I’m surprised it took me so long to actually visit Transit Tees, 1371 North Milwaukee in Wicker Park, since I pedal by the store regularly, and much of the transportation-themed gear they sell is right up my alley. Founded by Tim Gillengerten, the business has been selling t-shirts featuring CTA- and bicycle-inspired designs at local street festivals for years. This fall they opened the brick-and-mortar store, packed with shirts, wall art, mugs, neckties, messenger bags, jewelry and even stuffed pigeons. Almost all of the products are designed and manufactured by the company, with much of the work being done in the back of the store. Tim told me about the history of the the business, talked about some of his bestsellers and explained why he thinks mass transit-themed schwag is an idea whose time has arrived.
How long has the store been open?
We’ve been open at the retail location here since November 15, so it’s about two months.
And did Transit Tees exist as a business before that?
It did. We evolved it and refocused it as transportation-focused so we sort of shed all of our other product lines and now we’re mostly focusing on subway, bicycle, any form of transportation, planes, walking, and also Chicago and the Midwest, Great Lakes region.
Tim Gillengerten with customers.
Were you selling this at street festivals before this?
Yeah, we’ve been building this over seven years. We’ve been testing it the last two years at the Galleria in Andersonville and it’s been doing very well so we realized that it could work as retail. We’ve been doing festivals for about seven years. We started with Wicker Park Fest and I actually joined the committee that helps put on the event. We do all the logos for it and the graphic work. We’re a graphic house so we have jobs like that. Another big job is we work for the CTA, selling our product line through their website but also for the Museum of Contemporary Art. So when they have a visiting exhibit we’ll create material and apparel for the exhibit at the MCA. It’s a great client.
We’d always take those projects and take some of the money that we made off that and put it towards our own brand, which is transit-related items. We work with a lot of festivals like Wicker Park Fest, Do Division, West Fest, Midsommar Fest and do the apparel for all those and graphics for most of those. We probably work on about 15 different festivals and then we’ll have a booth there and sell our items at the booth. This summer it just took off. So we were tripling and doubling our revenue from the festivals and realized, wow, our brand that we’ve been doing on the side and building finally is starting to make a profit.
Now years ago at a street fest I bought a brown American Apparel t-shirt with a blue CTA train logo on it and it said Damen on it. Did you guys make that?
Yeah, that was us.
OK, cool. I love that shirt.
So why transportation? Why do you think this a good time to sell this merchandise?
I used to work in advertising. I worked for a small, family-owned marketing business. While I worked there I would always take my bicycle to work in the summer, and in the winter I would take the ‘L’. Over the ten years the marketing firm turned from a seven-or-eight-person, family-owned business into seventy thousand employees worldwide, the largest agency in the world. They became part of Ogilvy & Mather and Draft and Young & Rubicon, they all conglomerated. And it changed from this small business into a corporation and I started to feel like I needed to look for a creative outlet.
So in the winters when I took the ‘L’ I would stand out on the platform looking at these signs. And then I realized that even though it was a bit of a grind going to the corporate headquarters every day, I was part of a transportation system that’s fairly rare, especially in the U.S., and that I had the ability to use mass transit. And it was really part of the identity of who I was, because mass transit’s really tied to all the neighborhoods. So that’s where our line really first developed, when I was standing on the platforms realizing that the Blue Line was part of what I took every day, that my stop was the Western Stop and my neighborhood was Bucktown.
So when I was looking for this creative outlet I sort of realized that it was contemporary art. The signs were really clean and simple but they could be transformed into a piece of art that talked to the person that lived in the city, that worked in the city and used the systems of the city. And so I developed a graphic element where it was a blue icon representing the Blue Line, with the letter big and bold in the middle, I put the “W” for Western, and then I put the neighborhoods underneath each stop.
About eight years ago I approached the CTA through a contact who was a board member and they connected me with their head of marketing and apparel. They were really appreciative and they loved the idea. And we started to get into contract negotiations. It took five years and three lawyers on their side, three lawyers on my side. But after five years we finally got our contract in February of 2012 to be an official manufacturer. They recognized the artwork that we created that was truly unique to us, and that’s what we were really fighting for, to have them recognize the train stops, the Loop stripe, different ones that we created from scratch and we still own. But we also recognized that they were a great organization to associate with and do other projects with so we became an official manufacturer for the CTA.
Why do you think people get excited about transit-themed stuff? I know I get excited about coming in a store like this, but why do normal people, who don’t write about transportation for a living, want to advertise the CTA?
I think, for us especially, that nothing is literal. So even with that “W Bucktown,” people who don’t ride the ‘L’ or live in the city won’t know what it is. That’s part of the insider factor that people appreciate who are in Chicago. You won’t really see anything with the word Chicago in it here. It takes a moment [to recognize] a lot of the items but once you do you realize that it’s part of your culture. And it makes it exciting to realize that you’re connected to the city in a way that people outside of the city aren’t aware of. So I guess it’s a different spin on the local factor where you realize you’re a part of a big community.
[I asked Tim to tell me about some of his best-sellers.]
Our “hero” this year is the Loop stripe shirt. It’s an exaggeration and a unique color combination, but it has six colors of the ‘L’ on it and it’s just big and bold. We actually designed it for the Wicker Park [demographic] so it has lots of fun color and a full print off the top and the bottom. My buddy wore this into the Apple store off of North and Clybourn and he happened to walk by the marketing director for Apple. And they identified with it [Apple sponsors the adjacent Clybourn Red Line station] and ended up creating a relationship with us and gave us a platform to present our company through Apple Computer and featured us on their website. It makes sense because we do all our design work on MacIntosh computers.
So the Loop stripe has just opened so many doors for us. Men and women both like it. And we’ve extended that now into other product, like this oversized coffee mug. It will be purchased by a 65-year-old grandmother and within five minutes it will also be purchased by a 16-year-old kid from the neighborhood. This mug is actually being featured in about two weeks in InStyle’s February issue, so now we have some national exposure going.
The other bestseller is the thread map t-shirt. This took about a year-and-a-half to create. It has seven colors in the outline and it’s tricky, how do you [put a map] on a shirt without looking too literal? So we added this texture of hand-sewing the different color lines into it.
Wow, hand-sewing. How long does it take someone to make one of these?
It takes about an hour to sew. I taught myself how to sew by doing this process. I don’t sew anymore – I’m not as good as our seamstresses. They love what they do, they love seeing people enjoying it and it’s great to be able to make something and see someone connecting to it instantly.
You know, I’ve got a CTA shower curtain in my bathroom, and what I love about it is that it’s a reference. It has actually helped me learn where all the stops are. Do you think any of your products have that kind of function?
Yeah, we joke around that when people are looking at the shirts they’ll point to a thread color or a point on the map and say, “Oh, I lived there, then I moved over here.”
So this is sort of a 3D map of the Great Lakes.
Yeah, we call it our Great Lakes Topography. We might change that to hydrography, which is a term used to describe the different depths of the Great Lakes. We buy French paper and then we custom drew the actual levels of the depths of the lake and cut it out of layers of paper and then we frame that behind glass. All the lake colors are the same, but because of shading and depth you can see into dark and light areas of the water. Many people come from other parts of the Midwest to Chicago, so people will also identify places in Michigan and Wisconsin. It has Canada on the top portion and Indiana and Ohio down below.
A third of our revenue comes from magnets. We kind of took that individual train stop idea from the shirt and then we put them on magnets. We’re trying to feature all 144 stops; we’re up to almost 100 of the stops right now. People love them. They’ll buy a magnet for every stop they took or grew up at or had an apartment at, they’ll spell their name, or they’ll buy a whole stack of the stop near where they grew up. They’ll ship these to relatives in different states, to remind their family of where they grew up.
I think the Skokie Swift magnet’s really funny because I’ve never really looked at that logo that closely, but it doesn’t really look much like a bird, like why is the body a complete oval? It’s just a really strange graphic design.
Photo by Hedgehog3457.
We just created that magnet this summer because people would joke it was the train that had two stops, first stop and the last stop. They’ve added a stop since [Oakton-Skokie] but we get a little chuckle out of it sometimes, just how somewhat obscure it is but everyone seems to know about it. And on our shirts at the top of the thread map we do a little yellow bit of thread right at the collar that people just think is the greatest final touch to the map.
Well, you can’t leave out the Yellow Line!