Jennifer Laurash was shopping at the Quakerbridge Mall not long ago with her three daughters, who are 12, 10, and 7, when they encountered a T-shirt with the words "Future Hottie" emblazoned across the chest. Like any self- respecting mother might, she asked herself, "What is happening to us? What are we doing to our girls?"

This jolt came at a time when Laurash, who lives in Cranbury, was realizing that she was ready to move on to another stage of her life. Her youngest daughter was in second grade, she was eager for an enterprise beyond PTO and Girl Scouts.

The result was the creation of a lifestyle apparel company, the Tiny Little T-shirt Company. "The inspiration behind the company was that I was tired of all the negative stuff out there that girls were wearing," says Laurash.

Laurash is far from the only person to notice that mass merchandisers are pushing clothing that makes young girls look like miniature street walkers. Mention the subject, and parents talk about how exhausting it is to fight with their pre-adolescent girls over whether a hot pink micro-mini paired with a midriff-baring halter top is something that can be worn to school.

Meanwhile, schools have been forced into the role of fashion police. Evelyn Counts, the sixth-grade counselor at the John Witherspoon School, says that she sometimes sees girls who make her think "I know your mother did not see you before you left home." The school sends out a "no spaghetti straps" reminder each year as the weather starts to turn warm, and Counts says that the warning has, by-and-large, been effective. Still, she sometimes needs to help a girl in an ultra-low-cut blouse to find a sweatshirt before attending class.

Jean Kilbourne, an author who spoke at the Lawrenceville School recently about her video series on how advertisers exploit women (U.S. 1, February 13), is now writing a book that puts provocative clothing for girls into context. "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood, and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids" is being published in August by Random House.

"The tempo at which marketers have been pushing sexualized clothing onto children has increased in the three years since I began my book," says Kilbourne. She says that marketers are now making sexually provocative clothing for younger and younger children. "You can find hooker fashions for little girls ages 6 to 10," she says, pointing out that conventional department stores carry padded bras as well as thongs that say "Wink Wink" and "Eye Candy" for young children. And she has seen T-shirts for toddler boys that sport slogans like "Pimp Squad" and "Chick Magnet."

Not only are these "fashions" on the racks in department stores and children’s clothing stores, but the images are becoming so pervasive that their message is hard to miss. Advertising, Kilbourne points out, is not only where it has always been, on television and magazines, but also all over the Internet – "everywhere you look."

And why are marketers trying to turn our children on to sex at an early age? "The earlier they can get people obsessed with these kinds of things, the more money they can make," says Kilbourne. "If you catch them younger, you have them for a long time, because you create brand loyalty."

The down side is exceedingly serious, in particular for girls, as documented in a task force report published by the American Psychological Association last summer on the sexualization of girls and its effects. "The emphasis on appearance and being hot and sexy and thin and beautiful from age six leads to low self-esteem, eating disorders, promiscuity, and self-mutilation," says Kilbourne.

Kilbourne has not yet seen products from the Tiny Little T-shirt Company, but she is glad to hear about them. She says that the company is up against stiff competition from marketers with another message, and a strong incentive to push it. She has seen that, with young children, "if you can hijack their sexuality and make them associate sexiness and sexuality with shopping, then you’ve got big bucks for a long, long time."

Laurash is out to fight that phenomenon, and may just be able to do so. Her company is less than one year old, but early results show that it is clearly on to something.

Laurash began working on concepts and designs last April and did not start marketing until August. Yet her company has already grabbed the attention of marketing guru Donny Deutsch, who featured the Little T-shirt Company on his cable television program. Even before that media coup the T-shirts were selling well in stores in the south, and were being ordered by top surf shops and boutiques at the Jersey Shore.

At first the company was a one-woman enterprise, with just Laurash working full time. Soon she was getting some help from her husband, Jayme Laurash, a financier who was managing director of Fitch Ratings in New York City. But the new venture quickly outgrew the amount of time that Laurash could devote to it. Her husband, who had logged 20 years on Wall Street, said "`if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.’"

The pair decided to commit all of their time, and a good chunk of their resources, to the company. "We have a pretty good cushion," Laurash says of the cash that will keep the family afloat until the Little T-shirt Company turns a profit. They have not yet sought outside investment, but she doesn’t rule out the possibility as a vehicle for future growth.

At first glance, neither Laurash’s recent job history, as a finance editor for Standard & Poor’s, nor her husband’s Wall Street background contain anything that would point to upbeat, inspirational clothing tag lines, yet both of their backgrounds feel directly into the new enterprise.

Laurash attributes her creative side to her father’s family. "My dad was in the insurance business, but he was really a frustrated poet," she says. "He should have been a greeting-card writer."

Laurash was born in Queens and grew up in Illinois and Long Island. Coming from a family that loves words and puns, she got a degree in journalism from CW Post on Long Island in 1990. After college she worked at Standard and Poor’s in New York as a finance editor until her first daughter was born. Then she did freelance editing until the birth of her second daughter. For several years following she was mostly a stay-at-home mom.

Jayme Laurash is from a family of entrepreneurs. Yes, he earned an MBA in finance from Pitt, and held top positions on Wall Street, but all of that time his heart was firmly anchored to his roots, in which a seasonal ice cream stand played a huge part. "His family owned Twin Kisses, an ice cream store in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh," says his wife. "They put six kids through college on one ice cream stand."

Jayme Laurash worked at the stand as he was growing up, and the experience of doing so, and of being surrounded by small business owners, stayed with him.

Whatever the case, Laurash says that her husband was never really happy on Wall Street – and was decidedly unhappy with his commuting routine, which took him from Princeton Junction to PATH’s World Trade Center stop. "It wears on you," she says. And after 9-11 the trip became even more difficult – logistically and emotionally.

But Jayme Laurash was not just turning away from a life he no longer wanted, he was turning toward a life that had pulled him for decades. Like his wife, he wanted a business of his own.

Two years ago, when her youngest started full-time kindergarten, Jennifer Laurash knew that she was ready. "I’ve always had ideas that I was going to start this or that," she says.

A first step was coming up with designs to match the message, which Laurash describes as "light and uplifting." She comes up with the words, and her niece, Meghan O’Neill, a New York City-based graphic designer, comes up with the images. Favorites early on include "Life. Live it in Flip Flops" and "Life. Be the Change.

The company now has 28 designs, each with a different affirmative message. The company’s "Inspiration" line, which got the business going, includes logos and tag lines based on the words of Ghandi, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Another T-shirts urge "Life. Spread the Love" and "Life. Where’s the Love Y’all?" (The latter is one of the most popular shirts in the Atlanta market.)

"Any of the designs can be put on any style of shirt, beach bags, and beach totes," says Laurash.

Because the company was not ready to begin sales until August, its first market focus was the South, where summer apparel was still marketable in late summer. Sure enough, sales followed appearances at two big trade shows, AmericasMart in Atlanta and Surf Expo in Orlando.

"We had planned to go door to door," says Laurash of the company’s earliest sales strategy. But she quickly found that trade shows are a much faster route to multiple accounts. "It’s amazing," says the vivacious entrepreneur. "It’s like the people you want to find, find you."

This was certainly true at January’s Surf Expo in Orlando. The couple’s big project for the first month of the new year was to be paying visits to stores at the shore, but no sooner had they set up their stand, says Laurash, than five or six owners of shore town stores sought them out.

As a result, they are about to ship their products to Brave New World in Point Pleasant, Morrows in Cape May, She Be Surfin’ in Avalon, Wave One in Stone Harbor, and a number of other Jersey Shore stores. Their targets are surf shops and relatively upscale shore-wear boutiques – not the "five shirts for $10" stores that dot the boardwalks.

In addition to the new accounts at the Jersey Shore, the Tiny Little T-shirt Company has orders for stores on Block Island, Fire Island, Hyannis, and Hilton Head. Its product line is already in more than 20 stores in the south. Closer to home, the T-shirts are being carried by Pied Piper Kids in Cranbury and by Serenity on Main Street in Lawrenceville. Even before its first summer in business, Laurash estimates that the new company has sold more than 5,000 pieces.

Despite its name, the company is not just selling T-shirts. "We had clean, summery look and knew that we would be marketing to beach retailers and that our designs looked good on bags," says Laurash. In addition to women’s and girls’ short and long sleeve t-shirts, unisex shirts, and zip and overhead hoodies, the company sells beach totes and duffel bags.

The Tiny Little T-shirt Company is also selling over the Internet, but business online has been slower than it has been in stores. Web sales did a boost recently, however, after that appearance on Donny Deutsch’s show.Explaining how the major media exposure came about, Laurash says that it began with a simple press release.

"You can send out a release on PR newswire," she says. "It’s really easy to do. You just write it up, and send it over. They have different rates for local and national releases. We chose national, but we took a deep breath. It was $300 and we wondered whether it was worth the money."

It was.

The release went out on a Thursday, and Laurash appeared on Donny Deutch’s television program, the Big Idea, just four days later. "The producer of the show saw the release and called me," she says. It was an exciting time. "I’ve never done anything like that before," she says. She debated over what to wear, and decided to wear one of her company’s t-shirts. "They don’t always allow you to do that," says the newly media aware Laurash, "but the producer said that would be fine." The experience was positive. She describes Deutsch as "pleasant and encouraging," and she learned a lot from her fellow panelists, who were also female entrepreneurs.

"They said, `the crazier the idea is, the better chance it has,’" Laurash says. This gave her confidence. She and her husband had sought advice from a SCORE volunteer. The organization offers free counseling to would-be entrepreneurs and new businesses. Its advice to the Laurashes in a nutshell was "forget about it."

"The SCORE person, I think he was a retired lawyer," recounts Laurash, "e-mailed my husband. He said `don’t have your wife sell t-shirts.’" After her experience of talking with other new business owners, she thinks that this advice was actually a good thing. It is serving as an incentive to prove that her business idea, like so many long shots before it, will be successful.

Back to the nuts and bolts, the Laurashes did not want to look overseas for a manufacturer, but instead selected one in California that offered both a high-quality product and a philosophy that Laurash feels good about. "They have a sweatshop-free environment," she says, "and everyone who works for the company is paid a living wage."

The company does not use screen printing, but rather uses a relatively new technology called direct-to-garment printing. The designs are dyed directly onto the fabrics The process is quick, requiring little setup, and allows the Laurashes to customize their products.

One of the most popular customized items is a bag that includes a girl’s initials encircled by words that describe its owner. With direct-to-garment printing it takes only five minutes to make the bag. The high-setup costs of screen printing would have made customization impossible.

The Laurashes did a lot of research before setting prices. They talked to many people, including friends and relatives in the retail business. Retail shirt prices range from $20 to $30, depending on size and style; hoodies from $32 to $44; and customized bags range from $30 to $37. "We’re not exactly high end," says Laurash, "but moderately high."

Laurash and her husband are the company’s only employees, but they are drawing on a whole village worth of freelance talent. "It’s amazing the people we have found right here in Cranbury," she says. Promotion photos are by Jim Gerberich. "He works for the AP, and has a photo business on the side," she says. Gerberich has created a number of sunny photos of the t-shirts and bags draped on the snow fences and dunes that clearly say "Jersey Shore." Another neighbor, Grace Thomson, did "an unbelievable" brochure for the company’s wares, and also provided art work for the company’s website.

Fulfillment takes place right in the Laurashes’ home with help from family and friends. The T-shirts "have taken over the place," says Laurash.

Asked in what category the company’s first employees will be, she hesitates not at all: "Worker bees," she says. Products are shipped right to the family home, and go out from there, and filling all of the orders will soon require outside help.

After that, the company’s next hires will most likely be sales people. But Laurash is not yet ready for that step. "Dozens of sales representatives came up to us at the trade shows," she says, "but we’ve been warned about that." Once sales reps get busy, she has been told, there is often a surge in orders. While business is good, too much business all at once can be hard on a new company. Using a big manufacturing plant, the Little T-shirt company can now easily fill all of its orders, but it is not yet ready for a huge jump in business.

Marketing for now is limited to the East Coast, and Laurash is somewhat conflicted over how quickly a move to the West Coast should take place. On the one hand, it is early days, and she doesn’t want to strain the young company’s infrastructure. "We’re trying to decide how to grow it," she says. "We’re trying to figure out how much more we can handle before we have to hire too many people." Having so recently conceived of a message that is striking a chord, she is reluctant to give up too much control. On the other hand, she says, "we have momentum now." If there is too much of a delay in going nationwide, will some of that momentum be lost?

Perhaps Laurash can fall back on her website’s tagline: "Life. Take it one T-shirt at a time."

Tiny Little T-Shirt Company, 15 Jefferson Road, Cranbury 08512; 609-409-0567. Jennifer and Jayme Laurash, owners. Home page: www.tinylittletshirt.com.

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