Indie Tee Spotlight #14: Jon Wye

In this weeks Indie Tee Spotlight I feature Jon Wye, a belt and t-shirt designer based out of Washington, D.C. who has been doing his thing for four years now. You might remember that I recently featured the Jon Wye designed Homemaker belt in my last Glorious Nonsensities video review. Jon is the ultimate do-it-yourselfer as he has developed his own methods to produce his signature graphic design belts and buckles. He also has developed a unique method for taking 3D product shots, providing a unique experience for the potential buyer.

I had the opportunity to get to know Jon more and am happy that he was able to share a little about himself and  the company that he has poured his entire self into for the last couple of years.

Jon Wye Photo Dome

Coty: Your signature products are your custom made leather belts and buckles. What was your first experience in working with leather and what propelled you to start a company focused on making original and custom made belts?

Jon: It all started with a girl. I think that’s how a lot of good stories start. One of our first dates was making belt buckles out of wax carvings, plaster casting, and melting craft-catalogue pewter into the mold. And when she moved away to Barcelona (pre-planned before we met) I had a lot of time on my hands and so I kept creating. I didn’t want to be the person “left” behind, I wanted to strive for something. So I started making more belt buckles and eventually moved to belts. And the initial ideas for the graphic belt process came about a year into my brand. It was one of those ‘ah ha’ from a dream moments. And it kind of consumed me until I perfected it.

Connected Graffiti Leather Belt

Zombie Leather Belt

Men's Sixshooter T-shirt by Jon Wye

Coty: All of your products are custom made in your shop that you’ve named “the funkfactory.” How did you learn to work with the metal and leather mediums that you use for your belts? Did you learn by trial and error or do you have some formal training?

Jon: It was all trial and error. A lot of error! I worked as an Office Manager (glorified receptionist) at a PR firm for about 4 years. I spent a lot of time researching everything on the Internet. A tidbit here, a tadbit there. No one source spells it all out for you. I simply became a good disseminator of information, coupled with an unquenchable thirst to learn more and more. There is so much knowledge available on the internet for the taking. The key is being able to sift through it. And then once you think you’ve sifted through all you can handle you take the plunge and start to put your money on the line and test things out. So my whole shop, process, everything came from being willing to learn and never be too set in my ways, which is something I think a lot of people get hung up on. You have to be fluid.


Coty: We cover a lot about marketing and branding techniques. Have you done anything, either locally or online, different or unique to market the Jon Wye brand? What techniques have worked best for you?

Nothing, absolutely nothing beats getting out into the public! I spent the last 3 years selling at various outdoor events in the DC area, building my name. Every time people saw my display it was bigger and better. When I made money it went right into new displays (all custom built) and new products. People love to see you growing, and love to know that the money they spend on you is helping to build something special… that they had a hand in your success.

I once took out an expensive add in the back of Rolling Stone magazine… worst mistake ever! I spent $2000 thinking I was going to be selling belts and tees like crazy! I think I made about $250 back. I took the spanking and walked away from paid advertising. I started doing what I learned at the PR Firm. I wrote press releases, and came up with unique twists for announcements. And that led to some feature articles in the Washington Post that people still remember to this day.
And I talk about the brand. As one PR person told me, if you don’t talk about you, no one will. It’s true! It might feel odd at first, but if you truly believe in what you are creating it will come across as sincere when you tell people about you creations.

And lastly, my Pink Ducky sticker. One of my supremely talented artists, David William, helped me create a JonWye iconic image. My Pink Ducky sticker is known around DC and is included in every order from online. It was a big risk to create the stickers considering I give them away for free, but I have seen my return 100 fold. People love the darn thing and are shocked that I give it away for free. It’s waterproof and really durable. I made sure the quality of the sticker matched the quality of my brand.

Coty: You’ve been building the Jon Wye brand for three years now. What has been your greatest experience so far? What has been the most difficult or stressful part of running your own small business?

Jon: Actually I’ve been building it for 4 years as of January 2nd. YEAH… 4 year Anniversary! That’s why the JUNK buckles are on sale for $10. It was the first buckle!

I used to look for that great moment, the tipping point (BTW, I highly suggest reading ‘The Tipping Point’) but it’s been more of a slow and steady build. Each year is better than the last. Each year has great moments, but all in all it’s been the whole of it, the journey, the mental game of creating something that has been the most rewarding.

The most difficult or stressful part? OYE! Sticking to my ideas even though every sign around me said it wasn’t right. There were many moments where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make my credit card payments. Times when I invested in new machines and products when I didn’t necessarily have the money. It is no joke when I say that I have put everything I have into this company, and then some. Thing are still tight, but thanks to all the wonderful people that have supported me the light at the end of the tunnel is peering through.

Coty: How much do you think the D.C. culture has influenced your designs and the direction of your clothing line?

Jon: The easy answer is that I am a product of my environment. I grew up here. I know people in DC, myself included, talk about politics on a more regular basis, as we are inundated. But I am separated from the political scene. And DC’s rich underbelly of Punk Rock, Bike Polo, etc is something I am just now becoming more aware of.

If I could point to one thread that I put into my work, and one thread that runs through the Political and Punk Scene, it would be intellectualism. I put a lot of thought into everything, always asking myself, ‘what does this mean?’ To me, I can’t just make something that is “awesome.” “Awesome” only lasts for so long. But if JonWye (the brand) stands for something, has a message in the work, or a story, or at the very least a relevant pop-culture reference, it will last a lot longer.

Skull Heartbeat Leather Belt

Coty: What made you decide to venture into t-shirt design and printing? Do you feel that you produce your belts and tees in such a way that they go hand in hand with each other or do you treat them as separate entities?

Jon: T-shirts are something I started making in college. Really corny and sarcastic iron-on t-shirt images. Crap-olio!

At first I wanted to make t-shirts just because I wanted to. But I wasn’t very confident in my t-shirt design skills until I came up with my “Warhol Homage” T-shirt. That was definitely an ‘ah ha’ moment! I thought, ‘damnit, I think I get it now!”

Sometimes I view the belts and t-shirts as almost different brands. The belts tend to be all over the place with graphics and the t-shirts tend to be more subdued. But they fit each other because both have strong storylines and brain power behind them.

Phlogiston T-shirt

Warhol Homage T-shirt by Jon Wye

Coty: You seem very much like a Renaissance Man as you’ve dabbled in “inventing” things that help your to business grow, such as a machine to help you print onto belts. Another one of those things that I found quite interesting was your VR Photo Dome invention – tell us a little about that. Any plans on patenting any of your inventions?

Jon: Ohhh… “Renaissance Man.” That’s almost like being called a S.N.A.G. (Sensative New Age Guy). Maybe we can compromise on ‘A jack of all trades?’ But I get what you mean.

I love ideas. Coming up with them, completing them. I had a lot of Lego’s growing up, and a lot of tools. My mom is a general contractor. And a cute one, not butch.

The VR photo dome is a light diffusing acrylic sphere that I created to photograph my belts in 3D. It is perfectly lit from he outside so that any products inside the sphere are very evenly lit. It was my answer to making the belts more tangible online. Accessories can be hard to sell online. But the easier you can make it for the customer to imagine himself/herself wearing it, the easier the sale is going to be. I designed it over many many weekends of sitting outside at various craft events selling my line, and after a years worth of work, and pulling many different ideas together, I was finally able to use it to launch my new belts in VR on the new website.

And as far as patents, I’ve been advised by a patent attorney to keep it all a secret. A company with enough money and lawyers could take my idea from my patent filing, make a small change, and patent their own. And as far as telling people about the VR Photo Dome I can use the website as a proof of concept and timeline if I ever need to defend it. There are a lot of lawyers in DC that will jump to the aid of artists being screwed by big companies.

Photo Dome

Coty: What are some of the goals that you wish to accomplish in 2009 and beyond for the Jon Wye brand?

Jon: Many many many more amazing t-shirts. My ‘Warhol Homage’ t-shirt might have been the spark of confidence to take on the challenge head on, but I am finally finding my fuel for t-shirt design.

I’ve got new cuff designs coming; both graphical and construction changes. Of course new belt designs. Looks out for some seriously weird stuff coming soon. Hint…I love monsters!

And I am really focusing on my new dog collar line this year. It’s named after Fred, my dog, and so I really want to make him proud. His line is called FredFred. Though isn’t up yet I did have to snag it from a shady Russian domain name squatting company. They bought almost everything with the name FRED. And lucky for me they didn’t know how great was!

Beetlespears Dog Collar

Thanks to Jon Wye for taking the time to share such a great wealth of information! I wish you the best of luck in the future and no doubt believe that you will be successful in your endeavors.