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The Squid and the Tale

How Two Friends Turned an Idea And Some Cash Into a Burgeoning Design and Manufacturing Company

Jefferson Jackson Steele
T-SHIRTS, INK: (from left) Jean-Baptiste Regnard and Kevin Sherry’s Squidfire line is reclothing hipsters from here to Paris, one tee at a time.

By Jason Torres | Posted 3/29/2006

“We were going to be like all the other 50 million assholes who go [to New York] every day and come back penniless,” says Jean-Baptiste Regnard, remembering the original start-up business plan he and his friend and business partner, Kevin Sherry, had for their rapidly growing Baltimore-based T-shirt design and production company, Squidfire. Two years back, Sherry, the designer, had just graduated from MICA, and they decided that Regnard, the businessman, should head up to the East Coast fashion capitol and see what happens. “It sounded like a good idea at the time,” Regnard says.

“Yeah, we were going to go out and ‘make it,’” Sherry, the more reticent of the two, chimes in with a laugh. Sitting in a Mount Vernon café, the two enthusiastically buzz as they remember a few stories about the ups and downs of starting a company. Sherry, a skinny hipster with a shaggy haircut, and Regnard, a fidgety young man with close-cropped dark hair and charismatic eyebrows, are sprinting through how they came together, the frustrations of stores that don’t pay on time, and their plans to hit up Korea soon. They recall bad times and good times with the same fondness, and it becomes clear that the two are fully aware that had they not experienced a few speed bumps and disappointments en route, they wouldn’t be as savvy now. Neither of them, however, imagined that their first business collaboration would grow from a two-man operation out of a 100-year-old Greektown warehouse to being able sell their shirts in Paris.

“A T-shirt company is not anything I even thought of doing when I was thinking of starting a business,” says Regnard as he fiddles with a danish. His fast-paced chatter is either the result of the caffeinated beverage he’s sipping or the fact that he wears every hat for the company. From publicity to the sales to working in the actual factory, the guy does everything except draw the designs, and he is plenty busy these days on the eve of the launch date for Squidfire’s spring designs: April 1.

“I was a huge fan of Kevin’s art work,” he continues. “I watched his work evolve and I always loved it. I had some cool T-shirts and I thought, We can do this, and we can do this better. And so one day I just said, ‘Hey, lets start a business.’”

From punk rockers to emo nerds, college potheads to swanky hipsters, the cool-ass T-shirt is an essential. But who hasn’t watched someone walk down the street rocking some lame, ironic ringer with a “clever” phrase or design only to think to themselves, I can do that? Well, stop bitching—because not only is it nowhere near as easy as it sounds, but these dudes knew that and went for it anyway.

On the surface, though, the Squidfire story doesn’t sound much like a starving-artist tale. In fact, it kinda/sorta sounds more like a story about two lucky fuckers with nothing better to do than fall ass-backward into cash off of an idea they dreamt up in a loft you wish you could afford, but not quite. It is an underdog tale—like Rocky, except the boxer has a good family, solid upbringing, and can box.

Oh, and he had just nabbed a butt load of cash from some recently liquidated investments. “I got a part-time job in high school that turned into a rare opportunity for me when I graduated,” Regnard says. “I was in the university recruiting department of a small software company where we’d travel across the country hiring freshly graduated Ivy Leaguers. When the company continued to grow, they moved me to the international university recruiting department that would travel internationally to hire graduates to work in various overseas locations.”

Regnard, the son of a classically trained French chef father and a special-education teacher mother, was raised in Northern Virginia. He met Sherry after working for exactly one day at a coffee shop in Baltimore. “I had been living in Baltimore about two weeks, and Kevin was finishing up his first year at school,” Regnard says. “I had a three-story rowhouse with zero pieces of furniture in it, and some of the coffee-shop employees told me to throw a party—that’s how we became friends.

“I didn’t know what he was going to do after school,” he continues. “And I had all these investment properties, so I decided I was going to liquidate them. I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a large amount of cash in one point, and I could either dump it into a closet of an apartment in New York and still have to bust my ass—or, I always dreamt of being a business owner.”

When he tells the story, it’s obvious that Regnard’s entrepreneurial spirit has less to do with making coin than to throwing himself into an enterprise of his own creation. He comes off as a dude who is really enjoying the act of selling, going out on long business trips, and organizing invoices, doing market research—all because it’s for the company he and Sherry founded—to the point where the idea of chilling sounds crazy to him.

“Sometimes I’ll work for 14 hours at the factory, and when I come home, what am I gonna do?” he says. “I’m not gonna go watch Friends or Will and Grace. I get right on the computer. I’m doing research. I’m taking orders. I’m constantly looking for new ideas and ways to improve our business.”

His savings became the nest egg that allowed Squidfire to pursue growth seriously. And the company has paid its dues. After acquiring an East Baltimore warehouse and the equipment to make the T-shirts, the duo still had to travel from boutique to boutique and cold-sell its product after launching its first line in May 2005.

“In the beginning we didn’t know how the shirts were gonna go and were just showing the shirts to the people,” Regnard says. “Before the [web] site was up, we were just going to the stores. And most of the stores were, like, ‘OK, we’ll write up an invoice, when can you get us a shirt by?’ And we’d be like, ‘They’re right in our trunk.’ And we still do it [that way].”

The shirts themselves are an achievement in stylistic minimalism. Whereas many companies rush to brand their designs immediately—see DKNY, fcuk, or, dear God, any hip-hop wear—Squidfire’s approach is a classy yet funky less-is-more. The sparse designs of critters—antelope heads, pandas, unicorns, and, of course, squids—and abstract designs in vibrant hues are set against bold, solid colors. They’re cool for, if nothing else, their ability to prompt people to ask, Hey, what kind of shirt is that?

Now Squidfire shirts can be seen anywhere from Richmond, Va., to Brooklyn, N.Y., on the backs of hipsters near you and in Paris. “I contacted them over the internet,” Regnard says of his French connection. “I don’t know how I found this one store, but it’s apparently a big store in Paris called Collette—we got really lucky.

Of course, with their emerging success comes more work. And with the summer months coming up, Regnard and Sherry will once again be slinging tees out the back of Regnard’s beat-up 1989 Cadillac Deville. They’ll have to work day and night just to keep up with their internet orders, as they had to this past holiday season. And then they’ll have to start giving serious thought to what comes next. They both admit it’s stressful, but its stress that comes with a thrill.

“It’s not like we’re shoveling coal,” Sherry says. “This is something we love to do. I love screen printing. I love the act of screen printing. I’m an artist and I love to do this art. And having a business is exciting, especially when it’s rolling in the right direction, and you know that the harder you work, the more that ball will roll.”

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