Retail and Small Business & Startups

Story development differentiates Mitten State

T-shirt maker scours old college yearbooks to come up with unique designs.

July 31, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Mitten State
Mitten State now has a location in Eastown where it features designs for local colleges and universities. Courtesy Mitten State

The owners at The Mitten State are excited for football season to begin.

The Michigan-themed T-shirt company acquired the rights to print shirts for Michigan State University and the University of Michigan at the end of last year, giving the company a full licensed lineup of Michigan colleges and universities.

The Mitten State is mostly known for its Michigan pride shirts with sayings such as “Say yes to Michigan!” and “America’s High Five.”

The college lines, however, are where Mitten State really sees growth in the future, said Scott Zubrickas, who joined the other two owners, Will Bransdorfer and Mike O’Rourke, roughly three years ago.

“We’ve really worked with every department in the schools from admissions to alumni to athletics,” Zubrickas said. “The sheer amount of past students, students and incoming students is enormous, and the fact we only focus on Michigan schools has begun to build a relationship with those schools and the audience we have.”

Deals with other schools such as Calvin College, Hope College, Grand Valley State University and Ferris State University came fairly easily, but the state’s two big universities gave Mitten State some trouble. It helped that O’Rourke and Bransdorfer are alumni of MSU and U-M, respectively.

Still, it took about two years of courting the universities to finally secure deals. At first, the universities were unsure about the relatively small size of the retailer.

“They blew us off because we weren’t a typical-sized vendor they work with,” Zubrickas said. “They were cordial but wanted to wait until we had some growth with our existing schools.”

But each time Mitten State posted to social media about its existing school T-shirts, fans of MSU and U-M would ask, “Where’s our school?”

So Mitten State put together some statistics of the thousands of fans asking for shirts, mocked up a few designs and took them to the schools.

“MSU gave us a big yes,” Zubrickas said. “U-M was the same way; they saw we were local with a loyal following.”

The designs of the T-shirts likely may have made the difference. Zubrickas said Bransdorfer does all the designs and has a special eye for finding a unique angle. Many of the ideas come from inside college yearbooks purchased on eBay.

He pointed to one of the first GVSU designs the company did, which honored the school’s first undefeated football season in 1979 and includes a depiction of the school’s cartoonish mascot from that era.

“He finds things that are overlooked by other companies that just want to put a logo on something,” he said. “There’s actually a story behind a lot of these designs. They’re not from left field, and they add validity to our shirts.”

One shirt Zubrickas is particularly excited about for fall comes from a logo pulled off a 1960’s MSU football ticket stub. It’s one of several new shirts the company has readied for the back-to-school football season.

“It’s our first push into that season,” he said. “Adding those two big schools, we’ve brought on several retailers that were interested in carrying those schools’ shirts.”

It’s not just college-town retailers that are adding Mitten State shirts to their inventory: Zubrickas said the company continues to add to a network of 50-plus retailers around the state carrying the unique T-shirts. He said boutiques and stores in tourist-focused towns such as Petoskey and Grand Haven continue to add new products monthly.

“A lot of our growth still is strongly along our Michigan-themed products,” he said, adding the company launched a “campfires and lakes” series this year focused largely around state icons such as Sleeping Bear Dunes and Lake Michigan.

Fans now can shop in a Mitten State bricks-and-mortar store, as well. Last November, the company opened a flagship store in Eastown at 1502 Wealthy St. SE, across from Yesterdog. It gives fans a place to see all of the company’s products outside of secondary retailers and the company’s website.

“We wanted to see how we could do on our own — not blended in with other products,” Zubrickas said. “Eastown was a great fit in terms of vintage style, and it’s a good market.”

Next summer, Mitten State will open its second retail store, in the development that will house New Holland Brewing Co.’s west-side Grand Rapids location on Bridge Street.

“There’s a lot of expansion on the west side and an opportunity to be a part of that presented itself. It was exciting,” Zubrickas said. “With all the growth, it’ll be a great place to have another location.”

In the future, Zubrickas said he could see more store locations in cities such as East Lansing and Ann Arbor to fuel the college sales.

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