Greg Kerr’s position as owner and art director for Miles to Go may be his full-time job, but Kerr insists his T-shirt line remains his passion project, just like how it started. The 33-year-old Scottsdale resident sells his literature-inspired shirts all over the world, with designs commissioned by artists to transform inspiration from books and poems into eye-grabbing apparel. You can find his merchandise everywhere from bookstores in Oregon and San Francisco, to the local Changing Hands Bookstore. Kerr keeps his operation local, printing shirts at Acme Prints in Scottsdale. He also manufactures belt buckles through Miles to Go Belts and has made them for everyone from Fall Out Boy to Johnny Cupcakes. When he’s not busy running his business, Kerr sings and plays guitar for local rock band City of Thieves. Read on for where his passion for fashion came from, as well as to hear Kerr talk about his five favorite reasons for living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I came out to Arizona when I was done with college. I visited in October with a friend whose mom lived here, when it was beautiful. Everyone was outside, being active and it wasn’t gray all of the time. I came home and had two months left on my lease and decided to move to Phoenix seven years ago from Philadelphia. I needed a catalyst and knew if I didn’t leave Philly then, I never would. It was time for a change.
How did Miles to Go come about?
My first company was Miles to Go Belts, which I started in 2001. I was touring with a band called Zolof The Rock and Roll Destroyer and started my business doing belt designs while I was broke and on the road. I started making merchandise for our band and for other bands we were touring with, and the belt buckle business started paying all my bills.
I started the T-shirt side in 2007. I was working as a printer at Acme Prints, which gave workers the option to stay after-hours and make T-shirts for ourselves. I made eight T-shirts that said “Miles to Go” on them. I went to First Friday (Art Walk in Phoenix), slapped down a table, and made $200 that night.
“Miles to go” is from Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Why are those words so meaningful to you?
When I was 16, I read the poem, and it really struck me. When I turned 18, one of the first tattoos I got said, “Miles to go before I sleep.” I look at it as a way of life. That poem, to me, is in almost a depressing way, about contemplating suicide and considering where your life is going. For me, it’s about always moving forward, not giving up, and living by your commitments.
Why is working with a local printer important to you?
They’re socially conscious, and the vibe is right. If I don’t have to outsource, I don’t want to. I can drive down the street and be hands-on, while supporting the local economy.
Why are your lines inspired by literature?
I’m a heavy reader, and the most successful brands I’ve seen are integrated with passion. My brand is very niche, but the people who get it really understand it.
You turned down an offer from Urban Outfitters to sell your line. Why?
I was at a trade show in Vegas called Pool, and Urban Outfitters offered to buy 5,000 of my “Moby Dick” design. I knew how much they paid, which is basically nothing. Nordstrom and Topshop also made offers and were harder to turn down. To have a company like Nordstrom want to carry my brand was mind-blowing, but I had to go with my gut, and at the end of the day, it wasn’t the right move for me.
Does the quick-selling success of more commercial designs such as “Game of Thrones” make you want to go more mainstream with your designs?
Not really. The bigger names allow me to do more esoteric designs. One of the best things that can happen is that kids who don’t know the book will see the design and go buy the book. A customer who lives outside of Chicago who had never read Bukowski saw the “bluebird” T-shirt design, went out and found some of his books and now is a big fan. I get emails like that all the time. The goal is turn people on to great literature they might not know about.
Why is reading classic literature so important?
The best thing about reading is it gives you a glimpse into someone else’s mind and allows you to see different points of view. Sometimes it provides a way for people to feel like someone else knows what they’re going through, inspires new ideas, or changes someone’s mind. I wish more people read. It’s so important for everyone to develop their own minds and to expand their views.
What has been the most significant piece of literature you’ve read?
When I was 16 or 17, I read “Fahrenheit 451,” and in the book, people are willing to burn alive with their books to preserve art so it’s not forgotten. That really stuck with me a lot and changed the way I approach things. To this day, art carries great value in my life, and it’s worth fighting for. I also love “Slaughterhouse-Five,” by Kurt Vonnegut. I was laughing out loud the whole time and connected with it. Vonnegut is probably to blame for my dark sense of humor.
Why is having a cool design on your T-shirt important?
A lot of times, shirts can open up a dialogue between strangers, and they can be reflections of what we think of ourselves.
Why should people buy your shirts?
I try to make a really high-quality product and print with discharge and water-based inks so the print can’t be felt. Standard T-shirt ink will sit on top of the fabric, which is what causes that plastic-y feeling. The ink I use permanently dyes into the fabric, so once you wash it once, you can’t feel any ink. I don’t put my name into any of the designs either, so it allows people to buy a design if they dig the art without having to be a walking billboard. The art comes first over branding for me.
Why is doing the ink like that important to you?
The heat in Phoenix lead me to find a better solution because I was doing large prints. Once you switch over to this kind of ink, there is no going back, because the quality is so much higher.
What inspired you to sell T-shirts at First Friday?
I had been to First Friday and loved it. I had talked to a vendor who told me I could throw a table down and sell things, before you needed permits. I went down at 3 in the afternoon to get a good spot, put a table down, and hustled. I sold about $200, and my mind was blown.
What are your goals for your business?
It started as a passion project. My goal is to keep doing it until it’s not fun anymore. I don’t have interest in major retail. I’d like to obviously expand my customer base, but I don’t have a clear-cut goal, because it still is a passion project. It wasn’t created with the intention of being a business and one day transformed into my day job, and I’m thankful for that. I don’t make a ton of money, but I pay my bills. I’m satisfied with that.
What are the biggest challenges to being a business owner?
Money management. Another hard part is people finding you, despite how much you advertise. If I’m going to do a big release, I’m commissioning this art and living off of Ramen noodles weeks before the release. In business, you have to spend money to make it, so you have to get good at your money management. I rarely buy anything for myself or go shopping. I try to take the money I put in my business back into it. When you have an influx of money, don’t get excited to buy a TV. Think about how you can help your brand or your company.
What do you attribute to your business success?
With clothing companies, it’s a slow burn. It took sticking with it and believing in what I was doing. Having an apparel company, especially a T-shirt company, is not a perfect model for success in terms of profitability on each piece. You really have to be passionate about it and fight for it. Word of mouth is the best, but that takes time. It’s about creating a community. Miles to Go is less my company, and more about establishing a community, and I care about that. I’m also trying to put out consistent, timeless designs, and customers know what to expect when they visit my site in the future.
How can people discover and foster their passion?
It’s tough. Most people I know who are artistic have some driving force. There’s no crazy secret, just get out there, and do it. Anything you’re passionate about, people will recognize that passion, and believe in it and follow you. There’s no reason to not do what you want, and if it turns into a business, great. It’s easy to get bogged down by obstacles, but you simply need to create.
What advice do you have for people interested in starting their own apparel companies?
Do your research, and, with most businesses, it’s going to take two-three times more money and time than you think it’s going to. Have some kind of a theme. The one thing I suggest people pinpoint is, “Who’s your demographic?” Find out and focus on them, because “everyone” is never the right answer. Having consistency in your art direction is also crucial. You need a reason for people to want to attach themselves to your brand. They won’t care if you don’t, and honesty shines through.
Besides the literature theme, what characterizes your shirts, and what is your demographic?
When I started, I would say 18-24, mostly men, though I sell to 30-40 percent women. As people have been getting older, that demographic is shifting and pushing into early 30’s. I focus on the content of the designs first, and let the art sell it self and convey the message.
Do you plan on staying in Arizona?
Yes. I’m so tied in here now, and one of the things I love is that you can do your own thing, and nobody cares, it’s not a big deal. I love that. I can live in Arizona, operate outside of what’s hip, and just do my thing quietly.