EDITOR’S NOTE: The Daily Press will feature a series of articles about local businesses, highlighting their history and what makes them unique. The series will run regularly on the Daily Press.
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ESCANABA — At their store at 909 Ludington in Escanaba and online, North Coast Apparel offers sophisticated designs with a northern, outdoor theme. Business partners Rachel Larsen and Tyler Johnson started heat-pressing vinyl in a kitchen and advertising on Facebook in 2016, but Larsen said what was “very small operation” in its early days “it grew very fast.”
Larsen, the graphic designer behind North Coast’s unique artwork, started creating things he liked.
“I had a few designs that were kind of inspired by where we live, but not really Yupper,” she said. “I would design and then we would use vinyl and heat press right in the kitchen. We did this for about a few months.
In early 2017, North Coast Apparel moved into the downtown storefront. It can be recognized by its modern signs, storefronts and recycled pallets, or by Sophie, the white-and-tan mutt who bobs by the door, begging passers-by to enter.
With a new, larger space, Larsen and Johnson were able to use the back of the building as a workshop for a wider range of printing methods. Screen printing is a much more complicated process than vinyl and requires several specialized materials, but the results are longer lasting and many people prefer the ink look.
For vinyl printing, the design is cut from a sheet of material that is tackier on one side and supplied on rolls; negative space is “weed” and the design is pressed onto the fabric with heat to adhere.
Screen printing involves dividing a design into layers, one for each color; printing each layer in black on transparencies one at a time; emulsion immersion screens, photosensitive liquid; exposing the transparency-coated screens to light to harden the emulsion in the negative space only; washing the screens and then preparing them for use as stencils for inking fabric.
Larsen had learned screen printing at a previous job and brought the skills with her to the new company.
They also have an embroidery machine that takes the work out of stitching, but digitizing a piece of art again takes time from Larsen in front of a computer. She described the process as a pain and really hard to learn.
“It’s an art form. It’s fun, but it’s a nightmare.” she said of digitization.
The product line expanded and while Larsen kept his promise to avoid “cheesy, gas station stuff,” some Upper Peninsula designs have been added and people are loving them. They started embroidering hats as well as making stickers. Clothing offerings have grown somewhat, but shirts and hoodies remain big sellers.
Most of the things sold in the store are made in-house, and Larsen said it hurts her pride every time they have to ship something. “And when we order things — that we can’t make — we like, 99 percent of the time we get them from a business in Michigan.” she said. She said North Coast holds itself to a high standard and they don’t release products that don’t meet the requirements.
During the Daily Press interview at the store, several customers came and went, none of them leaving empty-handed.
“These guys are the best” said Bob Staswich, who had come in to buy a present for his daughter. “And you can quote me on that.”
North Coast patrons will likely see Larsen behind the counter — or perhaps their only employee. Johnson has a full-time job elsewhere, but he does the bookkeeping and also practices some art of his own.
The walls of North Coast are decorated with framed posters of attractive people in picturesque settings, dressed in North Coast clothing. Models are friends, family and real customers. All but one of the photos — which Johnson says was sent to them by someone who lives out west — were taken by Johnson.
More of Larsen’s art can be seen around town in unexpected places. Her skills have been used when businesses want to breathe new life into an old logo and when startups or individuals need help creating a design from the ground up.
One of Larsen’s designs, depicting select Escanaba buildings—the Harbor Tower on the left, the Market on the right, and a few storefronts in between—was purchased by the Center for Urban Development and can be seen on materials around town.
At first they didn’t intend to take custom orders, but the requests started rolling in early on and now much of the business on the North Coast comes from organizations that rely on printing their workwear and eventwear in the high street business based, owned and operated by two Escanaba locals.