In Conversation with Nate Blomquist
Nate Blomquist got his start sewing in a basement in Duluth, Minnesota. A couple of years later he and a posse of other skaters and snowboarders formed Common Apparel, a Duluth-based clothing company. We spent some time with Nate in a collective warehouse space called the Carter as we passed through Duluth at the end of our first week running. The Carter is a newly formed skate cooperative downtown. Nate talked with us about starting a business, living in Duluth, and how a personal endeavor can grow into a communal project. What follows is our edited conversation with Nate at the Carter that day.
When did you get started in Duluth, and why here?
I came up here for school five years ago just because all my friends were coming up and I wanted to get out of the Minneapolis area and move away from home too. Then I started in business school at UMD (University of Minnesota – Duluth) then I went to LSC (Lake Superior College) for a little. I’m one class short, I just didn’t finish. Then I bought a screen press printer and a sewing machine and sewed out of the basement of my house. There’s a bunch of community up here, like all our friends, that skate and snowboard. I just made products slowly and had a side job, obviously, delivering subs and what not. We’d film movies and do edits and put them on the internet. It grew; I just bought more stuff, like a vinyl cutter, and did odd jobs for people. So, slowly more people got more involved. Then we branded ourselves under Common Apparel as a crew up here in Duluth.
We started filming street and making a full length film called the Impaler. We started filming two-year projects old school, like DVX tape instead of doing HD like everyone else. Plus Duluth is a hill city so there’s a lot of handrails for our type of features that we want to hit on the street for filmmaking. Plus living by the lake is great, it’s kinda like an ocean feel. It’s a tight knit community. It’s not blown out like Minneapolis where you have to drive 30 miles to get to a skate or snow spot. The odds of getting busted setting up a set with lights and generator and speed for a feature are less here than in Minneapolis. There’s a lot of parks and hiking that we all came up here for. We came up here and thought there were going to be more skate parks than there were, but we made do. That’s the reason we built this thing, there’s not many skate parks in Duluth, you have to drive to Superior. Not all of us have cars so you had to find someone with a car to skate the best park in this area.
"…we had a whole basement for sewing machines. It was a pretty nice work area. You could sleep there and work and cut cloth."
We branded our houses like a brand identity. We had our crew obviously, then we’d all live together in a house and make our stuff out of the house. Then we’d name our office. So we’d party there and network with people. And get the brand out and tag stickers on people when they’re dancing and drinking beer, college stuff. I was the only one that wasn’t in college at that first house – it was me and my buddy actually, the two of us. He was my head graphic designer, Jake Braseth. We were just making stuff, thinking of new ideas, concepts. The other guys helped but they were in school. So we called that house Castle Danger. It’s a Duluth icon in the area. That’s what we kinda based the name off of. It sounded cool and we made stickers and stuff. After we moved out of that house we moved onto a bigger house up near Scholastica. It was secluded almost like an island, like a dead zone. So we called it Knife Island. That was an old group home. It was still a basement operation. It was ten times bigger because we had a whole basement for sewing machines. It was a pretty nice work area. You could sleep there and work and cut cloth. We hadn’t developed the craft line, which is our biggest seller right now. For like three or four years I’d search the internet for wholesalers and find the best fits, order samples, and finally figured out what hats are good to order and design and better our brand. You don’t want bad fitting beanies or hats or shirts. We would mainly just decorate. We’d order blanks and decorate. It almost was like our canvas, the hat or the shirt. We’d get all crazy with it, bleach paint, dyes and screen print tags, cut them out all one of a kind. And that’s when we developed there. We even made a video at Knife Island. We had a mini ramp in the garage and we had a party again but bigger scale because it was a bigger house. It was like a log cabin. Pretty sweet but the neighbors didn’t like it. We were only there for a year.
Then we got this warehouse. Then we were like, let’s announce that we’re going to send it, full scale to the brim. We were in a couple local board shops in town. We’d go to Colorado and hit a couple shops. Then I worked out at Windells in Oregon a couple summers ago so I got in a couple shops there. Thanks for everyone who supported us; we’d been a basement operation for three years. Now we’re moving into a warehouse, so we’re taking the next step. Having overhead costs and getting inventory. That’s where we’re at right now. Now we have this. We want to do a Common movie next year.
We got an idea. We want to get a van and soup it out and travel and get a full movie basically in one year. Then edit it and the following season plan a premiere tour with the same route we went. Go to Colorado, Portland, California, maybe even Flagstaff, AZ. Basically all the shops I sell to now, work out a premiere with them and then sell our new product. Then what I want to do with the van after that, if you buy a shirt at our premiere you’re in a drawing to win the van. The van we made the movie with, toured, and met all these people in. If you bought something from us, we’ll put you in a drawing for the van. So if we get so many shirt sales, we’re gonna pay for this four thousand dollar van. And then someone has a free van for buying a t-shirt.
You moved up here to start this personal endeavor, but it’s grown to be such a community thing, you’ve created this community space. When did you feel like it became less your brainchild and more of a collective endeavor?
In the beginning I was a perfectionist so I would be like, “Yeah, I’ll sew it.” In my own head I was like I can just do it. I was just sustaining myself. We’ve had the backing from the community, it’s just grown and grown after all the films and all the people we meet. In my opinion, just buying a shirt is helping out with the brand. Like I’ll remember that you bought a shirt and moved us forward. Now as people get older, they figure out a niche, whether they’re a photographer or an artist. As time goes on they get involved and then implement their skill in Common, which is like a big collective now, which is great. We’re not like most industry brands, where it’s like you have this team which you market. We kinda have a team because you have to but, it’s more of a huge community. For us it’s a lifestyle, our friends and supporters.
"We kinda have a team because you have to but, it’s more of a huge community. For us it’s a lifestyle, our friends and supporters."
Basically, it all came down to money. I didn’t take out any loans. No investors at all until this year. It was all a minimum wage job that kinda pushed this brand. If you don’t have a lump sum chunk of money it’s hard to bring on people that want to get paid to further the brand. It was great to be in Duluth because there’s a university and a lot of people who want to build there resume up. That’s how [Common] kinda got big. A lot of people now days are like, “I’m not gonna work for free.” Which makes sense, you have to in the workplace. You can’t undermine your talents. For a couple of years people were willing to take photos for me and help with art and help with ideas and styles. People are super down, people are down for life. People are like, “When is it going to drop?” Right now our demand is more than our supply right now. That’s why we’re trying to take the next step. More planning and more organization, I guess. That’s when you start being like a legitimate company. Then we can afford to bring on a PR crew, paid photographers. We want to take our craft line and our premium line stuff and we want to work with templates and fashion designers to make newer styles that are not coming out, like new features, new technologies. You’d see it and it’d be a hundred dollar hat but we’d sell it for fifty. We’re all about the price point. We’re in the skate and snow world. There’s not a bunch of money. It’s kids, it’s their parent’s money. You can’t make a ton of money off just skate and snow unless you get into surf and ski, kinda like Volcom started. We’d get into skate and snow and then music festivals and events and filmmaking. So that’s kinda the direction we’re going with it.
What has been a challenge you’ve faced doing all of this work?
With all my student loans I couldn’t really get other loans and I didn’t really want to deal with student loans at the time. I was like, “I already got loans why jump into a business loan just yet?” So it just started off kinda small because if you jump into snow and skate and don’t follow the rules it’s hard to jump back in. There are trade shows. So if you go there and you set up a booth and you’re killing it or, if you don’t kill it, and you don’t go back the next year shops will see that as a weakness, that you didn’t want to come back for some reason, and they might not book your product again.
There’s this trade show in Colorado we go to every year and we just go out and meet with the reps and riders and instead of going out there just straight business, I go out there and hang out and meet contacts and meet the riders that represent all these teams. So we’ve been doing that for four years, and it’s my birthday every year. So we go out and film the town, sticker slap, and hand out business cards. We’re making a presence but not making the jump to set up a $6,000 booth just for a day. We’re at an age where we can travel more and meet these shops in person and that’s when you set up meetings at trade shows. Local business owners want to know you and what your brand is about. So if you show up in Colorado to this local board shop and meet up in person, he’s gonna remember that versus a phone call. So that’s what we’re trying to do for our next mission, do trips like that, get the van and also sell on the road.
And we have this [warehouse] over here so we’re trying to get this sustainable and maybe get a couple people hired, making orders and making stuff smooth here. Hiring reps in certain areas is another easy way to do it. You can’t have just one rep to do it nationwide. I realized that I was doing like twelve jobs at once and when you’re doing all that for your workload then you kinda go insane. That’s in any business or endeavor. You’re going to realize that. That’s why I kinda got this, and the goal for this is to have a lot of people involved.