn't create the "Don't Block the Box" sign, but in that case I manipulated a photo in photoshop & hand-cut the stencil. For my other designs I either used that same process or hand-drew the design, then stenciled.
What is the actual process like, going from an idea in your head to having a finalized shirt?
As an example, I’ll use the Hall & Oates shirt because it was a pain in the ass and I’m not thrilled with the way that it came out. It was an idea for me. I’m going to make a Hall & Oates shirt because I want a Hall & Oates shirt. So I found an image online that would work and then I manipulated it in photoshop. Then I hand cut the stencil, which took forever. That one in particular was a huge pain in the ass, I guess because it’s larger and there are two faces. Faces are usually tricky because if you screw it up, it doesn’t look like the person you’re trying to make them look like at all. The way you make a stencil, you’re cutting out the negative space, which is the color that you see on the shirt. You have to tweak whatever you draw to make sure that it will hold up and that the design won’t fall through. As far as spray painting goes, when I started, it was totally trial and error. I used to use hardware store spray paint and I learned a little trick that helped with the under spray. When I first started, I didn’t know how much pressure to use and the spray would leak through, so there weren’t crisp lines. The shirts now look much better than the shirts when I first started. I’m always learning something and trying to make it better.
How did you get involved with the Piazza, how long have you been selling there, and what attracted you there?
Last year was my first year and I vended there a lot last summer. I had heard a lot about the Piazza but never got up there, so I finally went. I liked the fact that it’s enclosed, yet open. I liked the crowd that was there; everyone seemed very receptive. It was easy for vendors because you would go, you’d pay $30, and you’d vend the whole day. There wasn’t any registration and rules and regulations. It was very easy and if I didn’t have any events lined up, I could do it spur of the moment. I could wake up, say “let’s do this today”, put my stuff in the car, and go. I like the crowd and the environment itself.
This is a side project. I would love more than anything for this to be full time. I have a regular 9-5 day job, which pays the bills but it’s nothing that I love to do. Over this past year, I’ve tried to step up Rainbow Alternative. I have an Etsy store. My girlfriend Nicole designs jewelry and housewares, so we vend together and we’ve been trying to do as many events as we can fit in this year. I’m trying to get my name out there. It keeps me motivated to make new designs and keep going. I would love for this to take over.
What are your short-term and long-term plans for Rainbow Alternative?
I can’t sew. I would love to be able to make my own clothes, but I can’t, so that’s not going to happen. I want to branch out. When I first started, it was an experiment. I didn’t know if people were going to like it, I didn’t know if people were going to buy anything. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it was well received. The first year was geared towards the LGBT community as a target audience, but now I want to branch out and do more things that are fun. I just got a stock of onesies that people had been asking for, so I’m going to have them now. I’m trying out new things right now. I got a dufflebag and I got a pillow from Ikea, and I got towels. Basically, different things. It’s cliché to say the economy sucks, but it does and people don’t want to commit $22 for a shirt, but they’ll buy something smaller and more manageable. I started making things that are less expensive for me to buy and you to purchase.
What’s the typical price range for your products?
T-shirt are $15-24. I have a sale bin at most of my events with t-shirts that I’ve had for a while or that are irregular, that ranges from $5-10. Neckties are $10. Canvas bags are $8.
What’s the most rewarding part of Rainbow Alternative?
I used to be really into art when I was younger and then I didn’t do anything for a long time. This project is something that excites and motivates me. Because of the process of how I make the shirts, I have a very wide window as to what designs I can do and what I can put them on. I’ve made definite progress, but I still want to get better and expand.
For more information on Rainbow Alternative and to check out Nicole's upcoming schedule at the Piazza, you can visit her Etsy, Twitter, or Facebook.
The Market at the Piazza runs 12:00-7:00pm, every Saturday and Sunday, year round. For more information on the Market or to inquire about vendor opportunities, check out the Piazza at Schmidts website.