After Spencer Johnson presented his senior project – a branding piece for a fictional clothing company called “sota” – to his University of Minnesota Duluth classmates, several peers asked if he was planning to bring his t-shirt designs to life.
At the time, Johnson had no idea that not only would he make sota a reality, it would later become his full-time career.
Deciding to run with his vision, Johnson partnered with a friend who had some screen-printing materials. The two of them created the first batch of sota t-shirts in a Northern Minnesota basement. “10 out of the 50 that we made maybe could’ve been sold,” he recalls, laughing. “But everything that needed to be done, I physically touched and learned from that.” Johnson’s hands-on approach still holds true today.
Being the sole curator of his brand, Johnson honors the design process. “Usually I’ll start a design and it’ll be very, very rough. I probably won’t turn off my computer for weeks and will just leave that design file open. I’ll keep coming back to it until I finally get something.”
Also having a passion for photography, Johnson has used his photos to further promote his brand. He shares captivating imagery on social media – chiefly Instagram – to both inspire sota shoppers, and to test new product designs. In one example, Johnson shared a photo of a women’s tee with four different color schemes. He asked which option his followers preferred, and over 250 fans commented with their opinion – encouraging the tee’s final design. “People are interactive with the brand, and they can choose what they want. That really drives the sota community,” he says.
Since the brand’s inception in 2009, sota has evolved from a grassroots t-shirt company to a purveyor of quality design. The fan base continues to expand. Sota’s Instagram page has over 12,000 followers, and people from all over the country – not just the Twin Cities – are purchasing sota’s products. Although both men’s and women’s shirts are still among sota’s best selling items, the product line has expanded to offer other quality goods that suit an active lifestyle. Cloth pennants, pint glasses, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, water bottles and hats are among the newer items.
Connecting with local makers and small businesses has been an integral part of sota’s growth. “Through networking, all the little pieces have come together to push [sota] in the right direction. Smaller companies are making a comeback. They now have a voice. People want to support the story behind what they are buying,” says Johnson. Upcoming partnerships consist of collaborations with a local fitness studio, a Minnesota-made home and leather goods shop, and a St. Paul-based family business. Johnson also hosts a collaborative workspace in his home called Peppercorn. The walls are embellished with his photography, and a wooden barn table (that he crafted himself) sits in the center of the room. Local entrepreneurs of different trades occupy the space several days of the week to explore new ideas in a communal, creative setting.
Johnson’s home state and the people who inhabit it serve as daily inspiration for the goods that he creates. Minnesotans’ enjoyment of the outdoors and ability to adapt to the weather captures the sota spirit, “When I look at Minnesota, I see quality and warmth; people who can really handle the elements. The change of the seasons keeps everyone humble.” Humility and adaptability live on in Johnson’s entrepreneurial philosophy as well, “I knew nothing about clothing. All I knew was design. I slowly started figuring out advertising and photography and that turned into to figuring out how to run a company.”
Johnson’s passion for design has led him to today’s sota success story. What started as an idea for a college project is now a recognized brand and a model for Midwest makers. Discover more of Johnson’s work at sotaclothing.com.