517 Shirts: Turning Iconic Michigan Landmarks into T-Shirt Biz

517 Shirts: Turning Iconic Michigan Landmarks into T-Shirt Biz

When former college music teacher-turned journalist Ty Forquer saw a sharpie scribble of three smokestacks in the men’s bathroom of a Lansing bar, a light bulb went off. That light bulb turned into a successful local t-shirt company.

Lansing's smokestacks. Photo by Paul R. Kucher.
Lansing’s smokestacks. Photo by Paul R. Kucher.

After realizing how easily identifiable those iconic smokestacks were around the Lansing area, Michigan’s capital city, Forquer drafted up a t-shirt design that included a silhouette of the smokestacks and the number 517 under it to represent the Lansing area code. This would become the first of many designs produced by Forquer’s t-shirt company: 517 Shirts.

517 Shirts was born in 2011 as a means of sharing the love for Lansing. Forquer has teamed up with local graphic designer, Rachel Harper, to revamp his #lovelansing design. The t-shirt features a simplistic sketch outline of the cityscape, and includes a popular hashtag dedication of love for Michigan’s capital.

The years since 2011 have brought even more changes for the city of Lansing, something Forquer is extremely proud to be a part of.

“I’ve been here seven years now, and it’s a place I’ve really grown to love,” Forquer said. “The big thing for me and my wife is, we really fell in love with the potential of Lansing.” Today, Forquer is working on spreading the love beyond Lansing to the entire mitten state he now calls home.

Photo from 517 Shirts Etsy shop
Michigan Left design by 517 Shirts on Etsy.

For example, 517 Shirts makes the most out of Michigan’s left turn issue. Most Michiganders know this as the unfortunate need to double back around on certain streets prohibiting a convenient regular left turn. 517 shirts immortalizes this often-frustrating, unique to Michigan gem with it’s ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ special design on kelly green cotton.

Wear this at a popular brewery, a national music festival or even a grocery store, and chances are you’ll find out real quickly from the comments of approval just how many other Michiganders are in attendance. The nods of approval speak volumes, as we all have to deal with this pesky problem.

In an interview with the Awesome Mitten, Forquer spoke about the creative design process of 517 shirts.

“I’m always sitting on three to five designs that are on various stages of being ready to release,” Forquer said.

Usually, the new releases are tied to a community event, or released in a timely manner with a holiday or special time of year. Specific examples have included a fire engine red truck colored t-shirt displaying R.E. Olds Motor Company, a visionary automobile company that arguably put Lansing on the map.

For a town that was a little down in the dumps just a few years ago, Forquer and other young creative professionals are aimed at turning the town around.

While Lansing faced some problems in the past, from General Motors downsizing and layoffs, the city’s potential and Midwestern manners had quite the profound impact on Forquer. Even the blank spaces gave way to a vision of creativity and new ideas. “There’s a lot of spaces in Lansing that are still a blank canvas, that you can really get into and you can make your mark,” Forquer said.

While Forquer is originally from Mt.Pleasant, he has also spent some time outside of the mitten in Portland, Oregon.

Forquer and his original design. Photo by Dave Trumpie.
Forquer and his original design. Photo by Dave Trumpie.

In Portland, the love for cool hip coffee shops, art galleries and creative screen printed tees was on the increase. After moving back to Michigan to attend Michigan State University, Forquer decided to bring some of that big city business right into Lansing.

It seems that he is already making a mark. “In some ways, my reputation precedes me when I meet people,” Forquer said. “When I tell them I do this, they’re like ‘Oh yeah, you’re the 517 shirts guy!’ and there’s this instant kind of connection you might not have otherwise.”

Although the company mostly profits from its online sales, Forquer admits it’s strange to see complete strangers out and about wearing his t-shirt designs.

“The reach of it, and how many people have heard of it is crazy,” Forquer said. “When you start a small business, you kind of expect your friends and family to support you, but I’m always amazed by how many doors it’s opened up, how many people I get to meet.”

517 Shirts booth at the R.E. Olds Capital Car Show. Photo by Ty Forquer.
517 Shirts booth at the R.E. Olds Capital Car Show. Photo by Ty Forquer.

In the few years I’ve been familiar with the company, firsthand, I see way more people wearing these ‘homegrown’ shirts. Given our zipcode and locale, of course, the classic 517 smokestacks design is a favorite amongst friends of the town. That being said, I’m pretty sure I own all of the designs. Hey, they come on the softest material American Apparel offers!

517 shirts can also be found at various arts, crafts, beer festivals and fairs around town with Forquer and his wife selling their locally-inspired cotton t-shirts themselves. That’s just that Midwestern motto ‘be kind, work hard’ sort of words to live by that’s both printed on their products and displayed in the pair’s daily lives.

Be on the lookout at local fairs or shop online to add a little Michigander pride to your wardrobe! All designs are just $20 each and available for purchase online. While, there are no plans for a brick and mortar shop, various retailers, such as Etsy, carry 517 shirts. Check out 517 Shirts’ webpage for more information.