Five years ago, Ty Forquer and his wife Rose moved from Portland, Oregon, to Lansing, Michigan. “Michiganders” for most of their lives, the identifier, “Lansingite,” is still fresh for the couple, but it’s one they proudly wear ... and they want others to wear it too. 517 Shirts
, their online t-shirt company launched last year and speaks not only to a growing entrepreneurial trend in Lansing but also to a revitalized sense of pride.
Making Music, Making Shirts
An accomplished percussionist
, who just received his Doctor of Musical Arts from Michigan State University and teaches music at Lansing Community College and Olivet College, Forquer didn’t foresee a future in t-shirts. In fact, the musical leanings also came as a surprise. “I didn’t come from a musical family,” says Forquer. “I had one aunt who used to play piano; my dad used to play trumpet, and my mom sings along with the radio. That’s about it.”
So what shook loose the seeds of creativity? It all began when Forquer’s junior high friend suggested the two take a percussion class because they would “get to hit things.” From there, Forquer says he developed a real love for making music. In college he and some classmates started a band, and soon they were playing around with Photoshop, creating posters for their concerts. That experience and an artistic eye eventually led to his creating 517 Shirts.
A Guy Walks into a Bar
One night while exploring the Lansing bar scene, Forquer spotted a crude drawing of the three power plant smokestacks on a bathroom wall and was struck by how quickly he recognized them as a Lansing landmark. He left the bar with an idea brewing. “I just knew that there was something there,” he says.
With visions of Lansing in his head, he went home and started making some designs, putting his own twist on the smokestacks and coming up with a few other ideas as well. And before he knew it, he was thinking “t-shirts.” “I like t-shirts -- they’re what I always wear if I have a choice in the matter,” says Forquer. “They seem really personal to me. I think they can be an extension of a person’s personality.”
After the designs, came a flurry of researching and checking numbers, and soon, 517 Shirts was up and running. Using the 517 area code in the name was a way of embracing not only Lansing but all the surrounding areas that make the city unique.
“When I think of Lansing, I think of East Lansing, Grand Ledge, Mason –- all these places that have their own personality and contribute to the overall feel of the area,” says Forquer.
Currently the company has four designs, the Otto E. Eckert smokestacks
, the Great Lakes silhouette, the #lovelansing skyline and the Irishigander, with several more in the works, including one representing the Mackinac Bridge.
“I like the Lansing designs, but I also want to do some more Michigan-themed ones as well,” says Forquer. “An important part of Lansing is the state of Michigan and all of the great things that we have like the lakes and the sand dunes.”
Forquer says 517 wearers tend to be 30 to 40-something Lansing residents who are pretty “dug in” and are big supporters of the small businesses popping up across the city. They embrace the #lovelansing
attitude and frequent places like Artie's Filling Station
, Soup Spoon Café
, and Fork in the Road
, recognizing that these are the kinds of things that make Lansing a special place to live.
“Lansing has so much potential,” Forquer says. “You have to work a little harder to make things happen, but if you’re doing something, and you’re doing it well, people tend to notice, and they respect that. They want to feel like they live somewhere that’s hip and has people that are doing things that they can get excited about.”
It’s this belief in the entrepreneurial spirit that makes Forquer committed to making Lansing his home. He says the time he and his wife spent in Portland was great -- they had everything they needed -- shops, great restaurants, cafés, but he believes Lansing offers something more and is full of opportunities for growth, especially for those wanting to start new businesses. He says he sees so many opportunities for people to start something in Lansing and have it be the “first” the “best” or both.
Being first and best, is certainly the goal for 517 Shirts. As the business grows, Forquer says the idea of having a store front is there, but for now, the online business meets their needs and works well with their busy schedules. They run the business out their house from their finished basement. “I joke with people when they come over,” he says. “I tell them, ‘over there is 517 Headquarters,’ and it’s a stack of plastic bins and a mannequin.”
In addition to the online store, the shirts are available at the Greater Lansing Michigan Convention and Visitors Bureau
. Recently the company started having a booth on Thursdays at the Lansing City Market.
There will soon be some bumper stickers up on the site, and Forquer is looking to do more wholesale and consignment arrangements. “We’d like to get more shirts in businesses around town.” They also are going to be adding to the women’s it’s so that every design will be available in women’s sizes.
Customers living in Lansing get free shipping on their orders, and for those who live close by, Forquer even does home delivery. “I leave it in the mailbox or on the doorstep,” he says. “It cuts down on costs, and I get to meet people I normally wouldn’t get to meet.”
Dawn Gorman is frequent contributor to Capital Gains.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.