By Bill Clevlen
A stack of shirts that says “What high school did you go to?” catch my eye while chatting with Aaron Park, the founder of Arch Apparel in St. Louis. It’s an odd juxtaposition as I listen to the man responsible for those shirts who can’t even answer the very question he printed on them.
Of course, it’s not that he didn’t go to high school. He did. College, too. It’s just that he didn’t grow up in St. Louis and didn’t start living in Missouri, or even America, until 2006. As an exchange student from Melbourne, Australia, he studied at Drury University in Springfield.
His ladder to success began the way many great ideas do – mostly by accident. While searching for an appropriate shirt to wear to his very first Cardinals baseball game, he found himself less than thrilled with the options before him. “I couldn’t find anything that fit my personal style, but I really wanted to be supportive and part of the home team crowd” says Park.
So he made his own shirt. It was simple and plain. The letters “STL” placed in the center of a circle. However, it caught the eye of friends and other locals. Before he knew it, he was ordering more shirts once a week and selling them to strangers online. Occasionally, well-meaning acquaintances would offer advice. They’d opine: “You probably need something a little more interesting if you want to make real money producing shirts.”
Today, his company’s designs include tributes to local neighborhoods like “The Hill”, and iconic St. Louis spots like “700 Clark” (which is the address for Busch Stadium). There are dozens of various styles paying tribute to the state and the Midwest, with available merchandise going well beyond tee shirts. There are locally themed socks, hats, coffee mugs, water bottles, stickers, and even wooden drink coasters.
Oh, and when asked about the best-selling product in the store, Aaron’s answer comes quick. “Without a doubt, the STL in the circle – by far.”
“The Life-Changing Moment”
In the weeks leading up to the Stanley Cup Finals, Arch Apparel designed a tribute to the St. Louis Blues and their season’s anthem – Gloria. The blue shirts with “Play Gloria” printed in yellow letters began popping up all over the area, especially on social media and local newscasts.
“One morning, I came to the store and there were hundreds of people lined up outside, all waiting for our door to open” says Park. “It might sound weird, but the first thought that crossed my mind was: where did all of these people park?” he says while laughing. (They only have a total of 13 parking spaces). One by one, customers streamed in to purchase their hockey themed tees as the odds of a Blues Stanley Cup victory grew better and better.
For Aaron Park, game seven was life-changing. “I was watching at home and noticed the amount of visitors on our website had shot up to 1,400 people at one time as the Blues took the lead. It was incredible. Over the course of three weeks, we sold over 25,000 of those shirts. The Blues winning the Stanley Cup took our company to the next level.” Arch Apparel went from 14 people on staff to 30, just to keep up with demand.
And demand is still great, with customers popping in to browse the latest designs in their first brick and mortar store – with a second space not too far in the future. Park proudly shares the story of a recent customer who proclaimed that the store is her “new favorite place to bring visitors in St. Louis.” Another customer, a relative of baseball legend Stan Musial, seemed to be equally impressed as he just happened to be browsing during my visit. The Musial family has inked a deal with Arch Apparel to print “Stan the Man” merchandise. Similar deals with St. Louis Bread Company, Lion’s Choice, and other well-known St. Louis brands, are teaming up to get their name on shirts.
The Power of Instagram
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the success and growth of Arch Apparel, it’s the power of social media, namely Instagram.
On any given day, the Arch Apparel Instagram feed shares images from customers all over the world that are wearing their locally produced products. They also produce high quality photo shoots that show models posing in new shirts or hats in popular areas around the city.
Specifically, utilizing the platform with what’s known in the marketing world as “user generated content”. In theory, it works like this: Someone uses your product, venue, brand, etc. and shares it online with your hashtag or Instagram handle. You then re-share their photo or post, generating consumer produced advertising. It’s more authentic than most marketing pitches – and it’s free.
Aaron regularly does live videos using Instagram’s story feature and speaks directly to customers as though they’re part of the family. That respectful relationship keeps followers producing new content and provides a priceless bond.
Instagram has also proven to be an effective, digital focus group of sorts. On more than one occasion, they’ve used the platform poll feature to test new products. The results have helped designers determine which products customers are most likely to purchase.
It’s always been a struggle to find St. Louis-themed items that weren’t cheesy or generic-looking and printed on cheap material. That’s if you could find anything at all.
Aaron Park recognized the void early on in the development of Arch Apparel. For all intents and purposes, it’s become the top place to go for St. Louis swag. His staff pays close attention to current trends and because of their success can now plan new designs and promotions well in advance. The shirts are high quality and printed on long-lasting material. They’re also priced accordingly. The average shirt will cost you about $30.
Success has had a trickledown effect in several ways. For one, the store can now attract college interns that may have otherwise flocked to bigger cities to study design work. The company has also made donations to local charities with other campaigns in the works to give back to the community.
Aaron knows all of the success isn’t his alone. “Everyone here works really hard. But then again, we also play a lot of ping-pong.”
Bill Clevlen is a contributing writer from St. Louis, Missouri.