Women who turn passion projects into full-blown businesses inspire me, which is exactly where Pamela Bell finds herself. One of the first hires, and a partner, at Kate Spade–Pamela spent much of her formative career helping build the mega-brand until they sold it. Then she had a lot of time on her hands and a non-compete clause that kept her from diving into another business. She threw her energy into other ideas that eventually led to her latest venture, Prinkshop, which the site describes as “wear-what-you-care-about clothing and accessories” that turns “bystanders into activists”. Prinkshop has partnered with everyone from Tory Burch to the UN’s Girl UP Initiative to create designs that give back–even the factories where Prinkshop products are made are not-for-profit. What’s next? This weekend, Pamela has teamed up with J. Crew for Mother’s Day to create a line of tees, with some sale proceeds going to UN’s Girl Up. In fact, you can go silk screen your own shirt with Pamela this Sunday if you’re in NYC. (See invite further down.)
What was your path to starting Prinkshop? I know you were at Kate Spade…. I met Katy and Andy in the summer of I think, 1992. Katy had some samples, and I had been an accessory producer. I had had my own line since I was in college called BowBow’s–they were wooden, flat hair accessories that looked like bows. They were kind of silly, hand painted things. Graphic. I got married, had sold my company, and was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. They were like, “Okay, could you be our partner?” I said, “Sure.” I could start in a month, and Katy called me and said, “The deal is for tomorrow or nothing,” and I said, “Okay, I’m in. I’ll pick you up at nine.”
I think she had one or two orders and bolts of fabric in her apartment. We found a factory and started making and selling. Our other partner, Elise, who had always planned on joining, joined a few months later. We traded our sweat equity for a quarter of the company. There were the four of us. Katy and Andy and Elise and I. We did that for about 14, 15 years. Then we sold the company.
I had like a four year noncompete at the end of it, which Andy kind of negotiated for me. I wanted to spend time with my kids. Before I signed I was like, “Do I do this? Do I not do this…” because it’s a big deal to have a noncompete when you’ve been working 60 hours a week for 15 years. All of a sudden, it’s like …
That’s a long break. It was a long break. After about six months, I was like, “Okay, great, but I gotta do something.” I started working for not-for-profits. And I wanted them to make product. I love making product. I wanted them to make their own swag. I went to Donor’s Choose. I went to Project Renewal, Robin Hood, and I couldn’t get them to get their heads wrapped around making product for a profit. Like if they bought a shirt for $20, and then sold it for $40, that’s 20 extra dollars for their non-profit.
Then my daughter came home one day from school. I had given her my credit card, which is a rare occurrence, and said, “You can get some things at Madewell.” She came back with this shirt that said, “Saint Tropez,” and I was like, “That’s ridiculous. You’re never going to Saint Tropez. We’ve never been there. That makes it seam like you’ve been to Saint Tropez.”
I thought, “I’m gonna make you something that actually means something.” That was it. I started with the 1973 t-shirt, then I started selling it and donating back to the NIRH [National Institute for Reproductive Health]. I did the Women Rule conference logo that was a partnership with Tory Burch, Google, and Politico.
I basically spent five years doing project by project by project. In 2016, we partnered with UN Girl Up and did “You See a Girl, I See the Future”. My dream was to have a triangle where I have a celebrity, an organization, and us together all pushing in at one time. I worked on trying to find that magic formula. So we did “You See a Girl, I See the Future” with Cara Delevingne.
We turned our website on and we really started pushing for things. I haven’t spent a penny on advertising, which I like. We don’t buy new boxes. We don’t buy new envelopes. We recycle as much as we possibly can.
Tell me more about your non-profit factories: We found the first factory in the East Village. It’s not-for-profit and they hire at-risk teens to teach them vocational skills. The other factory that we’re using in Long Island, where I would say like 70% of our production is, was created to employ adults with autism. They’re also not-for-profit–73% of their employees who silk screen have autism and could not have a job otherwise. 98% of adults with autism in America are unemployed.
We just did this project for the government of Qatar, for Autism Speaks. Everyone in the factory is pulling the screen that say EQ over IQ. I’m doing the Special Olympics 50 year anniversary. The factories are just the thing that I really love, and I’m hoping that we can get their story out. And I’m hoping other people will make factories like this. It’s the best place I’ve ever been. It’s really cool.
This seems like such a passion project for you. At Kate Spade, I always tried to do things that were a little off the conventional business model, and it was never really received by the majority as a good idea–I was sort of just the do-gooder, or my idea was going to cost [a lot], but I always knew how to make the money.
So many people think that good and money making don’t go together. We call it creative capitalism. You actually can make a lot of money while you’re doing good.
I don’t want people to think that for-profit is a bad thing, it’s not. Because you’re creating jobs. Meaningful work and purpose are really important to people. Nobody wants a handout. Our whole model is rise up a little bit. Work. Get a job.
I think it’s interesting because three years ago, I wouldn’t have worn a t-shirt that had some saying on it. I have the 1973 t-shirt you did with Kule. So does one of my daughters. It’s funny, when I first started I was going to get financing. I went to some guys that started t-shirt companies. They were like, “People don’t buy graphic tees. They don’t sell,” and I said, “No, I feel like it’s coming.” I feel like the shirts are almost like armor. Like a superhero. You are your own advertisements. I think when you wear 1973, you’re saying something to people.
I don’t think anybody now would say, “People don’t wear graphic tees.” You know? Literally, this man sat across from me very smugly, and he just was like, “They don’t sell.” I have to remind him and call him. Maybe I’ll send him one.
Do you think you have become of this kind of behind the scenes spokesperson for women’s issues? I don’t know. I have two daughters and I feel … I didn’t do the “nasty woman” t-shirts. I probably could have sold a million of those. I know it has a place, but I don’t really believe in amplifying negativity.
What message do you want to put out there? What’s your vision? That “We can do whatever you can do”. It’s like, “Women Working,” or “Unbought and Unbossed.” That was a Shirley Chisholm political campaign poster [from the 70s]. I mean, 1973 is just a woman’s right to choose. Ironically, it was also the year that homosexuality got bumped out of the mental illness category.
What motivates you? I get up every day and I’m so excited about making stuff. It’s like a inner time clock or something. I’m just really happy. I love color.
Why color? I grew up in a house where I don’t think went to a museum ever. As a child, I remember once going to a planetarium.
And you have walls full of art. When I was old enough to do my own thing, it was like I was catching up. I’ve probably been to more museums than most people now.
What inspires you? When people actually care about what they’re doing. If you see something beautiful that someone actually spent their time on; paying attention to small details is important to me. My kids are like that. My son is highly empathic. My daughters are both very detailed. They get it. We have a nice little pact that when we go through the world, we’re like, “Oh, did you see that? Did you see that?” Which is really nice. They inspire me too all the time.
Do they influence your work now? 100%. They’re happy about it. They were a little disappointed in me when I was being a little sleepy about it, but I was like, “No, this is the calm before the storm. Don’t worry.” Now that I’m super busy, they’re like, “You have no time.” You can’t win.
That’s nice though that your kids were pushing you. They’re very nice. They’re very supportive of my artwork too. They’re like, “You should go back to school.” They’re great.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I say yes a lot. A friend said to me, “I’m a no person, you’re a yes person.” I always say, “Well, of course it’s possible.”
We had a lot of struggles [at Kate Spade]. Our factory closed and we had all of our stuff in the car in a parking lot, and Katy was crying saying, “We’re never gonna make it.” I said, “No, we’re gonna do it.” I’m game for stuff.
Speaking of struggles. What has been the hardest part, or something that surprised you, with starting Prinkshop that maybe caught you off guard? Nothing has really caught me off guard. I would say that I realize there’s a whole set of skills that I’m not good at that you need in a company to run it. Because we had partners at Kate Spade, we each had separate roles.
I think that what surprised me is how much I appreciate my ex-partner Elise. She really took care of everything. HR, legal, banking–I never even had to worry about that. It’s a huge part of the business. I need to go to a Suze Ormond weekend retreat, because I’m really bad at it.
What do you think has been your biggest success so far with Prink? I think producing in the factory with the adults with autism makes me the happiest. In terms of the graphic, I think that “You See a Girl, I See the Future” is like an evergreen design. It’s been knocked-off.
That’s when you know you’re doing something right. Do you wear t-shirts a lot yourself? I wear the 1973 a lot, and when I go to the gym, I always wear one. I’m a little shy about wearing them too because it feels a little self-promotey.
That’s funny. You know, it’s my company.
But it’s your company.
Three words that describe you: Well, my husband told me last night I was a demanding woman, so I’m going to say demanding. I don’t know–hyper, demanding, tenacious. Just being honest.
Three words that describe Prinkshop: Bold, graphic, persistent.
What’s next? We’re doing an entire series for Mother’s Day with J.Crew. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day for kids and moms. I’m doing and an in-store silk screening event in the 5th Avenue location. It’s a full collaboration. They’re producing the shirts, which is great and they’re donating a big percentage to the UN Girl Up, so it’s going to raise the bar on the donations.
And we’re doing this project, I can’t tell you what it is exactly, but my daughter made a drawing when she was like five for me for Mother’s Day and we re-imagined it in a graphic. It’s going to be so cute.
Daily goals: Peace inside–easier said then done.
Favorite inspirational/motivational read: Awakening Loving Kindness by Pema Chodron.
Daily rituals: Coffee in bed with my husband.
How do you unplug: Not sure I do.
Hidden talent/hobby: My secret life obsession is collage.
Favorite charity: Too many to have a favorite.
Do you collect anything? My children claim I collect relationships. I do value my friends and family more than any object. Plus, people do not collect dust….constant motion.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: I leased a white and navy Mini Cooper convertible on a whim and had it with three children and a dog. We loved every drive.
Favorite small indulgence: Sweet cafe con leche.
Album currently on repeat: RESPECT.
Scent that brings back memories: Cut grass.
Lucky charm: My children.