The Rise and Fall of Urban Alchemist
Peter Tatara - March 16, 2008
A year and a half ago, I was laid off from anime distributor Central Park Media. In my newfound time, I started Urban Alchemist, a clothing company that sold T-Shirts to gamers, geeks, and otaku -- or, as Urban Alchemist called it, tactical misfit apparel. The whole concept was actually born from some proposals during my time at CPM that never got off the ground. But not letting those ideas linger and die, I decided to make them a reality myself. This is the story of Urban Alchemist's rise and fall.
Yaoi-Con is a convention held ever fall in California, planned and attended by fans of gay Japanese comic books. I, at the time, worked for America's leading distributor of gay Japanese comic books. During the lead up to Yaoi-Con 2005, I pitched the idea of selling T-Shirts that read "I Want An Uke" and "I Want A Seme" (translating to "I Want An Effeminate Gay Japanese Boyfriend" and "I Want An Aggressive Gay Japanese Boyfriend"). Management didn't really seem to care. So, Yaoi-Con came and went. It was a lot of fun. I wore cat ears and danced with a dude.
Back at the office, though, I didn't let my gay T-Shirt idea die. I kept on pushing it. They guys at the top, though, were content selling gay comic books and DVDs and didn't have the drive to expand into apparel.
Then, come the summer of 2006, I was let go as part of a massive downsizing, but rather than being pissed off, freaked out, or fearing for the future, I took my girlfriend out to Morimoto the night I was laid off, bought an insanely priced meal, ate the most incredible sushi, and hatched a plan. I was going to sell my gay T-Shirts. I was going to start a company. I bought a domain name, got a business license, and turned a third of my apartment into a warehouse.
While I live in New York City, every single printer I spoke with in the Metropolitan area charged just preposterous prices, so I ended up going with a shirt maker upstate that I had called upon some years back to make shirts for a club during my time at Ithaca College. I still wear those shirts today.
I had also spent a week convinced I was going to make the shirts by hand. "Artisanal clothing" is what I was going to call it. I looked at all sorts of silk screening equipment and tools but worried I wouldn't be able to keep up with all the orders coming in.
Besides the shirts, I had some nice business cards and stickers printed up, supervised the first in what I had planned to be a series of photo shoots, started a small business account with Bank of America, and developed a major crush on Mark Ecko. I figured if he could do what he did, I would dominate the nerd clothing world in a matter of months.
When the big day came and the company launched, the orders flooded in. Well, streamed in. I mailed out shirts and stickers three or four times a week and also got the apparel into a few online and even brick-and-mortar stores. Urban Alchemist also attended a few conventions, did some eBay sales, and made many people very, very happy.
Oh, and, when the big day came and the company launched, bootlegs appeared almost instantly. I remember that no more than six hours after urban-alchemist.com went online, fans of gay Japanese comics started selling homemade versions of my shirts. Such supporters of the genre, they wanted to take my lead and champion it themselves, sucking up a lot of -- what could have been -- profit.
I remember when I created the Urban Alchemist -- which was almost called Xenogear -- business plan, I drafted up the way I saw the business ending. It could be bought up, some bigger guy could steam roll it, or bootlegs could asphyxiate the company. So, what did happen? None of the above. While I had big dreams and knew exactly how to make Urban Alchemist grow, about a month after I started the company, something completely out of the blue happened. New York Comic Con called me up and offered me a job. A few weeks later, I'd become one of NYCC's Programming Managers, and a few months later I'd also become the man behind NYCC's spin-off, the New York Anime Festival.
I mailed shirts on my way to the office every Monday morning, and while at first I was excited to have both a day job and a home business, it soon started to become a drag. After a long day at the office, I had to force myself to fit Urban Alchemist into my schedule. I had to get up early or not sleep to take care of shipments, updates, and finances, and -- honestly -- as much joy as Urban Alchemist brought me, I was making more in a single month at New York Comic Con than Urban Alchemist netted me in an entire year.
Today, I sold my last T-Shirt. I've just packed it up and will be mailing it out come the morning. I just don't have the time to order another batch of shirts and the drive to sell them. I'm holding my business license and will be sending it back tomorrow morning, too.
Urban Alchemist was fun when it started out, and had my life gone in a different direction, I know it would be a blast today, but things went a different way. It's sad giving Urban Alchemist up, but I love what I'm doing with New York Comic Con and the New York Anime Festival. I'm thankful for Urban Alchemist and all the friends it's made me, for the great people, and for the good times. My friends will remain. My memories will remain. I just won't have a bedroom full of yaoi T-Shirts.
I'll still be dreaming, too. I get to dream pretty big with NYCC and NYAF, and while Urban Alchemist has come to an end, I've got other dreams for my nights and weekends that are just beginning. What's my next dream? Published novelist.