Hey everybody! My name is Alex Eaves and I created STAY VOCAL. There are two things that I love and know way more about than I ever imagined: reusing and T-Shirts. Since I was a little kid, they’ve both been big parts of my life. And fortunately, I found a way to use my knowledge and passion to create a successful eco friendly business.
Every day, I live and breathe reuse. It’s how I dress: from vintage USA made Chuck Taylors to used jeans to the shirts that I sell. It’s how I cut my hair: I donate it to charities who reuse it, like Matter of Trust. It’s how I shop: I never leave home without my reusable bag and mug (which is good, because I drink A LOT of coffee).
And what makes me so knowledgeable about t-shirts? Well, not only do I wear t-shirts almost every day, but I’ve collected them, designed them, printed them, sold them, and even slept on them (you’ll read about that later). For almost my entire life I’ve been surrounded by t-shirts. Now the question is, how was I able to combine my passion for t-shirts with my passion for reusing? That’s a long story my friends.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by cool t-shirts. It’s what I‘ve always felt most comfortable wearing. And as far as what t-shirts I wore, it really depends on the time period.
In the 80’s, I was really into sports, first baseball and then basketball. I remember having a ton of those t-shirts with cartoon sports players with giant heads. Where did all of those go to? Maybe I’ll find them in my parents’ attic one day.
During the early 90’s, I turned my attention towards skateboarding and I started collecting t-shirts of my favorite companies. Fortunately, I still have a bunch of my old skate T-Shirts. Unfortunately, this was the time period when it was all the rage to wear huge clothes and I just can’t bring myself to wear a size Men’s XXL on my Men’s M frame.
And then came October 28th, 1995. That night, I went to see my first concert in a club: Showcase Showdown, Hagfish, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones at the Worcester Auditorium in Worcester, MA. This was my first time seeing a band’s merchandise stand, which I strangely seemed to be drawn to and ending up buying my first Bosstones T-shirt.
After that first show, I grew to love live concerts and as a result, I found a need to get a new t-shirt at every show. And it didn’t help that my two favorite live bands, The Bosstones and 311, played a lot in New England.
In going to a lot of concerts, I met a lot of great people, including my good friend Seth Abrams who went to Northeastern University with me. In 1997, after his internship as a street promoter for a record label, Seth and I decided to start a nationwide street promotions company called Goon reigN. One of the main promotional tools for the many projects that we worked was t-shirts and as a result, I got a ton of them for free: everything from bands to events to car companies. And for some reason, I felt compelled to keep them all.
To help with this need for promotional t-shirts, Seth and I purchased a screen printer. At first I started making t-shirts for just Goon reigN in my basement, but then others wanted to print shirts too, including my friends Adam and Jad who started a line of “Mullet” T-Shirts. Unfortunately they stopped just before the big mullet craze hit. They definitely would have made a ton of money.
With Goon reigN, we had reps all around the country. And one of the reps in Pennsylvania was the person in charge of Anti Racist Action (ARA) / Positive Youth Foundation, a non profit organization spreading an obvious message about tolerance. I was really into what the organization was all about and wanted to help, so I started tabling for ARA at different concerts around New England. The main fundraising effort was selling t-shirts with different slogans on it.
There were probably at least 50 different t-shirt designs and at one point, I had at least half of them. I mean, if I’m going to sell a t-shirt, I might as well be wearing one of them, right?
During my years working for Goon reigN, I worked for many bands, including a fortunate experience getting to promote an album for my favorite band, 311. As a result, I became friendly with their former merchandiser and mailorder manager, whose office was conveniently located near Boston.
In the winter of 1999, I got to work at the mailorder office for 311, which was pretty amazing for such a huge fan. Every day, I was surrounded by the vast assortment of 311 t-shirts. The job alone was so awesome for me, but when I got my Christmas bonus, I nearly freaked out: a gigantic bag full of 40 different 311 shirts, including one of my top 3 t-shirts ever: a security t-shirt from a 311 / The Roots Concert at UMASS Dartmouth in 1996! When I was at that show, I had offered numerous people up to $50 for the shirt, but nobody budged.
A few months later, another opportunity opened up with a band that I had done promotions for: Pilfers. In 1999, I had met their singer Coolie Ranx, and besides a postering incident that almost got the band fined $20,000, we hit it off almost instantly. In early 2000, he called to ask if I wanted to go on tour to sell the band’s merchandise and bring ARA along as well. I had graduated from college and was living with my parents at the time, so of course I did. And that’s when my shirt collection really started exploding.
As merchandising and touring goes, opportunities just started to come in one right after another. In the spring of 2000, another band decided to bring ARA on the road in collaboration with the Museum Of Tolerance. For the tour coordinator, it was a no brainer that I would do the tour, since it was with my favorite band, 311. Not only did I get to tour with the band, but I even got my own part in their home video, Enlarged To Show Detail 2!
During that tour, I became friendly with members of the crew and band, so when my friend Matt stopped doing their merchandise in 2000, he recommended that I was next in line. Crazy! I ended up selling merch for 311 on two tours during the following years, including the “Sprite Liquid Mix Tour,” with Jay-Z headlining! No, I never met him, unfortunately.
For the remainder of 2000 and 2001, I tabled for ARA all around New England and then later California, as I moved to Los Angeles in January of 2001. Some of the tours were pretty high profile and for those, I drove around the country in a Penske Truck, which is also where I slept in a makeshift bedroom in the back. It was actually really comfortable, as my touring partner and I made a mattress out of t-shirts and sweatshirts. This definitely helped conserve space in the truck!
During the summer of 2001 we traveled with both Green Day and Blink 182 and I just have to say that it was more than a pleasure touring with both of those bands. I quickly learned that these very famous people, were in fact just people. They were extremely appreciative of us being part of their tour and showed generosity in lots of unexpected areas; like giving us free reign in the dressing rooms after the shows for extra food, etc. And I’ll never forget the show in Noblesville, IN when Mark Hoppus of Blink 182 wore our “Keep Your Country Nice & Clean” T-Shirt on stage and told the crowd of 15,000+ people to come buy one at the ARA booth after the show. Yeah, we definitely sold more of those shirts that night than ever before or after.
Another band that I tabled for ARA at many shows in 2001 was the political punk band Anti-Flag. Their message of “One People One Struggle” was synonymous with that of the ARA and so it was an obvious match. As I traveled to many of their shows, I quickly became friends with their merch guy, Jon “The Bear” Fadzen as well as guitarist, Chris Head, who designed most of the t-shirts. Later in the year, when The Bear decided to go back to school, I was given the bullpen call for the merch job. And that’s where I stayed for quite a while…
From 2002 until 2007, I toured with Anti-Flag around the world; selling, ordering, and helping to design their t-shirts. In 2004, I moved to Pittsburgh and began managing the merchandise department of the band’s record label, A-F Records.
Right before my first tour with Anti-Flag had started, I realized that I had A TON of t-shirts, as a result of all my promotions, touring and collecting. I wondered if I had enough to wear a different shirt every single day of the year. So, on January 1, 2002, I set out to do so. I had so many shirts that I actually didn’t repeat a shirt until March 14, 2003! Yeah, I had over 400 shirts. I even kept a list. (Email me if you’re curious what shirt I wore on a specific day!) At that point, I knew I had a problem and checked myself into Cotton Anonymous. Not really, but I definitely saw t-shirt consumption as a real problem and started getting rid of some, especially some of the uglier ones, like my tie-dyed XXL 311 Bootleg 1997 Tour shirt!
In 2003, I injured myself skateboarding and had to have surgery. I decided that I needed to do something else in the skateboard world. Prior to that time, I had occasionally thought about starting a skateboard company with positive messages. A friend’s artwork on two of my old broken skateboards further persuaded me.
I was also obviously influenced by my work with ARA , 311 and Anti-Flag, who are devoted to positivity and making this world a better place. I really enjoyed seeing the impact on people and how they were inspired to do good things as a result. And as time went on, I really thought that I could do even more.
On September 9, 2003, I had my second skateboard related surgery on my left ankle. In a very pain medicated induced state, the name VOCAL came to me. The company name came from the unfortunate apathy that most people show when it comes to making positive change. I wanted to create a product line that encouraged people to use the most important tool they have when it comes to making change: their voice. In the following days, I even came up with a logo. I’m glad that one never made it on a shirt.
Unlike most people who start businesses, I didn’t sit down and write a business plan or calculate any numbers. I just wanted to get started right away, especially because I was touring so much. I couldn’t afford the skateboard decks, though, so I decided to make something that I knew was a tried and true great promotional and selling tool: T-Shirts. But because most companies have such high minimum print orders, I needed to do something different. So I went to a bunch of thrift stores and bought pre-owned shirts to print on instead.
A friend in Pittsburgh printed these with the original “VOCAL” 4 Circles ReUse logo and I first began selling the items on Anti-Flag’s Death of a Nation Tour with Rise Against and Against Me in November of 2003. At the end of the first Anti-Flag tour that I was selling my items on, I had enough to make the first 2 skateboard decks.
As I started selling more and more of the decks and other items, both on tour and the website, I saw some real potential and looked into copyrighting the name. But I quickly realized that I had to change the company name as there were just too many copyrights for the name “VOCAL.” Plus, my friend reminded me of the (now defunct) clothing company Vokal. As the website for VOCAL was stayvocal.com (I had previously run into the same naming problem), I looked that up and there were no copyrights. It was an obvious solution.
For the next few years, I continued to run STAY VOCAL as a skateboard and apparel company and promoted many different ideas: animal rights, equal rights, women’s rights, etc. But Reuse was always an idea that I wanted to promote, mainly through t-shirts. And in 2005, an incident occurred that was a major change in the way that I looked at printing shirts.
One of the T-Shirts that I had ordered for a band did not get printed how it was supposed to. I let the merchandise company know that we couldn’t sell them, so not to bother sending them out. When I asked what they were going to do with the shirts, I found out they would be shredded into rags. I thought to myself, “These are brand new, never worn, perfectly good American Apparel T-Shirts. And they’re just going to shred them?” I asked the company if I could buy them for ReUse shirts and with the band’s permission, I did. I just had to make sure that I covered up the original design. And then I started wondering how often something like this happened….
Around the same time, I was also dabbling in ReUse art, like one of a kind journals made from record albums and tote bags made from used apparel. I even put on a small Art and Music tour in California that featured the band Chotto Ghetto and the art of ReUse. At each show, the band played and many pieces of one of a kind and unique art using at least 75% used materials were on display. Chris Candy, lead singer of Chotto Ghetto, and I each spoke to the crowd as well. While the journals and bags were very well liked, the best selling items were the unique ReUse T-Shirts.
Towards the end of 2006, I was feeling a bit burnt out on touring and really wanted to give the company my full attention. I’ll never forget meeting with my good friend in Anti-Flag and telling him that I would be quitting after one last tour. It was sad for both of us, but we both knew that my time was done.
My last tour with Anti-Flag was a huge tour in Canada, as the band was opening for Billy Talent, an extremely popular punk band in Canada. The shows were all at giant hockey and basketball arenas around the country. And it was on this tour when my eyes started really seeing a new light with t-shirts.
I remember one night checking in merchandise in Toronto and seeing the stacks and stacks of new shirts and wondering, “How many times are these kids going to wear these shirts?” What will happen to those shirts?” Not to mention, the amount of empty boxes that I saw. “Would they even recycle those?” It was really overwhelming and I knew that I needed to do something different.
In May of 2007, I moved back to Massachusetts and continued to run STAY VOCAL as a skateboard company. But something wasn’t right. I was just never comfortable. I started to feel bad when I would print new shirts and saw the company as a little hypocritical. How could I sell and promote ReUse T-Shirts with new ones at the same time? I also began to realize that it could not be just a skateboard company. It’s not just skateboarders who I wanted to to make positive change; it’s everyone. And that positive change needs to be a planetary change, because if there’s no planet, what else could be wrong?
In early 2008, I did an interview for someone’s school project and was asked what I thought the most important idea that STAY VOCAL had was. This is what I had to say:
“For not only teenagers, but for everyone young and old, it is the idea of ReUse. It’s to the point of disgusting how many new products are made each year; from toys to clothes to music to electronics to cars. People really seem to love the idea of “new.” But what happens when you wash a shirt for the first time or drive a car off the lot or tear the wrapping off a CD? That item is now officially used. Why not skip a step and look for a pre-owned alternative first. Not only are you helping the environment in the long run by conserving energy, etc, you’re also saving money. And with thrift shops, used stores, craigslist, Ebay, freecycle.org, it’s so easy to find a reuse version of almost anything. I don’t recommend reusing food, though. Cows do it, but it’s kind of gross.”
Upon answering that question, I knew what I needed to do. In March of 2008, after a lot of thought and discussion, I decided to no longer run STAY VOCAL as a skateboard and apparel company, but rather a ReUse company. I decided to focus solely on the concept of ReUse and make products promoting that: reusable shopping bags, travel mugs, and of course T-Shirts.
Once I made that decision, things just started to happen. That month, The Boston Globe ran an article on me and the new direction for STAY VOCAL. And as a result, other newspapers quickly picked up the story and I was even asked by the New England department of the Environmental Protection Agency to set up at their Earth Day Fair! A few schools in the area also asked me to come and speak about what I do.
And then in May, I entered my ReUse transformation idea into a small business idea contest and won $20,000 for it! Unfortunately, I had so much business debt at that point, I didn’t get to necessarily advance the company, just help keep it afloat. Those skateboards I had made were expensive! It was a pretty amazing experience. I got one of those big checks and I was even on ABC News.
Coming off the contest win, I started getting the idea out in person more. For a week, I traveled on the Vans Warped Tour with the band, The A.K.A.s, as they had an entire line of custom ReUse Merchandise. That summer, I also moved part time to Chico, CA where I started setting up at a weekly market.
Things really started coming together for the company, as people really embraced the ReUse direction. In the fall of 2008, I became Green America certified and even set up at my first Green trade show, Green Festival in San Francisco. I even started branching out on ReUse and had a friend create a series of ReUse Monsters, made from used clothing.
2009 continued positively. In March, one of the schools I spoke at in 2008 asked me back to speak. And in May, Good Morning America featured one of the STAY VOCAL ReUse T-Shirts as a Unique Mother’s Day Gift.
Not too much later, STAY VOCAL shirts were featured in an independent movie called Good Clean Fun. This may not be the best known movie, BUT it featured Bronson Pinchot from the 80′s TV sitcom, Perfect Strangers! Even more outside interest in reuse apparel grew, as on two separate occasions, I traded sponsor spots at events for custom ReUse volunteer T-Shirts for the events.
In October 2009, STAY VOCAL was nominated as a top 10 green business of the year, which is an amazing honor. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but I did find out we got 5th place, which is pretty dang awesome!
As 2009 came to a close, I was so much more comfortable with the company, but there was still something that wasn’t right, besides the number of digits in my debt. Why wasn’t it clicking? What was I doing wrong? While T-Shirts were the thing I most focused on, I was still trying to dabble in other areas like reusable bags and other items. My ADD has not always been a bonus with this company! I knew I needed to take another step back.
In early 2010, I came to the realization that if STAY VOCAL was going to make it and if I was in fact going to lead a reuse movement, I needed a solid company behind me; something that I could explain in 2 sentences. I wanted people to visit stayvocal.com and know exactly what it was, even if they had never heard of it. And all I had to do was think back to when I first started the company and the sign I hung at the merch table: “old shirts/new design.”
At that point, I decided to stop everything else and focus on what I knew best; what I started the company with; the easiest way to get my point across; the item that is constantly mass produced and uses so much of our resources and fills so much of our landfills: t-shirts.
I’ve never been someone to say “Oh this year’s going to be great!” or “2007 is going to be THE year.” Well, for some reason, ever since the beginning of the year, I have felt that 2010 IS that year.
Already, there have been tell tale signs of great things to come. In April, I had the first ever STAY VOCAL fashion show, featuring a joint benefit ReUse T-Shirt with Restored Clothing to raise money for Catalyst, a local Chico non profit organization. And over the past few months, I’ve been traveling up and down California with the brand, visiting places like Google and eBay. I was even asked by an employee of Nickelodeon to set up a STAY VOCAL booth at their Earth Day fair. And I’ve also turned the tables with my favorite band, as, 311 band members are now wearing my T-Shirts.
So what do I have in store for the company? A store. Yeah, that’s right. I plan to open a STAY VOCAL store in the next year or so. But in the mean time, get ready for so much more in 2010…
During that snowstorm my uncle was staying at my parents in my old room, because they had no power...and he saw a waffle box (with a shirt i got long ago) and brought down to the kitchen and told my mom there was a frozen box of waffles in his room.