What do you get when the worlds of clothing and horror collide? The answer is Fright-Rags, purveyors of kick ass horror shirts since 2003. You may also be asking yourself, who is the Doctor Frankenstein responsible for creating this monster? His name is Ben Scrivens, a die hard horror fan from upstate New York who took an idea and shaped it into one of the most successful businesses of its kind. Steve Johnson of Icon vs. Icon recently caught up with Ben to talk about the genesis of his very unique business, how a single design is brought to life, his work with the talented Jeff Zornow, and what the amazingly creative team at Fright-Rags have up their sleeve for the future!
First off, give us a little background on yourself. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Rochester, NY about two-and-a-half miles from where I live currently. We used to live downtown, but moved to a suburb when I was 6-years-old. I’ve traveled all over the world, but I ended up living in the same place I grew up, go figure. But I love this town and all of my family is here, so it makes sense to stay especially now that I have kids of my own.
Have you always been a fan of horror films?
Yeah, I got into horror films at a very young age. I saw “Halloween” when I was 4-years-old and have been hooked ever since.
Do you have a favorite horror film?
“Halloween” is my all-time favorite film. It was the first horror film I had ever seen and to this day remains the one I love the most.
What inspired you to bring the horror genre to the realm of clothing?
It happened by accident, really. I was trying to let off some creative steam in my free time, and knew I wanted to do something with horror. As a graphic designer, I tended to draw or create images on the computer more often so I just began tinkering with ideas. That’s when I came up with the idea for “What Would Jason Do?” as a parody of the “What Would Jesus Do?” marketing campaign that was everywhere at the time. The image was so simple, yet effective and at that time (in 2003) no one had done it before. I just looked at it and thought that it would look cool on a shirt. That was the beginning.
Starting your own business can be difficult. How did you get the business off the ground?
I’ll be honest, the very fact that I got anything off the ground still amazes me. I’ve always had ideas for various things — businesses, scripts, comics, films, etc. — but had never really taken any real steps beyond initial conception. With the shirts, I had some positive feedback from people on a horror forum at the time, which I feel gave me that boost to move forward. People were clearly interested in my work, and wanted to buy it. So, I just gave them the ability to do just that.
I created the name, basic logo, and website over Labor Day weekend in 2003. By that Tuesday, I was ready to take orders. When they started coming in, I realized that I may be onto something. After that, it was just about the fun of coming up with new ideas and seeing how people responded to them. It wasn’t until a few months into it that I really started trying to figure out all the legal stuff that comes along with owning a business. While that may not have been the best way to go about things, I do feel everything happened the way it was supposed to and in a very organic way. It was truly built out of a love for horror and an idea. The business end was something I had to learn along the way … and I still am learning every day. But if I had not jumped in headfirst, I might not have ever jumped in at all.
How do you feel Fright-Rags evolved since it started out?
Well, in terms of designs, we are light years ahead of where I was when I started over eight years go. The artwork and quality of printing have reached levels that I never dreamed of back when I was doing one or two colors. These days we can capture incredible amounts of detail and replicate full color in our prints. Granted, a one color design can still have great impact (i.e. Obey, WWJD?, All Hallow’s Eve), but I really enjoy the freedom we have to explore — and push — the boundaries of what you can put on a shirt.
But honestly, I am most proud of how much we’ve grown and evolved into a premium brand. There are a lot of crappy companies out there (not just shirt companies) either putting out sub-par products or have shoddy service, or both. I’m proud that we’ve been able to maintain a high level of both, by constantly pushing ourselves to do better in all areas of the business. Better quality, better service. That is the lifeblood of our company.
How well is the business doing today?
It’s going great! 2011 saw us taking on more licenses than I thought we would ever have. And in some instances, companies have come to us specifically to work with them. It’s amazing. We’re growing steadily every year, and while we are adding new customers all the time, the majority of our business is repeat customers. And as anyone in business knows, that a good spot to be in.
You seem to be the ones to beat when it comes to kickass horror shirts. Have you guys had any problems with bootlegs or cheap ripoffs?
Yes, unfortunately. We’ve had more than a few people steal our designs and reproduce them exactly to sell on their own. It happens overseas or on eBay usually, but I do see some other people putting them on their site for sale. We keep a close eye on those types of things as much as we can, and notify site owners when we catch a ripoff. In this case, imitation is not flattery, it’s a headache.
You guys have some absolutely amazing shirts. Do you have a favorite design?
Thanks! That’s a tough question. I think many of my favorite designs are ones that we’re working on at the time because they are the freshest ones and most exciting to me. But looking back, a few stand out to me. WWJD? is one of my favorites because it started it all. Zombie Vs. Shark is also one that I really like. And, of the current line up, Hobo With A Shotgun is definitely up there for me because I love the movie so much.
Speaking of designs, tell us a little about how a design is brought to life?
It usually starts with an idea I have, or that we as a team have come up with. It could be a complete design idea, or just a broad concept. I then look at who we’ve worked with as artists and try and match up what style I think it should be in, and then contact that person. Or sometimes an artist will come to me with a concept or design and we go from there. Once the design is in the drawing stages, I like to look in on various stages so I can be involved in the details. However, sometimes I just let the person run with it.
You frequently work with the extremely talented Jeff Zornow. How did you bring him into the fold and what has it been like working alongside him?
Zornow must be destroyed! Jeff is one hell of a talent and has been synonymous with Fright-Rags since 2007. I met him through a mutual friend (Kevin Miller who runs House of Mysterious Secrets) who had him do a shirt design that we were printing for Kevin’s store. I loved it and — to be honest — was incredibly jealous. So, I asked Kevin if I could work with him and he was cool with it. From then on, I just fed him work non-stop and Kevin got out of the horror shirt thing for awhile. So then I just kept giving him more work. He’s one of those guys I can just let loose on almost any project. But even still, I enjoy the times we collaborate together as I think those designs come out the best because they’ve been pushed beyond the original concept. He’s a gifted artist and a great friend.
Tell us a little about the other artists you worked with over the years.
We’ve worked with quite a few and continue to work with more as I find artists that fit a style I’m looking for. One of the coolest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with was the late, great Chas Balun. He’s obviously known for his amazing articles in “Fangoria” and “Gorezone” and his numerous books on horror. He was also an accomplished artist and worked for years with Rotten Cotton on many of their shirts. When he approached me to do artwork for us, it was an honor. We worked together for a few years and all the way up until his death in 2009. He was a great guy and I’m blessed to have had a chance to work with him.
Another artist I’ve been grateful to work with is William Stout. When I approached him about using the Tarman character for a T-shirt, he asked if he could create an original Tarman drawing for the design as opposed to using the film as reference. As the father of Tarman, how could I resist? The result was an amazing pop art take on the popular zombie, and we decided to produce it as a limited edition T-shirt and signed serigraph (screen-printed poster). Both sold out in just a few hours at the time of their release. It was incredible.
You released several special edition shirts. (Trick ‘r Treat, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ladies of Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, etc.) Can we expect another special edition soon and can you give us a hint at what it may be?
Oh yeah, we’ve got a list of ideas we’re currently working on for limited editions. The next one is set to debut on November 4, and will be another pre-order shirt (like Trick ‘r Treat). While I can’t give away all the details, I will say we’re doing this in time for Christmas as the theme is perfect for the holiday. Not an all out horror film necessarily, but a favorite among horror fans for sure. Let’s just say you won’t want to get this shirt wet, expose it to bring light, or feed it after midnight …
You recently re-release your “We Belong Alive” design. For our readers who are unfamiliar with the design, explain why it was created and if you can, please give us an update on Leisha’s condition.
Last September (2010), I was lurking around on Facebook and noticed a post about a good friend of mine from high school, Leisha, and something about her having cancer. I had not talked to her in a while, so I hopped onto her page and sure enough, she had posted about having breast cancer. However, since her husband had lost his job, they did not have any insurance so no doctor would give her treatment at the time. She was finally able to get assistance and the treatment she needed, but by that time the cancer had metastasized and spread. This type of cancer is extremely hard to treat and she has had to undergo weekly chemo and radiation treatments. To compound the issue, they also have twin boys that just started school.
When I read all that, my heart sank. I couldn’t believe it. I went out for a long bike ride and just cranked my music … something I tend to do whenever I’m working out a problem or need inspiration. I kept thinking that I needed to do something. And then it hit me, what if I could use Fright-Rags as a way to help raise money for her? At that moment, the idea came to me. We’ll do a limited edition shirt and donate 100% of the proceeds to her. As for the shirt idea, I knew it had to be boob related, but I didn’t want it to be gratuitous or graphic. Then I thought of the Rolling Stone cover with Janet Jackson and thought, hmm, what about doing that with the Bride of Frankenstein? When I got home I contacted a designer (Jared Moratis) who I thought would be perfect and we were off to the races.
Two months later I showed up to Leisha’s house with a check for over $7,000. It warmed my heart to know that we were able to make a difference in her life, even if only a little bit. To think that so many people, bound by their common love of horror, jumped at the chance to help support someone in need is something I will always cherish. Not only that, but I saw first hand how many others had been affected by this disease, as they bought shirts to help celebrate the survival of their loved ones, or pay homage to their memory. That is why we decided to bring it back this year.As for Leisha, she is doing well and still receiving treatments. She has told me that the doctors see the treatments continuing through March or April 2012, at which point they hope she will be in remission. Her spirits are high and her courage is an inspiration.
We hear the proceeds for the re-issue will be going to a charity. Any decision on which charity you will contribute to?
We’ve decided to donate 60% of the proceeds from this year’s shirt to METAvivor (www.metavivor.org). They focus primarily on metastatic breast cancer, as research for that is severely underfunded. Plus, they are volunteer-based, which means more of the money that gets donated actually goes to the cause.
That design is amazing and I admire you and your customers for supporting such a great cause.
Thanks so much! I really appreciate it and the ability to give back, all while creating a kick ass horror shirt, is just a great combination.
We often run into you guys at horror cons selling your merchandise. Do you enjoy getting out to conventions and meeting fans of your work?
I love going to shows and meeting our customers. I personally don’t get out to too many these days, as I have two small children at home. However, I will always get out to the Monster Mania shows in Cherry Hill, NJ (in March and August) as they have become a home away from home. We do a few more shows throughout the year, but Kristy (who does customer service) handles those.
So many times we only know customers by their names on orders. And since we do a great deal of repeat business, many of the same names keep popping up. Then, when I’m at a show and a person approaches me and I recognize the name from one of those orders, it’s almost like meeting a celebrity because I’ve been seeing their names for months or years. The horror community is so tightly-knit, and I truly view our customers as an extended family.
We know you run into stars of the films you feature on your shirts at these conventions. Do you usually present them with a shirt related to the film they starred in?
Definitely. It’s the best way to break the ice. Especially for me, as I have a hard time trying to figure out what to say to people when they’ve heard it all. But giving them a shirt offers me a chance to describe what we do, and it usually leads on to further conversation.
Have you had any interesting interactions between yourselves and any of the stars?
I’ve had some amazing experiences throughout the years. One that stands out in particular was at a show in 2006. We had done some shirts for George Romero a few months prior to the show, and he was there as the main guest. I had only worked with his manager, and never met George himself. However, on Saturday night, I received a call from his manager telling me to head up to George’s room. When I got there, it was full of people and practically every celebrity at the show. When I walked in, I saw George’s manager, Chris, and he motioned to come see him. At that point, I saw George in the corner surrounded by people as he sat there drinking scotch and smoking a cigarette. Chris started leading me to him and I said, “I don’t want to bother him with all those people around.” Chris just said, “Nonsense, he wants to meet you.”
We pushed through a wall of people and there he was, the man himself. Chris said, “George, this is the guy responsible for making your shirts!” George looked up and just made a motion as if to bow to me. I said, “Screw that, I bow to YOU!” and got down on my knees. He laughed, shook my hand and said, “Have a seat.” And so I did, right next to him, and we talked for two hours. That’s a night I will never forget!
You hosted a two-night film festival featuring Tom Atkins and Fred Dekker. Tell us a little about how you arranged that and how successful it was.
While Rochester is not known for being a booming metropolis, we are known for one thing, film. Eastman Kodak was the world’s primary manufacturer of motion picture film for the last 100+ years, and was started by George Eastman. His house is now a museum and an archive of film itself. The archives hold over 70,000 reels and are also where Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and other prominent directors keep their private collections. They also have a theater on the premises that shows movies nightly, and they show everything from the earliest silent films, all the way up to more recent movies.
I’ve had the pleasure to attend many screenings there, movies I wouldn’t normally have had the chance to see in the theater such as “Friday the 13th” in 3D, the original “Halloween,” “The Evil Dead,” and others. So, I got to thinking, what if we could team up with them to show a film and bring an actor out to screen it with us. The program director had planned on showing “Halloween 3,” and I said we could get Tom Atkins here because he and I had been talking for a while as he buys the Thrill Me shirts from us to sell at the shows. He was interested in coming out, and then we got to thinking about showing “Night of the Creeps” since he was in that as well. Then we thought, how cool would it be to have Fred Dekker here too? We contacted him and he was interested as well. So it ended up being two nights, both with double features. One night was all Atkins and we showed “Halloween 3” and “The Fog.” The next night was Dekker night where we showed “Night of the Creeps” and “The Monster Squad.”
Both films each night were followed by Q&A’s with Atkins and Dekker and they also took time to meet people in the lobby, sign autographs, and take pictures. People came from all over the tri-state area and it was just an amazing experience. Not only did I get to hang out with my friends and customers, but I got to spend a great deal of time with Atkins and Dekker, two people I have admired and watched since childhood. It was truly a magical weekend and one that made me realize how lucky I am to be doing what I do.
Do you intend on holding another event like this in the future?
I’d love to hold another event like that in the future. We’ve been talking about it but it’s been difficult to coordinate the right event. I want to make sure that, when we do something like this, it’s special. So yes, there is a possibility of it happening again.
What does the future hold for Fright-Rags?
We’ve always got something up our sleeve (pun intended). At the moment, we’re planning a new section of the website called the Graveyard which will show all of our old and out of print designs. It will also give people a chance to vote on what will come back. With lots of new designs in the works, we don’t reprint as many of the older ones as much, so this will give people a chance to get their voice heard as to what they want to see on the site.
We’re also gearing up to launch another website that will host all of our vintage shirts that used to be on our main Fright-Rags site. These are the custom made shirts that feature full color poster art reproductions and can be ordered in a variety of styles and colors. We were having some delays with our previous vendor, so I’ve decided it would be best to change to a vendor that could handle printing and fulfillment. So we decided to separate these shirts from our main line of tees and create a new website altogether. The benefit is that they will ship much more quickly (3-5 days as opposed to 4-5 weeks), and we will be able to release more shirts on a regular basis. We’re still in the planning stages, but hopefully we’ll be ready to launch by the New Year or shortly after.Other than that, we’ve already got a busy 2012 planned with lots of new ideas and limited editions. The list is long, and we plan on pumping out some great stuff next year.
What is the best piece of advice someone has given you concerning your business?
It’s not something that was said to me personally (nor is it specifically advice), but one thing that has always stood out to me is a saying by Seth Godin that goes “It takes five years to become an overnight success.” Only in hindsight do I realize how true that is. People are starting new businesses every day because they feel they have some hot new gizmo or idea. This is especially rampant in the T-shirt industry. However, many of these companies (and I use the term loosely) fizzle out after a few months or a year because the creator has moved on to something else, got bored, or simply wasn’t successful. What they don’t realize is that the companies they admire that have any sort of success have been working at it for years, and are just now getting noticed. It takes time before all of the hard work pays off.
I can remember when one of our shirts was on “30 Rock” a couple of years ago, and how much attention that brought to Fright-Rags. We were on the local news, in several different papers, and word spread online. It’s almost as if that one moment put us on the map. However, what people didn’t see were the years I spent staying up late, getting up early, and working my ass to the bone just to keep the company going, all without drawing a dime from it for myself until the company was stable enough to do so. A tremendous amount of blood, sweat, and tears goes into doing this and it did not happen overnight. Those who think otherwise are delusional.
That being said, do you have any advice for someone who would like to get involved in starting their own business?
My main piece of advice is to really think why you’re going into business. Is it just to make money? Or is it something you’re so passionate about you’ll sacrifice sleep and all your free time to make it happen? If it’s the former, then get ready for a wake-up call. You need to love what you’re doing so you’ll be willing to put in the time it takes to create and grow your company. While it’s incredibly satisfying, it’s also the hardest you’ll ever work, period.
On a personal note, thanks for finally giving “Silver Bullet” some love.
Hell yeah, that film is one of my all-time favorites. I won’t say it’s the best film ever made (it’s no “Citizen Kane”), but it has a special place in my heart and I will not let an October go by where I don’t watch at least once.
Do you have anything you would like to say to our readers before we let you go?
I’d just like to say thank you for your support over the years. Fright-Rags started out as simply an idea, and I never imagined it would become what it is today. However, none of that would have been possible were it not for the people who stuck by us and supported us all this time. It’s something I think about often and will never take for granted. And it’s the reason we put 110% into everything we do … because without you, there is no us!
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