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Does partnering with Gap diminish Threadless’ cool factor?

GAP + Threadless

Upon hearing the announcement of the GAP + Threadless partnership, we just had to ask: Does partnering with Gap diminish Threadless’ cool factor?

The recent announcement of Gap’s partnership with Threadless has sparked much debate among both the t-shirt design community & consumers looking to cash in on cool apparel – but consumers are concerned if the partnership may tarnish the authenticity that made Threadless so cool.

So, is what’s being marketed as an opportunity for artists to start “Making Great Together” really so great?

GAP’s Call to Action for T-Shirt Artists



GAP’s “Gap + Threadless” ad video features quotes from selected Threadless artists explaining how to “Make Great Together,” the marketing slogan for the new partnership.The video provides quotes from the artists that address some of the big concerns that t-shirt artists (or any artists, for that matter) commonly face – finding a broad audience, feeling important, and being part of a huge movement that advocates art and working together. It concludes by offering hope for aspiring designers with the slogan, “Your Design Could Be Next.” Gap goes on to explain on their website:

“It doesn’t matter what corner of the Internet you live in. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an art nobody or an art somebody. Anyone can make an iconic tee, even you, so get going!”

GAP isn’t just pulling designs from the Threadless community – they’re also providing an alluring incentive for anyone in their audience to submit T-Shirt designs. But a key question remains:

Does GAP’s use of Threadless’ crowdsourcing model for t-shirt design pay off for artists as well as consumers?

Crowdsourcing has proven itself as an effective means to both engage audiences & also provide cheap product volume for companies to choose from. That all seems well and fine, but several concerns emerge as you pore deeper into the subject. For example, GAP is offering artists who’s designs are selected $2000 cash, a $500 Gap GiftCard, & a $500 Threadless gift certificate (which can be redeemed for $200 in cash). All in all, that’s a $3000 dollar deal for the artist, which seems pretty handsome considering that it’s for just one design. The issue, though, is the ethical implication of how relatively low the pay/time ratio is for artists. For example, if an artist spends 10 hours creating a masterful t-shirt design, he has a chance to make $300 per hour. However, there’s absolutely no guarantee that a design with so much time put into it will be selected for print by GAP. Conversely, if an artist spends 1 hour creating 10 decent t-shirt designs, he gains a much higher chance of being selected just based on volume alone.

Consider, though, that the value and impact of the work received from crowdsourcing can be all over the map – most user generated t-shirt designs won’t be up to par, and only a select few will be stellar and interesting enough to get hand picked for GAP. GAP only picked 15 Threadless artists for their first offering of tees (16 men’s tees, only 10 women’s – the demographic lines are clearly drawn), and we don’t know when they will select the next batch. These numbers are incredibly small compared to the number of designs that GAP receives from Threadless – which is great for GAP, but not so great for the artist. In the end, an artist may spend countless hours designing and submitting art for t-shirts in the hopes of being featured in the GAP + Threadless product line, and never get compensated for any of it.

Art Peck, President of GAP North America, remarked:

“We’ve always admired Threadless’ democratic approach in sourcing ideas from its community and then letting the community vote for the designs they want to wear. We share the same belief that great ideas can come from anywhere, and we can’t wait to give artists another way to get their designs out into the world by selling them in our stores.”

Granted, that’s the nature of the crowdsourcing game – GAP gets infinite marketing resources, essentially for free. Threadless, however, may become quickly polluted on the back and front ends with an overabundance of so-so designs, ballooning themselves out of their niche of high quality art due to rapid inflation in the volume of submitted designs, making them less distinguishable from sellers in a lower class. Threadless alludes to this issue in a blog post revealing the partnership with GAP, when they said:

“One of the things we’ve struggled with is finding designs for partners. It’s an extremely manual process. We’ve had nearly 400,000 designs submitted to Threadless in the past but we really don’t have a very good way to search through them to find designs for partners. Well, now you can help by tagging your designs! For the best chance at getting your design selected for a partnership, we need you to tell us more about the content, concept and appeal of your design.”

Potentially, GAP’s crowdsourcing might not be so cool for Threadless, as both a community and a destination for high quality t-shirt design.

There is concern that the GAP + Threadless partnership may stray from what made Threadless great originally.

Consumers, artists, and some in the Threadless community are concerned that partnering an independent, highly artistic community like Threadless with a corporate conglomerate like GAP is contrary to Threadless’ original mission, which is what attracted so many people to the brand in the first place.Defending the GAP + Threadless partnership, and all Threadless partnerships for that matter, Threadless Co-Founder Jack Nickell explained his view of this “dissonance” and the companies’ future on his blog. He said,

“What I really wanted to discuss… is Threadless partnerships more broadly. The fact that, now, when you submit a design to Threadless, it’s not just to become a Threadless tee. We are working with many partners, Gap is just one, to find opportunities for many more of the designs submitted.

Some of these you’ve seen like Griffin, Dell, Thermos, etc. Others are future partnerships in the works and let me tell you, there are a LOT of them! Some are t-shirt based like Gap but others aren’t. We’re a design community first, it just so happens we’ve mostly been printing designs on tees.

…keep in mind that when you submit a design in the future, it may not just be where or what you could see it end up on – we’re looking for all sorts of opportunities to get your work out into the world. Over time you will also see us make submitting ideas for things other than tees an easier process.”

Jack clears any confusion about users designs being sold without their permission by adding,

“P.S. In case it’s not crystal clear, we always contact you about an opportunity before we give your design to a partner.”

Threadless’ PR rep Bethany Allen added:

“Our goals have not changed. We exist to give the creative minds of the world more opportunities to make and sell great art… we’ve been doing partnerships to further this goal for years. We’ll never be content with status quo, so much to do!”

If they haven’t already, Threadless would do well to ask themselves, regarding the continuity and impact of their brand,

“Are we spreading ourselves too thin? Are we becoming just another national brand to be lost among the infinite list of existing brands? Are we going to lose our hardcore, niche market community base by expanding too quickly?”

Understandably, Threadless is a growing company that has risen quickly in popularity, over the last few years in particular. Maybe Threadless wants out of their niche, in order to grow. Maybe they want to become a nationally recognized brand, breaking the shackles of their small but dedicated (& still growing) community. But, if Threadless begins to appear in other large retailers besides GAP, they may lose much of the impact that their neat little corner of the internet once fostered for them.

The Price of Partnership

A small but key issue regarding the GAP + Threadless partnership is price. Typically, Threadless tees sell for around $15 to $30, with more expensive options usually going to the highest, most detailed, quality art. Users are free to set their own prices, so the value judgement is ultimately up to the artist, not Threadless.GAP, however, has priced all of their GAP + Threadless options at a stark $29.95, regardless of the design – a small margin above Threadless own pricing, but an exceptionally meaningful one to consumers & artists alike, considering that Threadless shirts have never been available in physical retail marketplaces, except for Threadless HQ and a single outpost in New York. Consumers & artists have begun voicing some concern for the higher profit margins of mass-produced GAP tees vs. lower priced, independently printed Threadless tees. Threadless community member Tracerbullet explains their consumer stance in a comment on the announcement blog post:

“Very cool, but $30? blech. i’ll admire these from afar.”

User Jennifer.Fujimoto added fuel to the consumer fire concerning GAP’s pricing of Threadless prints when she said:

“I am also disappointed that the same designs are not available in Men’s and Women’s. This is something that I’ve always loved about threadless shirts. And the prices are so high! I might have shelled out the bucks for the super awesome lucky no. 7 shirt, but I probably won’t since I don’t like the way that men’s shirts fit (me).”

There exists a conflict between Threadless buyers and designers, as well. Threadless buyers want exclusivity; they want to be trend setters instead of trend followers. Threadless designers (like any designers) are looking for exposure and distribution. Considering that only 0.6% of designs actually get printed by Threadless, the bar has already been set high for designers to clear the hurdle of exposure. Partnering with a huge retailer like GAP seemingly provides a solution to help designers get selected more often, or at least get more compensation for their submissions. However, if GAP + Threadless gets designers to “work” for free, it may cheapen the entire industry, as noted by Threadless community member martiandrivein. Regarding compensation, many in the Threadless community (& design community at large) agree that designers should be compensated based on a percent of sales instead of receiving a one time payment of flat prize money.

Threadless’ PR Guru Bethany Allen speaks out about compensation, saying:

“It’s the same compensation as T-shirts… $2,000 in cash, $500 Threadless gift certificate, and $500 in cash each time your design is reprinted.”

In the end, designers may end up feeling exploited by receiving little compensation compared to the massive corporate margins GAP will take in from selling the designs. If Threadless wants to ensure that their community of designers feels “taken care of,” as well as loosen resistance to expand into future partnerships, they may want to adopt a model that actually profits the creators of the product – the artists & their designs – instead of just providing artists with a free lunch ($3000 disappears quick) while providing huge profits for a massive distributor like GAP.

Threadless CEO Thomas Ryan also comments:

“This partnership with Gap enables us to not only print more artists’ designs, but also allows us to provide great exposure for these independent artists.”

However, having designs in a GAP store is obviously a huge advantage for only a very small percentage of Threadless artists to receive an enormous amount of exposure. Adhesive Hippo, another Threadless community member, provided a neutral defense for GAP’s use of Threadless designs when they said:

To me it just seems like it’s a way for designers to get more exposure. It’s not like GAP is anything special, design wise, GAP just likes TL shirts and now the designers can say one of their clients was GAP.”

The GAP + Threadless partnership is definitely going to be profitable – most U.S. consumers haven’t been exposed to something along the lines of Threadless quality “art apparel” before – but there may be a price to pay concerning the mental health of the Threadless design community, not to mention the watchful eye of discerning consumers.

GAP’s motive for partnering with Threadless isn’t just about supporting artists – it’s about staying fresh to stay afloat.

In the past few years, GAP has seen the start of a slow landslide financially, beginning with their stock. GAP’s stock, which used to be a sure seller, has become more of a discount aisle offering, with last year’s income falling 17% along with a 4% drop in store comps.

GAP has been stripping itself of unnecessary fluff, becoming a store mainly for “basics” items and accessories to cut spending on what’s trending. However, the GAP + Threadless partnership shows a renewed interest in expanding GAP’s horizons into a new demand market – apparel as art.Partnering with Threadless in February gave GAP a way to beat the analysts in their projections of a 1.4% decrease in sales – same-store sales actually increased by 4% last month, the tail end of which included GAP’s Threadless offerings.

GAP is doing well to make their brand stand apart from the competition by adding new offerings which may well serve as a basis to reinvent the GAP brand. However, in doing so, GAP’s partnership with Threadless may prove to favor GAP by providing large profit gains reaped from Threadless’ high quality niche of artists and designers, while only offering Threadless exposure and volume at the cost diminishing their brand image.

Source: InvestorPlace

So… does GAP + Threadless diminish Threadless cool factor or not?

Honestly, at this early stage in the game, it’s hard to deduce a clear answer. What is clear is that both consumers & the Threadless community seem generally positive about the move; people are exicted to get into Gap retail stores to pay $30 for a shirt they could have purchased from Threadless directly for $20. That’s the power of retail at work.Threadless definitely benefits from this partnership by receiving a huge opportunity to exponentially increase volume, exposure, and revenue. However, it is wise to keep in mind that there are a number of concerns for all parties involved in this partnership; for consumers, for artists, and in particularly for Threadless themselves, in regards to the continuity of their brand, and the happiness of their niche market community of designers and buyers.What has become absolutely clear is that GAP takes away the big (& quite possibly the biggest) benefit out of everyone involved in the partnership by increasing their already massive (although historically low) corporate revenue.

Threadless has shown confidence in their decision to partner with GAP; only time will tell who gains the most from the deal, and if Threadless will indeed “lose their cool” in the process.

Written by erik


  1. Budi · March 23, 2012

    Great in depth review

  2. erik · March 28, 2012

    Thank you so much for the comment, Budi! We’re glad we could spread the knowledge.

    T-Shirt Talk Staff

  3. Jake Nickell Exclusive Interview on Threadless Partnerships | Custom T-Shirt Talk · April 17, 2012

    […] weeks ago on T-Shirt Talk, we wrote an op-ed piece called, “Does Partnering with GAP Diminish Threadless’ Cool Factor?” which covered Threadless‘ recent partnership with GAP.  In the article, we addressed […]

  4. Travis · May 7, 2012

    In my opinion it’s a bad deal for both companies. $30 a pop will not fly with me or the majority of GAP customers. I want new $20 graphic tees that sell in clearance for $10. I’m guessing GAP is going to see a major decline in sells of Men’s wear.

  5. kat · September 10, 2012

    Just wanted to point out that many designers for GAP + Threadless Prints are awarded simply the $2,000 cash prize. There are no gift codes awarded for either Gap or Threadless.

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