Whether you've had the pleasure of attending overpriced chug-a-lug daycare, a.k.a. "college," or not, the iconography of the college logo is something you should be familiar with. We've all seen at least two minutes of a college sports game, so we all have an idea of how big a role college-branded apparel plays in student life. It's an absolutely massive market with a fanatical and seemingly insatiable user base, but it's not without its hurdles.
You need to know what's in style, both in decoration and apparel, with the 20-something crowd. You need to be really up on your printing knowledge and quality control, and maybe most importantly, you need to navigate any and all licensing and royalty issues that may arise.
Lesson One: What's Popular With The Kids
While picking a style and print design for moms, dads and even alumni is pretty straightforward, choosing one for the self-absorbed and style-conscious students? Not so much. After all, most social scientists agree that trying to understand the mind of a 20-something can be like throwing a lit match into a black hole to see how light bends. Thankfully, there are those out there who have braved their spacey depths and come back with helpful insights.
"Vintage, vintage, vintage," said Shannon VanWagoner, executive director, retail, for Atlanta-based Boxercraft. "Classic, distressed graphics are very popular in the collegiate market right now," she stated.
Lauren Cocco, senior merchandiser and embellishment specialist for Vantage Apparel, Avenel, N.J., elaborated on just what distressed prints might actually look like. "Soft-hand inks are often printed without an underlay to produce a washed out, vintage look," she said. "These techniques are designed for lightweight, heathered and color-wash tees and fleece styles." Aside from distressed prints, she pointed out that tonal oversized background designs with solid overprints, large left-chest and shoulder designs, and classic layouts in bolder/thicker fonts and colors are also popular, on solid as well as striped tees and fleece.
Lesson Two: Checking Your Work
Fashion-forward prints are great, but they can bring a few technical complications as well. For one, Cocco explained that printing without an underlay on colored garments, either to create a vintage look or to print over a seem or zipper, can cause some variation in color from shirt to shirt. But beyond issues inherent to the processes themselves, Kevin Orga, vice president of contract printing for ITA Printing, Butler, Pa., noted that fashion-forward printing overall can be a struggle for some printers.
"Do your research with whoever is doing their printing," he said. Orga stated that not all printers are equipped to handle complex printing tasks such as oversized or cross-zipper designs. He explained that both special machines and special pallets are required for such work, but some printers will try to squeak by and do the work without them. "They take their machine and try and put in bigger screens and make pallets work that really aren't built for doing that type of thing," he said.
Lesson 3: Look Into Licensing
A downside to the lucrativeness of collegiate work is that sometimes a school's logo will be restricted by various licensing laws and agreements. Before you start work on a collegiate project, be sure that either your client is able to guarantee usage rights or you're able to secure them on your own.
To check that a given person at a school has authority over logo usage, Orga recommended contacting the school's licensing department, or barring that, the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), the governing body that handles all college licensing. This may seem like a silly step to take if you've been hired by the college, but keep in mind that your client may not be aware of the licensing rules themselves. Orga gave the example of student greek organizations as collegiate bodies that will occasionally stumble over licensing laws. "There's a lot of sororities and fraternities that think just because they're a sorority or fraternity of that school that they can go and put that school's logo on the front of a T-shirt, and that's usually not the case," he said. "Some of your smaller schools yes, but the bigger schools, you're not allowed to." He noted as well that if you're looking for access to the license yourself, you have to go through the CLC.
Another edge to collegiate licensing is the existence of royalty fees attached to license usage. Some schools will apply a royalty fee to commercially used items, though how "commercially" is defined will vary from school to school and also gets a little hazy when applied to promotional products. Since the addition of a fee will obviously affect your margins, it's very important to know whether your specific items will be using a royalty-fee license or not. "Know your licensing limitations inside and out," said VanWagoner. "Always have pricing ready to show your customers that includes royalty, or be aware if your customer is royalty-exempt."