Pamela Bell – Prinkshop


Written by: Hillary Sproul

Wear what you care about – New York-based Prinkshop combines fashion with advocacy to create “products with purpose.” Silkscreened t-shirts, tote bags, prints, and stickers voice social concerns with carefully selected text meant to open conversation and voice dedication to personal beliefs.

Pamela Bell founded the company in early 2015 after falling in love with silkscreening. Combining her love of graphics and typography with her work as an activist was a no-brainer. The approach was crucial: to prove the concept of creative capitalism, Prinkshop needed to utilize “creativity to raise awareness, make a for-profit business and donate substantial funds to some of the most pressing social issues of today.” They’ve done exactly that–and created more jobs in the US in the process.

One of the four founding members of Kate Spade, Bell’s successes as an entrepreneur have run parallel to her commitment to philanthropy. Bell’s enthusiasm for bettering the world with her work is moving, inspiring, refreshing. Prinkshop is not only an extension of that work, but it’s also an opportunity for people to express themselves by aligning with a cause and helping spread the word in a necessary effort to bring about real change. (Activism at its finest).

HS: Can you tell me a bit about the design process for Prinkshop?

PB: The design process is pretty detailed actually. We are either contacted by an organization that has an issue they want to highlight–or they want us to create a campaign for them. Or, we think of an issue. Or, something comes to our attention that we feel very strongly about. And we study the issue. We go back historically; we look at everything around the issue, who has been affected, the victims, who’s helping, and then we just sit down and start working on taglines and graphics. We go through a lot of iterations to come to one final design.

Obviously, women’s rights are a big part of our work and just holding up Roe v. Wade and having healthcare available for all women. So, a lot of the women’s issues are just from our hearts.

HS: How many people are part of the design team?

PB: Well, it depends. I have a few freelance designers, but sometimes I just give them a project and then we work on it together. So, there’s between 1 and ten basically. Sometimes we’ll do something, and then I’ll send it out. All my graphic designers are freelance, so it’s project-based, which is really fun. I have one full-time, in-house graphic designer.

I’ll send out a note to my designers like, “Who feels strongly about this issue?” And then they’ll say, “Okay, so this one’s for _____ ”. Then, some of the graphic designers will say, “I’m really passionate about this. Can we generate a campaign?”

What we try to do is come up with something that’s provocative. We never really say like “Save the Whales,” you know? We try to make it so that the person wearing the shirt is wearing something that somebody might ask a question about and say, “What is that?”

HS: Your “1973” design is a good example of that because it’s so subtle.

PB: It is very subtle. Like, “What is that?” And then you also get people that get it. They’re walking down the street, and they’re like, “Ohhhh, we get it: Roe v. Wade”… I think there’s an illustration on the website, but we have a flip tag on the lower lefthand corner of the shirt. So, if you are wearing it and somebody asks you about it, you stick your fist in and pull up the tag, and you can read about the issue.

HS: Can you tell me a little bit about “Period.”, your latest campaign?

PB: ZanaAfrica is an organization based in Kenya created by a woman who left Harvard and went to Kenya for a semester. She started this organization to educate girls in school on menstrual hygiene. Apparently, something like 60% of the girls drop out because they can’t go to school when they have their periods because they don’t have pads. She also started a pad factory and sends kits to kids. They educate these kids, and she’s been making big strides.

And (for this campaign) we just thought the word “period” with a red dot. I mean, this could be anything. It’s a good conversation like, “What does that mean?” Nobody likes to say, “Oh, I have my period.” It’s such a taboo subject. So we thought, “Let’s just put it right on the front of the shirt.”

HS: Some people don’t like to wear graphic text on their shirt; maybe they’re afraid to so blatantly express their beliefs. I like the way that you do this subtly in that you make it more about the design rather than just the statement itself.

PB: Right. That’s what it’s supposed to be: a design that causes some question or conversation. I thought that part of it is that each individual becomes a spokesperson for the issue and it’s almost as if they wear it like a badge. It’s almost like they’re a superhero: “I’m supporting this”; “This is my power”; “I’m supporting women’s rights.” We have a line: “Wear what you care about.”

And everybody loves a white t-shirt. You can wear it so many different ways.

HS: Is there any issue that you haven’t approached yet that you’d like to delve into?

PB: I think that men’s issues–and boy’s–haven’t really been addressed as much. So I don’t want the boys to feel so left out. I know a lot of boys that do support women’s issues, and they seem to be getting sort of lost like, “Where are we in this?”

HS: That’s hard with feminist issues sometimes. I think there are some men that may feel put off… Or they feel that they’re somehow resented when they’re not. As if just by being a man, we feel they’re not on our team.

PB: Right! Exactly, exactly. Or those that are sort of not one way or the other. It’s also just about being aware of it. You know, my son is 16, and he wasn’t even really aware of these issues. He didn’t know that women make 77 cents on the dollar. “Of course that’s not fair but don’t blame me for that because when I have my company, I’m going to pay everybody the same.” I think that bringing the boys into the conversation is really important.

HS: I love the way your website breaks down the relationship between visual storytelling and activism. It seems especially fitting today. Do you have any memories of historical slogans you’ve especially loved or felt were really impactful?

PB: There is a billboard on Storrow Drive in Boston–located exactly in the center of one traffic jam after another during rush hour. It reads something like this: “If you lived here, you would be home by now”… Simple, provocative, direct.

HS: Have you always been involved in activism?

PB: I have been consciously involved with women’s issues and homelessness my entire adult life–which I consider having started at 25. That’s when I was able to have free time to work on things. I’ve always been on advisory boards, consulting… I always volunteered, delivering meals to the homeless on Thanksgiving and I’ve always taken my kids. Now, I’m much more involved because I teach a class twice a week at a homeless shelter with the Bowery Arts Project. I started it with a friend of mine, and we’ve been doing it for six years.

HS: What was the first thing you did to really get involved with volunteer work?

PB: Well, the first thing I did was way back when I was very young. I signed up with this organization called New York Cares. It was a volunteer organization where you could just go in. I went into homeless shelters and talked to kids at a lot of the homeless shelters downtown. I would go and play games, cards and do volunteer work. I cleaned up a couple of parks, painted a mural… I did little things whenever I could.

HS: I feel like a lot of people want to be involved more but feel that they can’t because they don’t have enough time or resources. Do you have any suggestions for how one might get more involved if they feel compelled but struggle with finding ways to start?

PB: Absolutely. There’s a new app called “Deed,” and we get a lot of volunteers from people signing up on this app for our Bowery Arts Project. Apparently there are hundreds of things you can do, and they’re all noncommittal in that you can just show up; go for an hour, go for two hours, go for a Saturday… You don’t have to keep repeating it; you don’t have to sign up for it, it’s not a program. It’s like, “Oh hey, we need a few hands here at this soup kitchen today. Can you come?” I think Deed is a great venue.

HS: With volunteer work, you can just start small and possibly it can become something bigger–which seems to be the path you’ve taken.

PB: Yeah. With the Bowery Arts Project, I wanted to get to know the population. I felt like I was sitting at these board meetings with everyone else who had come from their senior executive, vice president jobs and I wanted to meet some of these clients that we served. So I asked if we could go in and teach an art class. I asked my friend if she wanted to come and she said, “Absolutely.” She does more than I do at the shelter now with the classes; she sort of runs it. We just fell in love the minute we did it. It was just seamless, and the guys really liked it. We had a great time.

Every little bit counts; that’s the whole thing. I think people are sort of shy about making decisions, just to go for things…

HS: That’s why the Deed app is such a great, easy and tangible way to get involved.

PB: And you can meet people, too. You meet like-minded people. We get 3 or 4 people from Deed every week–which is great–and usually there are like 25 clients so we can have up to 20 volunteers. Our core group is only 3 or 4 people so having the extra people is great. They sit one-on-one with the clients (who are the homeless addicts at the shelter), and it’s really meaningful for both the volunteers and the clients.

HS: In addition to the Bowery Arts Project, you’re also involved with an NYC homeless agency called Project Renewal and 3Generations, a non-profit film company concentrating on documentaries about oppressed peoples. Does your work with these organizations crossover to your work with Prinkshop at all?

Everything I do crosses over. Yes!

HS: Prinkshop is so socially-minded. It seems natural that people would approach you and ask you to design for their causes. It almost creates a community. From the beginning, is this something that you wanted to see happen with Prinkshop?

As Brene Brown says, we are “hard-wired” for connection. Community is our style and goal. The more, the better.

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