Byron Elliott is an illustrator and graphic designer living and working in Indianapolis, Indiana. He specializes in apparel design, illustrative branding, visual storytelling, and character design and is the founder and art director of Blacksheep Collective. We spoke with Elliott and his wife April, who handles the operations and logistics behind the brand, about Indy’s support for small business, the current standard of Christian Apparel, and shipping horrors.
Ainger Alexander: What’s the motive or message behind your brand?
Byron Elliott: We are a faith-based lifestyle brand with a focus on encouraging people to embrace their individuality and uniqueness. The black sheep is a person who doesn’t fit in. A collective is a community. We wanted to create a community for people that feel the same, as well as art and apparel pieces that that represent this group and encourage other positive ideas.
April Elliott: Each design is based off of a scripture and it becomes a conversation starter. You’re wearing apparel that has meaning. And they’re fun pieces. We want to show that being a Christian does not have to be boring or wack.
BE: We push Christian ideals that aren’t always highlighted. They’re the ones we feel are most important, like peace and love.
AA: What prompted you to share this idea through your business?
AE: We are Christians. There are already individuals who give Christianity a bad name. With Christian apparel and art, it’s usually boring and recycled. We wanted to be the change we wished to see.
AA: What do you think Indianapolis can do to support local brands?
BE: At one point, names like ‘Ralph Lauren’, ‘Louis Vuitton’, ‘Gucci’ were nothing. Now they have value, and a lot of it is because of the clout we give them. If we can get that same spirit behind local brands, we can create that same culture here. On the entrepreneurs’ end, they have to provide quality. The community has to add value.
AA: Why Indy?
AE: When someone has a dream such as ours their first instinct is to move to New York or L.A., but my perspective has always been to accomplish from where I’m at. We’re both from Indianapolis. We’re Hoosiers, born and raised. I want to eventually move away, but I won’t stay away. We want to shine a light on Indianapolis. It’s more beautiful than we give it credit for, and that we get credit for.
BE: The reason that people flock to Atlanta, New York, and L.A. is because that’s where we place our value. Those cities are what they are now because people came together and said ‘let’s make something dope out of this area.’ We need more of that. We need people who are coming together to say ‘let’s make Indianapolis a hub,’ and I think that’s starting to happen. I want us to have a reach well beyond Indianapolis, but we want to champion our own city first.
AA: Describe the kind of person who would wear your product.
BE: We are a faith-based brand, but I don’t want anyone to feel like if they aren’t Christian then they can’t wear our products. Our products are for anyone who feels like they don’t belong. They’re also for anyone who subscribes to the ideals of positivity; ideas like peace and love. Finally, it’s for anyone who is looking for an alternatives to the current standard of Christian apparel. It’s an alternative to negativity; things that promote drug abuse or violence or the objectification of women, which the fashion world is full of. The culture of streetwear can be seen as those things sometimes, but we want to provide a healthy and positive alternative.
AA: Who is one person you’d love to see in your brand?
BE: I used to want celebrities in our shirts. We reached out to a lot of Christian hip-hop artists. WWE fighter Titus O’Neal just bought nearly 12 shirts from us. He was rocking our apparel all over Europe at one point. But we want anyone who jives with what we’re doing and wants to help spread our message to wear our pieces.
AA: How do you hope your brand will evolve in future years?
AE: Our hope is that Black Sheep Collective grows into a household name. We’re #TeamBlackSheep and we call our supporters ‘The Collective’. We want to continue building the collective, and as we grow we help them grow.
BE: We want to explore other areas of art that aren’t just t-shirts. We want to create other things that people can wear or experience that continue to promote our message. We want to get into videos, books, etc.
AA: What are some of the main challenges you face as an entrepreneur?
AE: SHIPPING! Shipping has been a beast! We’re primarily online, and starting out there were a lot of things we didn’t know. For the first six months, we were shipping everything priority. It was extremely expensive. Sometimes customers pay $20-$30 solely for shipping. We wanted to keep our shipping costs low, so we charged a nine dollar flat rate for shipping and ate the difference. Sometimes we didn’t even break even. We were giving away free merchandise, essentially. We used to charge $12 for international shipping until someone in Great Britain bought a shirt, and it was $31 and I was like ‘NO.’ Now we have a good handle on shipping.
BE: I’m a full time graphic designer and illustrator, so coming up with a design or determining how things communicate visually is no problem, but I struggled on the production side. I was concerned with how pieces were being made, how much garments cost, screen printing, calculating a profit, etc. Those things are difficult to navigate when you’re new.
AA: What is the biggest reward you experience as an entrepreneur?
AE: I manage the operations and customer service. It’s fulfilling when I see someone in our shirts. A lot of times I’ll ask them ‘what’s your name,’ and I can remember packaging their order. We went to a store once and saw a few people wearing our shirts. I was like ‘Hey, we made that!’ That’s rewarding for me.
BE: When you first become an entrepreneur, you lean on friends and family to support your products. So when your brand garners attention outside of that group of people, that’s the best feeling in the world. Our pieces are not just graphics for graphics’ sake; they have meaning attached. The people supporting our products believe in our message and the community we’re trying to build.
We do monthly designs. Sometimes we sell a bunch, sometimes we sell a little, but if I’ve touched at least one person, that’s good enough.
AA: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
AE: Work super hard. Do not stop grinding. This past year was not easy. If you have a dream and a vision, stick to it. Keep going. Roll with the punches and just don’t stop. Over time, you’ll start seeing the fruits of your labor.
BE: Along with hard work, be consistent. Consistency is key. You have to consistently make new things, consistently promote, consistently come up with new ideas. Don’t slack in any area. Be active. Most importantly, you have to care and love what you do so much that if you don’t get paid and you don’t eat, you’ll still be happy.
Make sure to attend the second annual PATTERN STREETExPO to shop Black Sheep Collective!