JC Smith

JC Smith, of Bailiwick Clothing, initially didn't want to make masks. Now his brand is in the mask business.

JC Smith

This interview was conducted with JC Smith, founder of D.C.-based Bailiwick Clothing Company.

JC started the company with his brother when they noticed a tshirt design they simply gave away to another clothing company resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in sales for that brand which begged the question, “Why not recreate this level of success for ourselves?” This was the inspiration for Bailiwick Clothing Company, a D.C.-based apparel brand with a focus on the visual narrative of the District of Columbia and the intrinsic culture of its residents.

The Bailiwick Clothing Company catalogue is nothing short of a stunning, visual smorgasbord of the city’s cultural history that ranges from local slang, allusions to iconic landmarks, and a number of other references only ‘locals’ get. The brand’s loyalty to the District of Columbia is only matched by the city’s residents, with some of the area’s most notable entrepreneurs, athletes, and local leaders sporting Bailiwick shirts.

With that said, JC and his company are not immune to the effects that COVID-19 has had on retail. The precipitous drop in revenue has forced many retail giants to stay solvent any way they can, and for the unfortunate few that can’t - face bankruptcy.

This interview explores how JC is keeping Bailiwick afloat in the turbulence that rocked his industry, as well as the realities they face in keeping the business alive.

What is your name? What is the name of your business?

I'm JC Smith, and the name of the business is Bailiwick Clothing Company.

Describe what your business was like before Covid-19 hit. What did an average day look like for your business?

Before COVID-19 things were going really well. Usually this part of the year is a little slower. We're ramping up. Because a lot of our business actually happens at events, we do a lot of pop ups and things like that. Business before would be strategizing, putting things in place for the summertime. We’re normally setting our strategy, getting the spring line out and getting ready for the summer line. Tank tops, crop tops and things like that. We do it all in the DMV. All the sales and designs happen here in D.C. The actual printing and embroidery production mostly happens in Virginia.

When did you start to feel the impact of COVID-19, what happened?

Honestly, almost right away. One of our biggest events of the first part of the year is SXSW. We make a lot of the shirts for the #WeDC House and other groups that exhibit there. We had a bunch of really big orders that were earmarked for SXSW. Then the event got canceled. We had already produced those orders and were on the way to deliver them, ship them off to Austin. Cancelling that event felt like a pretty big deal.

Another big part of our business is retail. We sell our shirts at a lot of local retailers in D.C. and at a couple museums as well. We sell our shirts at the National Zoo, the National Portrait Gallery, at both Reagan Airport and Dulles Airport, and then at Shop Made in DC, and a few other small retailers and boutiques around the city. Once COVID happened, you started seeing all these retailers, museums and shops close, and immediately a big chunk of our revenue went away. By not having events and not having retail, you see the impact really quickly.

How has your assessment of the potential impact on your business changed over time as this situation has unfolded?

At first the main thing was just the uncertainty. Everyone's just nervous and wondering how long this will last. We started to pivot. We started ramping up our online business. We've always had online business but that made up about 25% of our total business. Since the retail events have dried up, we put more of our efforts on building up our website, putting more products out there. We started making masks.

So now, I feel that we can make it through this thing, no matter how long it lasts.
The Bailiwick brand gained national attention when players from the Washington Nationals and other D.C. professional started wearing JC Smith's designs. | Photo by Elliott O'Donovan
The Bailiwick brand gained national attention when players from the Washington Nationals and other D.C. professional started wearing JC Smith's designs. | Photo by Elliott O'Donovan

What resources, if any, helped you through this time period?

We applied for a bunch of grants and loans. So far, we got a grant from the city. We haven't gotten it yet, but I think we're gonna get it next week. It's not huge, but it's definitely gonna help. We're grateful for that. We are still waiting to hear back from some of the other grants that we applied for.

We’ve had help from a couple organizations, like DSLBD, Department of Small and Local Business Development and WACIF, Washington Area Community Investment Fund. WACIF connected us to potential buyers who were local and in need of masks.

What resources are missing?

Obviously, we’d always love more grant opportunities. My brother and I run the company, but we both have other full time jobs. We both have income coming in, neither of us have been laid off or furloughed. I would love to have all the grants that I applied for come through, and have $50,000 of free money coming in. But since I have other income coming in, I’ll understand if we don't get it. It's better to go to another small business or entrepreneur if this is their full time job, and they need the grant to put food on their table or to keep paying their mortgage. And by all means, we'll figure out how to make it. That's really the approach that we take.

We still do have sales coming in now, just enough to sustain us through this.

How has this experience changed Bailiwick Clothing?

With the production being here, we've had to make some changes. We clean everything a lot more. Everything gets wiped down before we start working, after we do a print job, and we start packing things away. Also maintain social distancing, wearing masks in the warehouse, and all that.

I think it's really teaching us that we have to be more nimble, and we have to be flexible and able to pivot. I mean, just, you know, having that capacity and that flexibility to pivot where you need to get creative.

What has been the most difficult thing you have dealt with so far?

The uncertainty, and seeing our biggest revenue streams dry up. This shirt that I'm wearing actually is our Cherry Blossom shirt. We made a huge run of those for the zoo, some of our local retailers and for the airport. The lock downs really started happening during the cherry blossom season.

The Mayor even had to put barricades up so you couldn’t access the Tidal Basin.

It feels like we missed out on the cherry blossom season. We had hundreds of T-shirts that never got sold. That being said, I like to keep a good perspective on it, that we make t-shirts, we don't make bread or milk, it's not a perishable item. We could put them on the shelf and bring them back for next cherry blossom season. But, when you have that huge outlay of funds at first, and you can’t make it back for a year or something, that hurts.

JC Smith's distribution channels for Bailiwick products disappeared overnight when COVID-19 halted travel and forced retailers to close. Photo by Elliott O'Donovan.
JC Smith's distribution channels for Bailiwick products disappeared overnight when COVID-19 halted travel and forced retailers to close. Photo by Elliott O'Donovan.

Has anything positive happened for you personally or for the business as a result of COVID-19?

We started some campaigns to help raise money for organizations to help them get through the pandemic. These campaigns have really been successful. They've really helped us connect more with the community.

One of the campaigns is a shirt that says “Kindness is Contagious”. That shirt helps raise funds for the restaurant community. To date we've raised about $7,000.

I think we're going to raise even more because we're coming out with masks soon. We're working with RAMW, Restaurant Association of Metro Washington. We're also working with Hook Hall to help raise money for the Coronavirus Workers Relief Fund. And then we also did another campaign that says, “DC Together”. With that campaign, we're raising funds for help frontline workers. We've worked with MedStar Georgetown and Sibley Memorial hospitals. We have a T-shirt and a mask with the campaign on there.

We're not making a ton of money on these campaigns. We’re giving all that money away, but it helps because it brings people to our website. When they buy a “Kindness is Contagious” shirt, they might also buy one of our other shirts or hats. We're getting cross sales, which has helped us get through the last couple months.

Have you been following the reopening process in other states, how does that make you feel?

I see the videos on Twitter. I don't know if you saw the video from Columbus last week, I'm from Ohio. So I always see things going on in Ohio, but in Columbus over the weekend, they reopened and there was a bar by Ohio State, hundreds of people packed, no social distancing, no masks. It was just crazy. Then in Georgia, you see the malls open, everyone's trying to get Jordans, the beaches in Florida, the people that want to get haircuts all over.

It's a little unnerving, knowing that this virus isn't going anywhere and seeing people are still doing what they want to do.

You see it here in D.C. as well. It's to a lesser degree. It is a little unnerving because, my honest opinion is that we're not ready to reopen yet. I think we're getting closer and I appreciate and respect Mayor Bowser for being cautious. I think that's the best way because the worst thing is that we reopen too fast, and have a worse outbreak. Obviously, D.C. is so much different than a lot of other places because of our density.

I live in Navy Yard. There's a lot of people here. We're all stacked on top of each other. I go for a jog and honestly, I hate wearing masks, but I do. I'm trying to be cautious when I know I'm going to be running around a lot of people. I mean it's like any normal day out there. When the weather's nice. You see people hanging out, tanning, drinking, throwing footballs. I’d hate to see this thing come back with a vengeance.

When it comes to reopening, what are you most concerned about?

I understand a lot of businesses that are hurting and want to reopen. I get it, I want places to be open to sell my shirts again. Mom and Pop businesses are hanging on, like Ben's Chili bowl, for instance, still operational but on a takeout basis and at one location. I understand the plight of local companies but, I do think it’s best to err on the side of caution.

What have you learned from this experience?

The willingness to change. At first I didn't want to make masks. Now we're in the mask business. Having the willingness to be flexible in your business and not being afraid to make that pivot, if that's going to be what carries you through. I think that's probably the biggest, biggest thing.

JC Smith hopes his new product designs help the community recover and inspire people to push through this crisis with kindness. Photo by Elliott O'Donovan
JC Smith hopes his new product designs help the community recover and inspire people to push through this crisis with kindness. Photo by Elliott O'Donovan

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This has been crazy, right? Everyone is living through it, I think this is gonna be something that we tell our grandchildren about.

I wish that there were more resources for minority businesses and women owned businesses, which there are a ton here in D.C. You hear about the big companies, Ruth Chris's and the Lakers getting PPP loans, and most of them gave those back. But the fact that they got them in the first place leaves something to really be desired when you're thinking about the small guys vs. the big guys. This pandemic has laid bare a lot of inequalities that small business owners and just humans in general are facing.

I look at the “kindness is contagious” design, and it definitely makes me think about trying to be kinder. To value other people every day and the contributions of others every day. I know a few people that have passed away because of COVID. It's just crazy to think that two months ago these people were healthy, and now they're gone.

Value people, value what’s really important in life and try to be better at what we do.