Destee Nation, a startup in Fremont which sells authentic T-shirts from colorful small businesses across the West, has seen its business boom after a New York Times write-up and a Nordstrom distribution deal.

Share story

The dozens of colorful T-shirts neatly arrayed on the walls of the Destee Nation shop in Fremont brought back a rush of memories for shopper Trevor Lindwall.

There’s the Little Red Hen country-music bar near Green Lake, whose Wednesday karaoke nights always brought in the girls. And the Tractor Tavern in Ballard — “I’ve had good times at the Tractor,” sighs the former Seattleite, now visiting from Canada.

Nostalgia is just the vibe Matt Morgan wanted when he founded Destee Nation in 2004.

He’s on a continual road trip, combing the country for local small-business landmarks with distinct character — and a cool-looking T-shirt.

Destee licenses the design, produces the shirts for the business, and also sells them through its two stores and a Web site whose slogan is “Real Shirts from Real Places.”

At other times it develops a new design to capture the unique sense of place conveyed by a particular bowling alley, tattoo parlor or cafe.

Sales have spiked by about 40 percent since the retailer was written up in The New York Times Magazine on June 15, which coincided (surely no accident) with the shirts’ debut in some Nordstrom department stores. The bump has stretched the company’s 21 employees to the limit, Morgan said.

With about 10,000 shirt sales a month, annual revenue is now closing in on $1.5 million.

About 130 different indie tees are on display inside the tiki-style Fremont store, a reedy trailer with a surfboard bolted to the ceiling. Another 55 or so are online or in the company’s Kona, Hawaii, store, and the ranks are growing by about three every week.

“We don’t design clothes — we just find cool logos and share them with the world,” said T-shirt scout and business partner Peter Smith. “We’re the brand behind the brand, like ‘Intel: It’s Destee Nation inside.”

The mainstream move to sell through Nordstrom “feels right” to Morgan — Nordstrom after all, he said, is a family-run business, (albeit one that is listed on the New York Stock Exchange).

He still hopes to keep Destee Nation in the background, serving the businesses on the shirt fronts instead of building the Destee brand, he said.

“Story tags” attached to each shirt provide a glimpse into the character and history of the real establishment being advertised, from the Kai’Opua Canoe Club in Hawaii to the Buffalo Chip Saloon in Arizona.

“There’s a trend of creating fake places — Billy Bob’s Crab Shack,” Smith said. “We wanted to be pretty obvious about the fact that these are actual places.”

If Smith had his own story tag, it would tell of how he and his former roommate Morgan dreamed of going into business together. Morgan started building the enterprise for a year and a half before Smith left his high-tech job to join Destee Nation full time.

Smith said the shirts’ charm “represents the sweat, blood, tears and all the sacrifice that goes into small business.”

For Destee Nation, most of the sweat is shed down the street from its store at the company warehouse, where all the shirts are silk-screened, stored and packaged by hand.

Like true Seattle upstarts, Morgan and Smith designed their own software to keep track of the expanding inventory.

What’s next for Destee Nation? The better question is where.

Morgan is about to embark on a summer tour from Los Angeles across the American South through Texas and New Orleans.

— Isaac Arnsdorf

Comments? Send them to Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8541