So, you’ve already ordered the type of t-shirts you want and picked the art to jazz them up. Here’s what comes next. Click on the numbers on the graphic below to get an exclusive behind the screens look at the printing process at David Knepprath’s shop. Graphic: Nardine Saad
Small-time t-shirt designers, who aren’t backed by big brands, go to David Knepprath to execute their visions.
Knepprath is one of more than 2,000 screen printers in Los Angeles County, based on a simple Yellow Pages search. Knepprath’s own history creating cotton concoctions has made him an expert on the screen printing industry. The entrance to his shop is clean and simple. The office is sparsely decorated with two rolling racks of sample shirts and a few screened hats and tees are tacked to the wall.
Knepprath sits in the far corner behind a counter among his employees while he explains how to use his Web site to a customer over the phone.
“They have to be done in the same order,” he bellows into the phone, his booming voice drowning out the voices of the other employees in the front office.
Knepprath shuffles through the shop into the back rooms, past the printers and up the stairs to his office.
“[The t-shirt has] always been a walking billboard,” says the owner of T-Shirt Pros David K’s T-shirt Printing. He is 53, short, white haired and wears a long-sleeved navy blue polo, khaki cargo pants and brown hiking shoes.
Silk screening inks, Knepprath says, are the likely reason that t-shirts gained popularity in the 1960s, allowing them to become universal billboards and symbols of a consumer society. He’s clear, though: he’d never wear a billboard he didn’t want to promote or pay to advertise for someone else.
“I’d never wear a Nike or a Reebok,” he says.
Twenty years ago, when Knepprath started T-shirt Pros, “Everything was American made–Hanes, Fruit of the Loom–they were all made in U.S.” he said. During his time in the business, Knepprath has dealt with most of the changes in the t-shirt industry firsthand. So, what happened?
“Can you say NAFTA?” he chuckles. “Now none of them are [American made], except for American Apparel.”
When Knepprath started T-Shirt Pros, a white Hanes Beefy-T cost him $3. Before the North American Free Trade Agreement, the imported stuff was “junk,” he says. Today, one shirt costs $1.75 because it is no longer made domestically but is still much superior in quality than it was 30 years ago. That was when he bought his first emulsion printing kit from Aaron Brothers. Knepprath had never taken an art class; silk screen printing was just a creative outlet for the then advertising exec.
“I was able to go from concept to my own product,” Knepprath says. “I could do it all. I was consumed by it.” This was his form of American Apparel’s vertical integration model. He later built his own one-color screen printing press, set up shop in his kitchen and cured the t-shirts in his oven before finally starting his company in 1989. He now owns two large printing presses that can screen up to 12 ink colors onto one item. His clientele varies but all customers have to place a minimum order of 24 shirts to use his services. Knepprath’s largest order to date has been for 75,000 t-shirts for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. “I wish every order was like that,” he said later.
Sitting behind his desk, which is splayed with prints, documents and letters, Knepprath rocks back and forth in his leather chair beaming with excitement. A cork board rests on the wall by his desk tacked with newspaper clippings, decals and postcards. The faint whining of the press churning downstairs is drowned out by his laugh when he remembers some of the ridiculous things people have asked him to do with t-shirts.
In 2000, he said stylists working on “The Mexican” film brought him a fitted tee that Brad Pitt was supposed to wear in the movie.
Knepprath leans forward in his chair and his blue eyes bulge. He begins to speak slowly but his voice is still amplified.
“It was black, long-sleeved and from Barney’s!” he yells, incredulity at the shirt’s lackluster appearance dripping from every word. And the kicker: the shirt cost $80 and came with care instructions for the consumer to properly scrunch it up so that it would maintain its unique crinkliness.
Knepprath also witnesses demand for shirts almost daily. The past two years when the Lakers were playing in the championships, Knepprath said he had a 10-person crew stay at the Culver City print shop overnight. They watched the final game and prepped thousands of t-shirts immediately proclaiming that the Lakers had indeed won the championship in just a couple of hours.
“It’s a lot of responsibility because it’s a timely thing,” Knepprath says. “As soon as they win, we’re like: okay, start the presses!”
He supplied the shirts to sporting good stores, which all had different pickup times throughout the night, so that the shirts would be in stores the next morning. Sports fans, he believes, can be just as bad as fashionistas.
“Sports uniforms have three different styles: home, away and an alternate jerseys they use. And they change every few years and you have to go buy it,” Knepprath says, still rocking in his chair. “If you’re a big sports fan you gotta follow along.”