The online company Threadless makes funny and satirical T-shirts. But they are a little different from those made by other T-shirt companies. All Threadless shirts are designed and approved by the site's members.
Each week, the Web site stages a design contest to determine the next T-shirts it will produce. The members vote, the winners get printed, and the T-shirts sell out, sometimes in just days.
The site was started by two young college-dropouts with about $1,000 and a desire to build a Web-based community that would also be a business.
One shirt looks at first glance like a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." But this version has the apostles sitting at the table were actually fast-food icons -- Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders gaze up at a Jesus who's been replaced by the Burger King. The T-shirt is called "The Fast Supper."
It's part of an ever-evolving line of clever, ironic and often-times punny T-shirts from the online company Threadless.
Threadless emphasizes that everyone is welcome to submit to the T-shirt design contest, whether they're a trained artist or a novice doodler. There's a MySpace/Friendster element to the Web site. Each registered user has a profile, and can post pictures and start discussions with other members.
The site gets about 150 design submissions a day. Entries have seven days to get scored by the community.
At the end of the week, 10 of the highest scoring designs are selected and about 1,000 of each are printed.
"When you have something that people care about, they will spend their time to make sure it stays good," says Jeffrey Kalmikoff, the company's creative director. He has watched the list of registered users voting on shirts climb to over 400,000, and he says the key to the site's success is keeping that community happy.
"Every move we make is transparent. If we screw up we apologize; if things go well, we reward people. I mean it's really just like hanging out with 400,000 friends."
Threadless tries to keep its projects affordable, most under $20 -- not bad for a limited-edition piece of pop art.
Co-founder Jake Nickell says the key to understanding Threadless as a business is that it's an online community first.
"It's absolutely the most important thing, because as much as our community has made us grow, they could destroy us," he says.
Jenny Lawton is assistant arts editor for Chicago Public Radio.