Dominic Johnson-Hill: Plastered8 — Your City, You’re Plastered
Plastered8 T-shirts is China’s first street brand, and was founded by self-proclaimed creative dictator, Dominic Johnson-Hill. The brand celebrates iconic imagery taken from Beijing’s streets and “plasters” them on t-shirts. Everyday design is inspiration – from neon signs framing karaoke halls, to delicate acrobatic twists and illegal sticker ads. We caught up with Dominic this month to discuss his amazing journey.
Notes on Design: Where are you originally from, and what brought you to Beijing?
Dominic: I’m from England, although I left when I was about 18 years old after failing my exams, and went to Africa to look for work. I ended up traveling around the world for 3 years before arriving in China in 1993. I actually came to see the Great Wall, but ran out of money and started looking for work instead. I settled down and started my first business in 1995. I’ve been here for nearly 18 years now – half of my life! Crazy!
Notes on Design: Why did you decide to set up Plastered8?
Dominic: I spent the first 14 years of my life in Beijing jotting down ideas about images and icons that really moved me, made me laugh, or made me stop and think. I struggled with what could be done with all these images that were so much a part of Beijing… and, of China. The idea slowly started to grow: that these images, these icons should be plastered on t-shirts. They should be celebrated. Skylines, restaurant signs, posters, statues; inspiration is everywhere and I suddenly discovered that I wanted to create a brand that really meant something to Chinese people and to people visiting this country.
By 2005, I decided that I wanted to create a street brand (Beijing had no cool t-shirt brands back then); to do something completely fresh and new. I had never worked in design or retail before, but felt that I could give it a bash. I lived on a very quiet alleyway (or hutong) in Old Beijing called Nanluoguxiang and, one day, one of my neighbours notified me of a little empty shop. I took it and set up the first clothing store on the street. It was tough at first, as no one had heard about Plastered8, so I put a huge amount of energy and passion into building the street by working with the local government to hold fashion shows and festivals. It’s now one of the most famous and creative shopping streets in Beijing.
Notes on Design: What does your creative process entail?
Dominic: I spend a lot of time walking around Beijing, which is the inspiration behind the brand. Most of my ideas come to me when I’m in motion, i.e. not in the office or at the studio. I take my in-house designer to a lot of exhibitions and shows. We look for inspiration at these places, but also in the mundane: it’s a street brand and we need to be out there, literally on the street, as much as possible. Beijing is a beautiful playground for designers, a very inspirational and creative city.
Notes on Design: A lot of fake “Plastered8 T-Shirts” have been popping up around Beijing lately. How do you handle copycats?
Dominic: I streak… and…
We’ve been copied a lot but our brand stands out with its creative edge and constant guerrilla marketing campaigns, including live window displays, street level activities and viral videos. It is this part of the business that keeps me alive! I love coming up with new ways to shock and inspire people with our brand.
The fake Plastered8 T-shirts are part of doing business in China. They are impossible to stop. It’s also a sign that we’re doing something right. Some reputable brands copy my concept too, but it lacks heart and soul. Anyway, I’m a very competitive person so I quite enjoy the challenge.
Notes on Design: What does your brand give back to the local community?
Dominic: We have always taken it upon ourselves to be involved with the community at every level; we are very much a community brand and employ local matriarchs to run our stores. This is very popular with our customers who love the ladies’ straightforward and honest approach. I have also been volunteering at the local residence committee for over 8 years, though under one condition: that they agree to give me a copy of all the propaganda posters they stick up every month. I find these posters a great source for inspiration!
On the local government level, we help with the creative direction of the street. Nanluoguxiang itself has turned into a very strong brand. The “infrastructure” of the street is there but, sometimes, the government needs assistance in maintaining the creative aspect. I’m always helping with that, and enjoy it very much. I’m very involved in the street festivals – it’s a shame that more shop owners don’t get involved, as building the street brand is not easy if everyone keeps to themselves.
Ever since Plastered8 was founded, we have supported a local children’s charity called Magic Hospital. We give a percentage of our profits to them every year and organize their events and fundraisers. It’s a passion for my wife and I: we have three daughters and love working with children.
Notes on Design: How did people initially react to your brand concept?
Dominic: As there was no one on the street when we first started, it was hard to make a sale! And when the Chinese customers did make it to our store, they laughed a lot, and couldn’t work out why we would take these icons from around Beijing and put them on t-shirts. To them, these objects were something from the past, and they had never given them too much thought. It was the kids that were born in the 80s (who had disposable incomes) that found our designs really fun.
When Plastered8 began, the retro concept wasn’t very popular, and we did a lot of retro. At first, we were reliant on foreign customers, but then we got picked up by Chinese media and got tons of attention. Suddenly, we found that local customers were making up 80% of our sales. I never expected to attract so many Chinese customers, so it’s something we’re very proud of. Our ultimate goal was to create a brand that China could relate to.
Our initial marketing campaigns were also conducted from a bottom up level; for example, street-level fashion shows and sticker campaigns. Initially, people reacted with shock, but now they find them really fun. I always think that it’s great that, in our hutong catwalk shows, we had 20-year old trendy types standing alongside construction workers. We’re all about taking the unexpected and serving it up to our customers to get reactions that surprise both them and us.
Notes on Design: How do people react to your guerilla marketing campaigns now?
Dominic: Ha! Well, I’ve never spent a penny on traditional advertising. I’ve always wanted to create campaigns that would have a lasting effect. My sticker campaign, for example, adopted a “shock and awe” method: I created stickers with swear words printed on my logo, with a short sentence like “This word was brought to you by Plastered.” I stuck them in toilets, office lifts, taxis etc, and it really worked. I then had an idea to create a t-shirt that appropriates an illegal sticker ad found in the streets of Beijing (originally advertising second-hand drugs) to include my phone number, and wore this on a local chat show. After the show aired, my phone didn’t stop ringing for 6 months, and this is how I obtained my first wholesale customers. People found it very amusing that someone would take that kind of culture and plaster it onto a t-shirt. Some of the people that called wanted to know how I had thought up the idea. Others actually wanted to sell me second-hand drugs!
My favourite stunt occurred when I won the Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the 2008 British Business Awards. We were taking photos with Prince Andrew, and I decided to flick a rock-star “V” pose. That picture made it into the biggest English language newspaper in China the next day, but they had cut off my arm and replaced my head with one where I was smiling. It was some great Photoshop work. These moments are worth a million to my brand. We always try to be fun in everything we do. The reactions to these stunts are always good, though Prince Andrew wasn’t very happy!
Notes on Design: What are you working on at the moment?
Dominic: Right now, we are working on new images and styles – something we never stop doing. I was recently commissioned by Zippo to design lighters for the China market. The artwork took a long time to complete, but it was a lot of fun collaborating with local artists. We are also working on a series of tongue-in-cheek infomercials that show how wearing a Plastered T-shirt can completely change your life. The first one was posted in November, and it has attracted over 30 thousand embedded views in China, which we are ecstatic about.
We’ve also teamed up with Beijing’s best rock bands to create cool merchandise for the rock scene here; working to create designs that the bands feel represent their image/style. We split the profits from the shirts with the bands to support them. The results so far have been stunning.
Notes on Design: How do you go about collaborating with other local artists and designers?
Dominic: From day one, we have collaborated with tons of artists. Popil from Shanghai, for instance, did our PK-14 band designs; Needles and Pins tattoo studio created our tattoo tee designs; Lu Yang created two of our stained glass images that were featured in an art fair in Beijing this year. The list goes on. Working with local artists is key to keeping the brand fresh and alive. There is nothing more energizing than sitting down with a designer/artist and bouncing ideas off one another, seeing things from a new perspective and coming up with cutting edge, interesting designs. I really pride myself on the fact that you can walk into a Plastered8 store and you can find something new each time. You see new concepts, new looks, but they all remain true to Plastered’s core design philosophy: never stop creating. These collaborations are the future of our brand.
I keep an eye out for artists that inspire me; work that is creative and different but, in essence, says something about life in China. I also link up with sites such as NeochaEDGE to keep a pulse of what’s interesting.
Notes on Design: What do you consider to be your biggest achievement to date?
Dominic: Spending every penny my wife and I had to open a small store on a quiet alleyway and, through lots of hard work, see the whole neighborhood transform into Beijing’s first creative street that became a platform for Chinese youth to start their own brands.
Notes on Design: What does the future hold for Plastered8?
Dominic: I struggle with this all the time: I’m not a great planner, and I love “winging it.” I just want to continue having fun, create more beautiful artwork for the brand and more fun marketing ideas. We opened a store in Shanghai this year and will probably open one more next year in another city. We’ve got a slogan: “Your City, You’re Plastered,” which is to create local brands in the cities we grow in, just like we did in Beijing and Shanghai.
We hope to continue to build a creative community: we want to make a forum for designers and creatives across China, and open communication between them. They deserve an outlet for creativity that goes beyond working at an ad agency.
Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.