Downtown retailer eyes expansion, readies new product line
Exactly five years ago, in one of my first non-music-related pieces for BLANK, I wrote about a unique new business focusing on screen-printed t-shirts and accessories for men that was set to open along Union Avenue in downtown Knoxville. While I found the idea for the store to be as novel as it was intuitive, I must admit that, at the time, I was apprehensive about how successful such a specialized concept could be in that sleepy locale. But with business booming and Nothing Too Fancy celebrating its fifth year of existence in what is now a bustling district, I am overjoyed to report about just how wrong I was to be skeptical. For our 10th-anniversary issue, I thought it would be prudent to revisit the outlet in order to chronicle its rapid growth and to provide insight into new developments on the horizon.
And, as it turns out, I wasn’t alone in worrying about Nothing Too Fancy’s prospects. It took a hugely successful grand opening on a First Friday for co-owners Dustin and Lisa Cyr Burnett to feel validated in their decision to launch their enterprise. “All of our friends and a lot of people we didn’t know were here, and we had a line to the door of people waiting to check out,” an emotional Lisa says. “It was so many people that we had known from different parts of our lives who collectively showed up that night. Seriously, I still tear up thinking about it.”
“Neither of us had retail experience going into this,” Dustin adds. “We just kind of did it on a whim. We had a notion that Knoxville was missing something like this, and we thought we could fill a void.”
And fill a void it has: Nothing Too Fancy has grown considerably in the five years it has been open, increasing its inventory each year; opening its own print shop in North Knoxville two years ago; screen printing all of its designs in said facility; operating at maximum capacity with regard to fulfilling custom orders for other vendors; enlisting around 30 artists for its designs instead of the four with which it started; and augmenting its workforce from four to 12, many of whom split their time between the retail and print sides.
Another positive change for the couple relates to their work weeks. With both coming from entertainment/nightlife backgrounds, it wasn’t a stretch for them to maintain the shop seven days/nights a week starting out, in addition to monitoring every aspect of the business. As Nothing Too Fancy has flourished, however, they have been able to lessen their loads at certain times. “We didn’t know about that coming from our previous world,” Dustin marvels. “Nights and weekends for us were nonexistent.”
With no exterior signage to indicate its interior contents, the Nothing Too Fancy Print Shop, located on North Broadway in the former Davis Carpets building next to K Brew, is rather nondescript. Or at least it was until the middle of April, when an enormous mural commissioned by the Burnetts and subsidized with a grant from Visit Knoxville was completed on the building’s south-facing wall. The beautiful, postcard-style piece was painted by a team that included New York artist Dominic Corry, and it features vignettes depicting iconic East Tennessee landmarks.
Construction on the front room of the print shop is ongoing, as well. When it is completed, the Burnetts plan on using it for a variety of purposes, among them holding meetings, being a showroom for merchandise and affording patrons a first-hand view of the printing process. Ample windows face the street, and the couple is looking forward to furnishing the space with more of the same retro/industrial items that dot the walls of the retail shop. Incidentally, Dustin and Lisa are proud of the store’s décor, as they believe that it provides a glimpse into their personalities. Moreover, they are quick to note that a large portion of those quirky finds was procured from just down the street at Architectural Antics, a fact that should surprise no one given their penchant for supporting local businesses.
The biggest piece of news regarding Nothing Too Fancy, though, concerns the rollout of a product line that was first announced in December 2016. After a longer-than-expected delay, t-shirts sourced from organic ingredients grown and woven in the United States and cut and sewn in Haiti will hit shelves around the middle of next month. When it comes to the manufacture of clothing (and t-shirts, in particular), products created by an industry that is as infamous for the poor treatment of its laborers as it is its poor environmental record, great care must be taken to fully explain the intricacies of this arrangement and how it actually is mutually beneficial to everyone involved.
Haiti is so impoverished that many children are surrendered to orphanages because their families don’t have the means to support them. When they age out of these institutions, they are released back into society without having learned marketable skills. Nothing Too Fancy is one of a group of 10 like-minded screen-printing companies from around the U.S. that is hoping to implement positive change in the Caribbean nation and the industry as a whole by providing training, jobs and salaries five times the living wage to qualified workers ages 18-20 who have aged out of the system.
Lisa explains that the 10 companies have teamed together in order to create a tri-blend t-shirt brand, Allmade, that comprises organic cotton, recycled polyester and a plant-based fiber called modal. “It’ll be the same super-soft shirt we have now,” she says, “except it will have all these great qualities. It’s going to screen print very well, it’s good for the environment and it’s good for helping the economy in a country that needs it. Once the fabric is dyed and woven in the U.S. – about two hours east of us – it is shipped to Haiti, where it is cut and sewn in a living-wage facility.”
Cotton is considered the dirtiest crop in the world due to the amount of pesticides used in its cultivation, as well as the amount of byproduct waste. In addition, clothing refuse takes up a significant amount of landfill space. As a result, it is the Burnetts’ aim to monitor the manufacturing process from start to finish in order to better understand how to limit their own carbon footprints and to ensure that their products are produced in as environmentally friendly a manner as possible. At the end of August, Dustin will be seeing where Allmade’s cotton is grown in North and South Carolina and touring the factory where the polyester is produced before traveling back to Haiti for a third time to see how the process is completed.
Dustin and Lisa are extremely proud of the excellent education the Haitians receive, explaining that each employee is trained in every aspect of the manufacturing process so that he or she is able to learn multiple skills while never falling into a rut of doing the same task over and over. They also speak glowingly about the factory conditions, noting that the workers are provided with ergonomic chairs, plentiful breaks and air conditioning – a serious luxury in a country where electricity can be scarce. It’s clear, too, that the couple has been moved by their own experiences visiting the facility, meeting its staff and being able “to put a face with a name,” as Dustin puts it.
“We didn’t realize how much we would be able to work with the factory on this project,” he continues. “In doing so, we’ve been able to get a custom line of shirts.” And they will even be a proprietary color, a particular shade of orange that should complement the upcoming football season. Lisa says that they are calling it “Nothing Too Fancy Orange,” just in case there were to be any issue with confusing it with another kind of orange.
As they move toward further expansion, the Burnetts aren’t sure if it will mean establishing a second location or growing the retail side of things, but Dustin acknowledges that their immediate plans are to focus on increasing their online sales and presence. But perhaps the future is in beard oil. Lisa laughs that they originally stocked the grooming product as a joke, but its overwhelming popularity motivated them to include more and more varieties of the stuff.
Nothing Too Fancy is located at 435 Union Ave., Knoxville, TN 37902. Visit the website at nothingtoofancy.com or call the store at (865) 951-2916.