Clothesline: Hanging Sarasota Art Out To Dry (In A Good Way!)

Scores of galleries throughout Sarasota, particularly in the downtown area, showcase the enormous diversity and talent that the city's artistic community offers. The variety, Austin Kowal believes, shouldn't be restricted to the walls of galleries, though.

Ever since his T-shirt shop, Clothesline, hit the scene on Halloween of 2008, the work of local artists has quite literally been pouring right out into the streets. In line with Kowal's innovative vision, Clothesline provides a moving venue for art in the form of the silkscreen-printed attire that adorns some of Sarasota's most fashionable residents.

Starting a clothing line has been a dream for Kowal, 24, since he was a child, and the success and rapid growth that Clothesline has celebrated since its opening just over a year ago is a clear indicator that his dream has truly sprung to life.

Prior to opening Clothesline, Kowal helped manage his mother's handmade jewelry shop in Sarasota's Burns Court. When the economy took a downturn and jewelry sales began to decline, Kowal approached his mother with the idea of replacing her jewelry store with his own DIY T-shirt shop. Mom Denise Kowal agreed, and Austin's vision for his clothing store began to come to fruition.

Of course, opening a T-shirt printing business requires at least some rudimentary knowledge of the craft, so Kowal and his friend, Evan Ekasala, purchased an $80 screen-printing starter-kit and taught themselves the basic elements of the trade.

After becoming comfortable with the process, Kowal began to shop for a professional screen-printing machine, but was dissatisfied with the quality of the ones that were in his price range, so he went online and found instructions to build his own wooden press. It is this handmade contraption that valiantly carried Clothesline through its infancy.

Although Kowal has recently acquired a six-color professional press for his business and teamed up with a local screen-printing business, Screen Killers, to further develop his craft, his original rustic-looking, homegrown wooden device remains in the center of the store as a testament to Clothesline's humble roots and the tremendous progress that the business has made so quickly.

The design concepts for Kowal's T-shirts stem from his desire to provide a different outlet for the artists of Sarasota to showcase their work. Kowal has cultivated relationships with local artists and artistic establishments such the the Ringling College of Art and Design and the new local contemporary artist collective, s/ART/q.

Featuring Original Art

Each T-shirt that emerges from Clothesline features the original work of a local artist. Thus wearers of Clothesline's unique shirts literally become walking billboards for the Sarasota art scene and its artists. Clothesline's T-shirts provide exposure for the artists whose work is emblazoned on them, and also draw in a profit for the designers.

Kowal negotiates with artists on an individual, one-on-one basis to assure that they receive fair payment for their designs. Some artists, he says, get a percentage of T-shirt sales while others accept a flat rate for their work.

The apparel sold at Clothesline is reasonably affordable (T-shirts generally sell for $25 to $35), and highly exclusive. Kowal's original intention was to only make one print of each particular design in each size, but he ultimately found it too difficult to rotate the designs. Even now, though, he usually makes just 10 to 15 prints, with 24 being the absolute maximum. The limited availability of each design makes
Clothesline's T-shirts a highly sought-after commodity for the cutting-edge fashionistas of Sarasota.

After quickly outgrowing its initial location at 537 South Pineapple, the storefront moved next door to 533, a roomier location.

Cultivating Business Relationships

Kowal has recently teamed up with Rude Psycles, an eco-friendly custom bike shop, to share its retail space. Rude Psycles acquires old bicycle parts and repairs, rebuilds and restores them to create their end product: professionally refurbished and powder-coated, like-new bicycles.

Kowal is also expanding his product range (primarily clothing, jewelry and accessories) to further accommodate the art scene in Sarasota: Kowal says Clothesline soon will be acquiring and selling a brand new line of KR markers, as well as Montana (MTN) spray paint, both of which are some of the highest quality products available to professional artists, and are not currently available elsewhere in the area.

Kowal credits Clothesline success to careful budgeting and ingenuity. Clothesline also has formed positive relationships with other local small businesses and caters to many of Sarasota's artists in a manner like no other business.

The result: a flourishing business hatched from a young man's childhood dream and some tinkering on an $80 beginner's screen-printing kit has evolved into a retail establishment whose influence is hard at work reinvigorating and reshaping the Sarasota artistic community.

Jessi Smith is a Sarasota-based freelance writer working from the dark corner tables in various local coffee houses and bars. Working, that is, during the occasional lapses in time when she isn't strolling through art galleries with a finely honed look of feigned intellectualism or digging her toes deep into the perfectly powdered sand on Siesta Key. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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