Promoting local culture through T-shirts

Port Alberni, BC

When Natasha and Bill Dennis expressed their feelings about the pandemic onto a T-shirt a year ago, little did they know that the act would develop into a Port Alberni storefront that serves clients from across the region.

On Aug. 1 Billybeauty opened at 4567 Gertrude Street, offering custom-made T-shirt designs, as well as prints on other clothing - plus a variety wood, metal and glasswork the Dennises inherited from Ladybird Engraving, which they purchased.

Ladybird operated in Port Alberni for a decade, but its past owners were ready for retirement, said Natasha, who benefitted from a month of mentoring in engraving from the former proprietor, Dutch DeRooy.

“He wanted to get this business into somebody’s hands that would keep it going,” explained Natasha, sitting behind the counter of her new shop with fleet of heat press machines behind her. “The engraving thing is in high demand. I didn’t realize how big it was, so that’s a huge addition to our business.”

But the young couple are also bringing their own niche to the storefront location, offering people a chance to express their thoughts and ideas on clothing. With prices starting at $17.99 for a basic custom-printed T-shirt, there is no minimum order, thanks to a process that cuts designs into heat transfer vinyl sheets. Logos and captions are transferred through their digital formats onto the sheets, which have the negative space cut out by hand before the design is pressed onto a shirt or another piece of clothing.

“The way that the programs work these days is that it’s not that complex to be able to get that design onto a computer, traced for the vinyl cutter to cut it,” explained Bill, who is from Ahousaht.

“It’s not like silkscreening where they need a minimum order of 50 to make it worthwhile,” added Natasha, who is a member of the Tseshaht First Nation. “There’s a lot of start-up costs with silkscreening with having to get your image burned onto a screen and then having the inks and the dryers.”

In their first month at the storefront the greatest demand has come from businesses needing their brand on clothing. Under one heat press lies a design for tiickin eBike Rentals, an operation that started this year in Ucluelet, while on the counter sits a bunch of recently completed staff names tags for Port Alberni’s Shining Star Child Care. Months before they opened the storefront large orders came in, including 500 masks for the Ditidaht First Nation to distribute to its members at Christmas.

Opportunity opened for the couple when it became apparent how easy it was to get a simple design or message affordably printed onto clothing. Their first design used the f-word, albeit with a ‘v’ in place of the ‘u’, as an expression of frustration over the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I just said what I felt and put it on a T-shirt,” said Natasha in reference to the two-word design. “I hated what COVID did to family and friends and businesses and everything in this town.”

“We had no idea that anybody was going to really want the T-shirts,” said Bill. “More of less she was making them for us, for ourselves.”

But after people saw what she made through social media, requests began coming in. The opportunity became clear when the couple heard more interest while visiting family in Tofino.

“As soon as I had that first person ask me if I can make him two T-shirts, we went back home that same week, and we were like, ‘We should just do this. We should just turn it into a business’,” recalled Natasha.

The couple began purchasing blank shirts from the dollar store to fulfill their orders. Bill admits that the early months of the business were a learning process.

“There were a lot of mistakes,” he said. “We were trying to get printable vinyl. We thought we could use a regular printer to print on them…It did not work at all.”

Earlier plans entailed a “mobile clothing boutique”, leading Natasha and Bill to buy a trailer for their shop on wheels. They ended up selling it to invest in better equipment that now fills their new space on Gertrude Street.

In the future the Dennises are looking to expand their business by incorporating more detailed silkscreening work.

“I think in the next phase of our journey we might bring that in,” said Natasha.

“It’s really amazing the amount of detail you can get with silkscreening,” added Bill.

As their product spreads through West Coast communities, the couple have found themselves to be providing a format for distinctly local issues. In early September 2020, when the Tseshaht First Nation was in the midst of a salmon harvesting conflict with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Denises received orders to return to their F-word design, this time the target being DFO.

“I definitely think that it does promote the local culture,” noted Bill. “A lot of people have more of a voice in that way with being able to put things on shirts.”

With the next Orange Shirt Day a month away, the couple have found their latest challenge to be a shortage of the signature colour that has come to recognize residential school survivors.

“I do think that it brings a huge amount of awareness in our community, especially when ‘Every child matters’ came out,” said Natasha of her service. “The problem is that we can’t get orange T-shirts now for adults.”

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