Making the Most of Multimedia

One innovative company’s adventures in combining processes to bring new dimension – and dollars – to apparel decorating.

Multimedia apparel decorating is a great way to make your company stand out. It attracts attention with a look that not every shop offers. Now, more than ever, that’s a critical advantage. Much of today’s high-volume decorating work is being done offshore. At the same time, new digital processes are making traditional high-margin specialties less special. Even process color screen printing, which long led the way in creating perceived value and commanding premium prices, is being pushed toward commodity status by its wider availability and alternatives like direct-to-garment printing.

In short, the days when excelling in a less common or more difficult process was enough to have customers beating a path to your door are past. But combining various media is proving an effective option for grabbing customers’ attention and creating embellished garments with value far greater than the sum of their decorating parts. And the expanding range of media offers limitless potential for those willing to make the investment in time, dollars, and creativity.

Greg Gaardbo, founder and owner of Shockwaves Promotional Apparel, Des Plaines, Illinois, caught the wave early and has ridden it to industry-wide recognition over the past decade. “We were looking for a way to separate ourselves from our competitors,” says Gaardbo. “We’d been doing screen printing and embroidery. A consultant opened our eyes to the idea of combining media and creating special effects, and it blossomed and grew. We started with what we had and went on to invest in a sequin applicator, sublimation printer, and, most recently, a laser cutting/engraving machine.”

Multimedia now accounts for about 70 percent of Shockwaves’ work and even more of its net revenue. “Being able to draw on different processes allows you to let your creativity run wild, and combining them makes hundreds of effects possible,” he asserts. “That enables you to offer customers unique looks they won’t find elsewhere; and that, of course, makes for a higher margin.”

The garment can dictate the media or vice-versa, says Gaardbo. But multimedia embellishment starts with the customer -- the artwork, budget, and hoped-for results. Gaardbo encourages customers to check out examples of different media combinations displayed in Shockwaves’ showroom. Then the artwork or concept is reviewed with the customer, and the garment to be decorated is evaluated for process compatibility. Properties like color, weight, thickness, and compatibility with processes such as discharge and sublimation are assessed, as well as the placement of the graphic, durability, and washability.

The impact of the processes on each other is also considered. For instance, notes Gaardbo, “You don’t want to put sequins on top of a traditional screen print because they won’t stick. It’s better to go with sublimation or discharge. The order of the processes depends on what they are and the effect you’re going for.”

Quotes are based on the labor, materials, and time required by the individual process, in addition to overhead and profit margin. Since planning and setup account for so much of the job, Gaardbo typically doesn’t give quantity breaks. And while he has no stated minimum, he notes that a one-piece job likely would be cost-prohibitive.

“In the end, the approach often comes down to the customer’s budget,” says Gaardbo. “This is another way multimedia is great; there are so many options for creating within the customer’s parameters -- using partial instead of full foil, puff instead of embroidery, and so on. What you really have to use is your imagination!”

See a step-by-step gallery of Gaardbo's process here.

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