It wasn't my idea to start a clothing line. It took some convincing, gentle arm-twisting from a friend who often knows me better than I know myself. That coercion worked. We started a business.
And I had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time.
Looking back, the timing of founding Meat Bun, our video game-themed t-shirt line, makes sense. It started in Tokyo, following an afternoon pounding the pavement in Harajuku, a fashionable slice of Tokyo nestled between Shinjuku and Shibuya. The area attracts the fashion conscious, from outlandish cosplayers to street fashion freaks.
Harajuku is also home to one of our biggest influences, Beams T, a Japanese label that somehow manages to make the stereotypically uncool—including video games, anime and manga—cool. It was after shopping at Beams T, where I purchased an Every Extend Extra t-shirt, lamenting that we'd missed out the label's Dragon Quest anniversary line of tees and bemoaning the fact that shirts from The King of Games were hard to get in the U.S. that the idea of making our own clothes, video game-themed ones, started to gel.
It was just days before the Tokyo Game Show. Wedged between the t-shirt shopping and the promise of playing dozens of unreleased video games, the whole thing seemed like a good idea.
Our goal? To tap into the hard to define culture of video games, a medium which we had been passionate about for decades, and create something that was better than what we were being offered. And we weren't the only ones with that idea. Similarly passionate video game fans, those raised on 8- and 16-bit games were doing the same thing, like the people behind Panic, J!NX, Attract Mode, Starmen.net and its spin-off Fangamer and many others.
So, after foolishly deciding on the name Meat Bun—inspired by a life-giving pick up from Capcom's unpopular side-scrolling arcade beat 'em up Warriors of Fate—we set off to clothe gamers.
My partner in clothing is Scott Spatola, a lifelong gamer who originally introduced himself to me after learning that I'd brought a SNES and a copy of Street Fighter II to college, against my parents wishes. The aforementioned arm-twister, Scott has always been the motivator, a rabid fan of Spy Hunter, Ninja Warriors and Darkstalkers, and the other half of this full-time-feeling side project dubbed Meat Bun.
It always helps to have a friend like Scott, one who's organized enough to undertake the business side of the business—setting up the bank accounts, applying for federal tax IDs, legally incorporating the company. There are just shy of a million little things that crop up in the process of starting to run one's own business, from the minor—like running out of envelopes with 200 orders waiting to be fulfilled—to scary legal threats. What seems like a fun little lark isn't often as easy as originally planned.
"I always said that if anyone ever asked, I'd tell them that starting your own business is F-ing hard, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise," says Sean "Jinx" Gailey, the creative overlord at clothier and accessory maker J!NX. "Real blood, sweat and tears (also real) have gone into this business."
But J!NX has turned those hard-lost fluids into a successful brand and, perhaps more importantly, a full-time gig for its founders.
"Frankly, the biggest challenge was getting over the 'hump,' making that transition from working your day job to solely working on your own business," Gailey says. "Anyone who's working on their own business can relate to that. We didn't take a paycheck from J!NX for 5 years of business, during the 'this is our side business' days. That was rough."
J!NX has been in business since 1999, when Gailey started the company "as a three page website with six designs" running the label from his bedroom. We met Gailey at last year's Spike TV Video Game Awards, bending his ear about the J!NX empire, which, while different from what we had set out to do with Meat Bun, reflected a similar passion for video games and general nerdiness, coated with a cooler shell.
"I wanted to make clothing inspired by our lifestyle, one of video games, pen and paper gaming, geek culture, giant robots, comics and dragons," Gailey says of the origins of J!NX. The clothing company has grown from a bedroom doubling as headquarters to an operation employing 21 people, occupying 18,000 square feet of office and warehouse space and making merchandise for hugely popular games like World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons, StarCraft, Aion and EVE Online.
And while not quite understated, for the most part, what J!NX does is offer something to the fan of, say, World of Warcraft that's designed with more of a wink and a nod.
From the barely referential designs from Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy t-shirt maker Panic to the Earthbound obsessed crew at Fangamer—borne of Starmen.net—the subtle approach appears to be a common tactic. For our own part, ultra vague references to The House of the Dead, Ikaruga and Spy Hunter, seemed sometimes lost on the Meat Bun customer.
Reid Young of Fangamer says his company draws much of its inspiration from the Super Nintendo's role-playing game heyday for its similarly obscure designs.
"EarthBound and other SNES RPG's have definitely been our main inspiration," Young says, a fact reflected in the clothing label's EarthBound-heavy catalog. "1996 was pretty much the best summer ever — Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, and Super Mario RPG from morning to midnight. It's fun to relive those days and, hopefully, inspire new and old fans to do the same."
While the Fangamer store—"Something we hoped would bring in enough money to keep the lights on" over at Fangamer's community-driven side—is now the "main business focus," according to Young, employing three full-time Starmen.net veterans, running a clothing and merchandise label exceeded the EarthBound fan's expectations.
"I never anticipated the amount of work which goes into a single piece of merchandise," says Young. "It sounds easy to slap a design on a shirt, but the amount of time, money, and care that goes into the process is staggering."
Fan response, Young says, makes the grind of shipping thousands of Mother 3-inspired handbooks and t-shirts all worth it.
"Releasing a product, going to sleep, and waking up to find that everybody is as pumped about it as I am. It brings a little tear to my eye," he says.
That may be the most exhilarating part of trying to appeal to a gamer's fashion sense, finding something that people will buy and wear in public, unafraid to wear their love of video games on their sleeve, sometimes literally.
One person who's taking a different approach to the sometimes hazy cloud of "culture" that surrounds video games is Adam Robezzoli, founder of "video game culture shop" Attract Mode. It's an endeavor four years in the planning, one that includes fashion, art, print magazines and more.
Attract Mode's online store opened earlier this year, an effort that allows Robezzoli to "curate and produce unique art/goods related to video games, but also a way to fund pet projects like the artxgame collabs and the DATA BEEZ chip music concert." It also sells t-shirts, giving gamers more wearable options.
The online store offers a broader set of merchandise, however, from video game inspired t-shirts to zines from writer Matt "Fort90" Hawkins to Pac-Man oven mitts to CDs from chiptunes superstars YMCK, Anamanaguchi, Covox, et al.
Personally, when we started doing our own thing with Meat Bun, it was simply an extension of our gaming-related lives, much like what the founders of J!NX, Fangamer, Attract Mode and others have done—turned their passions into something tangible. And, yes, it's sometimes F-ing hard. But you have to wear something, right?