FAYETTEVILLE — Michael Baker would like to say he started his Houndstooth Clothing Co. with a well-thought-out business plan and an entrepreneurial bent. But the truth is that he would have done anything to avoid getting a real job, like his college buddies were doing when he started Houndstooth 20 years ago.
The clothing company — famous for its unique line of licensed Razorback T-shirts and hats — turns 20 this month, though Baker can’t recall the exact day.
“I just kind of showed up and started,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy who frames the first dollar he ever made.”
Houndstooth the clothing company and the Houndstooth Press will celebrate the milestone Friday (Aug. 10) with a shrimp boil, custom T-shirt printing, live music, drinks and cake at the company’s corporate office and warehouse on East 15th Street in Fayetteville. Baker was motivated to have a party by his desire to reconnect with the many employees and customers he’s befriended over the past two decades. He estimates that that he has employed some 1,000 people since he started the business; most of those, about 700 or so, came on the payroll in the last 10 years.
His first year, he sold 2,000 T-shirts. Last year, his best in the business, Houndstooth sold more than 200,000 shirts and caps. Prices on the Houndstooth website range from $15 for youth sizes for the company’s originals to about $28 for Razorback apparel.
Baker still owns and operates the original Houndstooth store at 29 N. Block St., and has since added locations in the Northwest Arkansas Mall, Central Mall in Fort Smith, Park Plaza in Little Rock, McCain Mall in North Little Rock, Turtle Creek Plaza in Jonesboro and the Hot Springs Mall. The Northwest Arkansas mall location is the most successful in terms of sales, but the Park Plaza store is most successful in terms of sales per square foot, Baker said.
Pressure to be productive
Baker, self-described as visually oriented, earned a degree in architecture from the UA.
“I knew I wanted to design something,” he said. “But my attention span was too short to work on a building.”
He took on T-shirt design as a free-lance gig. One job, for a nonprofit in Tulsa, paid him $100. When he went to the screen-print shop to do a press check he saw the neat stacks of 5,000 clean white T-shirts waiting to be emblazoned with his design. Baker soon realized that printing his own shirts, even at a minimal price, could have made him so much more.
By 1992, he was four years removed from college and feeling pressure to be productive.
“I railed against that,” he said. “I started my own business to avoid going to work in the real world."
For years after opening Houndstooth on Block Street, he continued to live month to month. As late as 1995, he was still sleeping many nights on the couch in the store. It was also during this time that he met his future wife, Catherine, with whom he now has three children, ages 9-14.
In 1998, the Bakers sold the production side of the business to focus on retail. “I knew then that I was not done with that end of the business,” Michael Baker said.
It was the looming recession, however, that forced him to take it back under his charge.
‘Close to going under’
In 2006, Baker sunk a “significant amount of capital” in the warehouse space and equipment on East 15th Street to re-establish production — the printing and embroidery of Houndstooth’s clothing. But there was no immediate payoff. Baker said he was unprepared for the drop-of in business brought on by the recession in the years that followed.
“Consumers pulled back so dramatically and so quickly that it was difficult for us to make it as a small business,” he said. “We were close to going under.”
“It forced us to rethink our business and figure out a better way to do it,” he added. The Houndstooth model needed tweaking, and Baker’s team looked for other ways to generate revenue. They eventually began doing custom screenprinting, which brought huge results, Baker said. Last year was the company’s best year; 2010 was its second best.
A key to Houndstooth’s success was getting the license to produce and sell official Razorback clothing. Baker is and always has been passionate about the Razorbacks. He has since gained licensure to do the same for other schools, but it’s not the same.
“I speak her language,” he says of the head hogs.
And with all those comfortable T-shirts, you’d think that Baker would have a closet full. Over the last 20 years, there’s been just a handful of shirt designs that’s he’s been 100 percent satisfied with.
“I see my own flaws,” Baker said.
“I’m either a procrastinator with perfectionist tendencies, or a perfectionist with tendencies to procrastinate.”