Class of ’06 | Forget what you thought you knew about T-shirt design. Forget thousands upon thousands of identical, screen-printed shirts with the company name emblazoned all over the surface. Apliiq doesn’t do that.
Instead, the new fashion upstart created by Ethan Lipsitz C’06 specializes in distinctive user-created garments that can’t help but be one of a kind.
It works like this: First, customers pick their base garment, then they pick a pattern from Apliiq’s extensive fabric collection. Lipsitz and his team take care of the rest, stitching pieces of fabric by hand into patterns, designs, or trim on what was once a simple, monochromatic garment. The results are bright, punchy, fun, and unfailingly unique.
“Customers aren’t going to send it to Goodwill,” Lipsitz says, “because this is their favorite sweatshirt. They made it; they designed it. This is something that was made especially for them.”
The company, whose name is a play on the word appliqué—the process of affixing pieces of fabric to other materials—traces its origins back to Lipsitz’s time as an undergraduate at Penn. He and a friend “got this Karate Kid headband,” he recalls, “and I remember thinking it was a really cool thing to wear, not just to a party, so I stitched it onto a hoodie. From there, I just started playing with the idea.”
Lipsitz started gathering fabrics while majoring in architecture at Penn, frequenting Philadelphia’s fabric district below South Street in search of standout vintage pieces. (“I kind of felt like a DJ finding these cool old records,” he laughs.) Having developed an interest in design, he found that making clothes was a way to create a highly functional kind of art. The price of a blank garment and fabric being relatively low, he started crafting pieces for friends.
Soon Lipsitz sold a few shirts to Reload, a custom courier-bag shop in Philadelphia. After graduation, he worked at an architecture firm in Australia, but the idea for Apliiq stuck in the back of his mind. A few years later, having decided he wanted to be his own boss, he took some time off to launch the company.
When you look at a piece of Apliiq wear, you won’t notice any brand names stamped across the chest or even a trademark logo. Instead, there is a simple exclamation-point tag—think the red tag on the back of Levi’s jeans—which Lipsitz added to distinguish Apliiq clothes from copycat pieces that started popping up around Philly and LA.
“It was never about creating a brand,” Lipsitz says. “It was about allowing my friends to have their own designs.”
The very heart of his line is the fabric. Friends and family send Lipsitz fabrics they come across while traveling, and since the Apliiq workshop is only a few blocks from the fabric district in downtown LA, he has access to textiles from all over the world.
“Every fabric has a story—almost an identity in itself,” Lipsitz says. “We really want to let that story stand out.”
Once they run out, these exotic swaths of fabric often can’t be replaced. But that’s exactly the point. Furthermore, by not filling orders until they come in and not producing a large amount of inventory, Apliiq drastically reduces surplus waste.
“A lot of clothes that don’t get sold lose value and eventually end up in landfills,” Lipsitz says. “We try to avoid that as much as we can.” The team even uses waste fabrics to create shopping bags, a process they call “upcycling.”
Though Lipsitz runs Apliiq out of LA, most sales occur via the Internet. Apliiq.com allows customers to view the fabrics available at the workshop, build their garment, customize it (down to the color of the drawstrings), and then preview it before buying. From there, Lipsitz and the Apliiq team process the order, sew the garment, and ship it, all within three days.
“The workshop is, first and foremost, a workshop,” Lipsitz says. “It’s where we work and ship out from every day. We’re working on a website and we’re here all the time, but it’s definitely not a typical retail business; it’s definitely an online company.”
While running a company and filling a constant stream of orders is demanding, Lipsitz isn’t flying solo. A number of Penn alumni on the team have been instrumental to Apliiq’s success: Emily Gruber C’08 is CFO. Audrey Chin C’05 helps run production and development. Jess Casper C’06 helped keep the business afloat while Lipsitz was working in Australia. Emily’s father, Harry Gruber C’73 M’77, and Ethan’s father, Lewis Lipsitz M’77, have done everything from investing in Apliiq to looking at the accounting books.
The bottom line is that Apliiq doesn’t want to sell you a brand, it wants to change the way you think about buying clothes.
“The whole branded element is secondary to the idea of it being your own and allowing you to have ownership over it,” Lipsitz says. “You shouldn’t feel like you’re wearing someone else’s billboard.”
—Ty Russell C’11