Shirt off their back: Entrepreneurs make a living, statement with new clothing lines

REGION – In many northern Michigan offices, a T-shirt and jeans are normal wear on Fridays. For three local companies, however, T-shirts aren't just business attire, they're the business.

Entrepreneur Rod Call got the idea for his Snoloha line of T-shirts and other casual clothing on his daily commute from Traverse City to Petoskey. He had just returned from a late-winter island escape to find himself in the middle of a March snowstorm. According to Call, his eureka moment came as he passed the sign that marks the halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole.

"I drove by the 45th Parallel sign," he said. "I'd driven by it hundreds of times before, but this time something just hit me. Just hours before I had come home, I had been sitting at a bar in a Puerto Rican airport sipping an island drink. I was intrigued by how, in a short amount of time, I had gone from an island atmosphere to being able to snowboard again."

Call leaned over and scratched a note on an issue of Rolling Stone lying on his passenger seat-"Somewhere between the islands and the artic." He didn't realize it at the time, but that note would eventually serve as the catalyst for the launch of his clothing line.

"The idea is to highlight all of the different climates, activities and lifestyles that so many people enjoy, whether it's surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding or skiing. So many lines just focus on one activity. We incorporate it all into one image, one lifestyle."

The line is available at Boyne Country Sports in Petoskey, Traverse City, Boyne Mountain and Novi; Don Orr Ski 'n Beach in Traverse City; The Fish Hook in Leland; The Sportsman Shop in Glen Arbor; Bill & Paul's in Grand Rapids; and The Surf Shop in Grand Haven.

Call is continuing to open additional retailers throughout the state and region.

Like Snoloha, another local start-up was inspired by a road sign, and it, too, sells a lifestyle: the calming and generally good feelings inspired by the breathtaking beauty of Leelanau County.

Matt and Keegan Myers, owners of Broneah Kiteboarding, Inc., travel M-22 regularly looking for the perfect spots for their kiteboarding adventures.

"We're always on a search for the best water, wind and beaches. M-22 has it all. We've traveled all over the world, and still to this day we've never found anywhere that can compare to what you find on M-22 " said Matt Myers.

In late 2003, out of respect for the roadway, they started making T-shirts with the M-22 sign as a logo for their own personal use. Every time they wore the shirts, people would ask where they could get one.

Realizing they were on to something, the brothers worked with an attorney to properly protect the M-22 image and officially launched their line. Last summer, the brothers were featured on the cover of Traverse Magazine and in the photo, Keegan was wearing an M-22 T-shirt. After that, orders started pouring in. "We've had orders from all over the country," said Matt.

As the company grows, the brothers plan to give back to the county that inspired their business. They're currently working on an agreement with the Leelanau Land Conservancy to donate a portion of every sale to the organization. "We want to give back," said Matt. "That's what it's all about. It's the right thing to do."

Rod Call also plans to give back. When he can, he plans to send deserving families who can't afford to travel on "Snoloha Sabbaticals." He's currently planning on organizing snow beach volleyball tournaments as fundraisers.

"It's down the road a bit, but I can't wait to get there," he said.

A third local T-shirt company also aims to weave social messages into their clothing line.

Every time someone places an order on, they are prompted to donate to one of four charitable organizations: Doctors Without Borders to help provide emergency healthcare internationally; The Nature Conservancy to protect the environment; Fisher House to temporarily house families of wounded U.S. soldiers; and Kiva, to kick-start small business entrepreneurs with micro-loans in the developing world.

According to Lisa Gruber, one of the company's owners, she and her business partners came up with the idea for their website while she and her husband were Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic.

"The most appealing aspect of the business has been developing a way to continue to make a difference in the world while making money at the same time," she said.

"Thus, we decided to join the ranks of the growing movement of social entrepreneurs by donating a portion of each sale to one of four charities. In this way we enable our customers to make a difference simply by buying a T-shirt."