Wednesday, May 25, 2011


    Image Source: TheImaginaryZebra
    With the upcoming release of Series 4 (available online 5/26), I thought it would be fitting to post part of the profile I wrote on Benson for my journalism class. It's long (even after cutting out a lot from the original), so if you're interested, click 'read more' below to read the rest. Apparel can be purchased here, and Benson's blog can be found here.

     Benson Chou spent the better part of his high school days expressing himself through graffiti artwork. “I started doing it mostly in math class,” he says. Fast forward seven years and he’s still expressing himself through graffiti, although now he gets to do it for a living. Chou is the talented founder and designer of the emerging local clothing brand The Imaginary Zebra (TIZ), which creates apparel printed with his original designs. Here, the young, locally-conscious entrepreneur gives us an inside look at how he came to be where he is today.

    Chou grew up in Taipei, Taiwan with his parents, his two older sisters, and his younger brother, before moving to the small town of Hercules, California when he was 13 years old. “As a kid, I wasn’t really good at performing arts. I was more into visual arts,” he says, citing both his sisters, who were interested in design, as his early inspiration. Not until high school did Chou discover his interest in graffiti design. “Graffiti is a form of art where there are no rules,” he says. As it increasingly became a more prominent part of his life, he decided to turn graffiti art into an extracurricular activity. Creating the Urban Arts Club at Hercules High School during his junior year, Chou sought to portray graffiti as a positive art form. “I know a lot of people have a negative connotation towards the art and its culture, and I wanted to spread the word that it doesn’t have to be that way,” he states. With the support of the school, the club painted posters and signs promoting upcoming drama club events which were displayed in the cafeteria. The club also customized hats and shoes with original designs for students who were interested. In addition to the club, Chou had his own graffiti crew, which he dubbed TIZ. At the time, the letters didn’t stand for anything; he simply thought the letters looked aesthetically pleasing when placed next to one another.

    Arriving at UC Davis in 2006, Chou and his housemate enrolled in a screen printing class at the Experimental College on campus. “I was able to visualize something and make it tangible through screen printing,” Chou explains of the extracurricular class. With the skills he learned, Chou set out to create a project printing his designs onto T-shirts and selling them to his friends to make some extra money. “I used Facebook as an outlet to get my designs out,” he says. As his business became more popular, he decided that it needed a name. His relationship with the letters TIZ caused him to bring them back, although this time, Chou wanted the letters to stand for something. “I wanted something people could visualize. A zebra is an animal people can picture right when they hear the name. And ‘imaginary’ implies that it can be anything.”

    Chou decided to major in managerial economics in order to spend more time on his expanding business. With bright colors and playful designs that aren’t too juvenile, his T-shirts have hit the jackpot with college students eager to support local artists. His designs have evolved from his trademark zebra head logo to designs of fun things like old-fashioned popcorn boxes, camera lenses, chocolate bars, beer bottles, and the Heinz ketchup logo in splashy colors. He also cleverly incorporates quotes that he finds inspirational (“dream like you mean it”). Chou’s business strategy reflects an age in which individuality and originality are winning qualities. He treats each of his designs as a collector’s item and refuses to reprint previous designs. “Maybe I’ll make a profit by reprinting a design that was popular, but I’ll feel sorry for the people who bought it early on,” he explains. To many of his supporters, the appeal is in the fact that TIZ apparel is sold in limited quantities. “Everything gets printed only once.”

    Since graduation, Chou has been working on TIZ full time, and the effort is paying off. According to Chou, production has expanded, with double the amount of T-shirts and sweatshirts produced for each series and 300-400 views per day on Chou’s personal blog that is connected to the company website. The blog shares his daily inspiration, the design process that goes behind each and every product, and upcoming collaborations. Furthermore, Chou notes that he is shipping his apparel to countries other than the US more frequently now, especially to the UK. In addition to managing TIZ, Chou has found the time to start a couple of side projects to keep him busy. “My friend Cody and I have created a couple of micro websites. They’re single serving websites such as youknowyou’, in which photographers share quotes on how they characterize photographers, and, an inspirational and motivational tool for people trying to keep up with their resolutions.” Chou is in the process of creating to sell plush pillows that are photography related. “I’ve been really into photography, so I’ve been making a lot of photography related projects,” Chou explains. “I find projects really fun to do. There’s not a lot of pressure.”

    Aside from adding different types of apparel to the brand (button-ups, cardigans) and building a flagship store in San Francisco, Chou seeks to make TIZ more than just a clothing company: “It would be really cool for TIZ to branch out and become a creative network and outlet where passionate people come together and work on creative projects. I also eventually want a store in Davis. I want it to be a coffee shop where people can chill instead of just buying shirts. But first I need to create a solid fan base.” With everything that Chou has accomplished so far, his vision for the company seems just within his reach.

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