Over the past decade or so, there’s been a boom in fandom fashion. Sure, there’s the licensed stuff at Hot Topic, Target, and wherever else, but the internet has also exploded with Etsy shops selling shirts emblazoned with deep Real Housewives references and e-tailers slinging enamel pins inspired by The Price Is Right and the Nicole Kidman ad that plays before movies at AMC theaters. Everyone, it seems, wants to wear their deep pop culture geekery on their sleeve—literally.
As one of the best-known purveyors of niche fandom merch, Super Yaki has gotten attention for everything from its line of products advocating for the lead actress potential of Judy Greer to tees reminding moviegoers to “show up early for Maria Menounos.” The Houston-based company is doing so well, in fact, that it now has four people on staff to design, advertise, and ship its merch full-time.
Below, Byrdie talked to Super Yaki owner Andrew Ortiz about the origins of the company and how he’s managed to find a niche in fashion just by being himself.
Where did Super Yaki come from?
I've always wanted to work for myself or start something on my own, because I didn't really enjoy having people telling me what to do. Not really thinking about it too hard, I started a little shop called Super Yaki about six and a half years ago.
The first thing we sold was a little enamel pin, because at that time,the enamel pin boom was huge. Everyone was making pins. It was so easy to do. I took about $300 out of my savings and dumped it into making this little pin. I had my friend, Blake Jones, who is an illustrator, and we put everything together and I set up a little shop on Instagram. It’s surprising how easy it is to set up a little shop like that online.
I didn't know if anyone was ever going to even look at it, but it found an audience. Then we made two more pins, and then three more pins, and it went from there. It started in a tiny area in my closet where I could literally keep all the pins, the packaging supplies, and everything I needed for fulfillment, and gradually it just got bigger and bigger.
A few years later, we have our own office space in Houston, and there are four of us working full time and one person helping out part time. It’s the only thing that I do anymore. I had a full-time job for the first five and a half years that the shop was in existence, but it got to this crossroads where I was spending 40, 50 hours at my main job and then working all night and all weekend just to keep up with you know Super Yaki. I made a decision at that point to just go for it and put all my chips on the table. I made that decision about a month before the pandemic hit, though, and it ended up being the scariest three-month period of my life.
Where did the name Super Yaki come from?
It really doesn't come from anything. It just felt like two really cool words to put together. I wish I put a lot more consideration into it at the time, but I'm sort of stuck with it now. At least it's catchy, I hope.
I had assumed it was some deep cinema reference that I didn’t know.
That would make more sense, especially if I had put a little bit more thought into it, but unfortunately, I didn't.
What was on that first pin you made?
It was a pin of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese writer. It was just his beautiful little smiling face. At the time, I felt like, “Hey, I haven't seen this out there before.” There were a lot of pins being made of characters from movies, but it felt like there weren't a lot of products out there for the people who made the movies.
If someone asks you what you do, how do you describe what Super Yaki is?
I just had to describe it to my aunt and my grandmother the other day. Because I have no idea how to describe it, I just told them I started my own business. Most people just say “that’s great,” but if I have to explain further, I generally say “I started an online shop and we make fun stuff for the movies and creators that we like.” I guess the root of it all is that it’s fun stuff that you can buy for the movies that you like.
Some of it is pretty specific, though. It’s not a bunch of Anchorman tees. It’s stuff about Brendan Fraser being the king of the box office in 1999. Would you say you’re targeting a more niche audience?
I guess so. We’re not Hot Topic, though they've got some really great stuff. We're still trying to figure out where we fit, who we are, and where we belong.
A lot of who we are comes from the whole process behind what we decide to make or focus on. I wouldn't say there are parameters that we stick to. It's mostly just, “What are we excited about? What do we really like?” The only caveat is that we do ask, “What do we really like that might not already exist?” What can we shine a spotlight on?
I wish I could say we only focus on like the little guys or the unsung heroes or the under-appreciated movies, but we've done stuff for Star Wars, and that isn't some tiny little indie movie. It's always just been like, “If we're going to do something that's going to be popular, let's find the angle that we find most appealing or that we feel might be more deserving of our attention.”
What have been your most popular releases?
I mean, the stupid “Honk For Mummy” bumper sticker that we made a couple of years ago definitely took off like wildfire. It was really surprising to see how that collection went.
To backtrack, a couple years ago, we were like, “Let's put a collection around Brendan Fraser.” I'm not trying to say that we were some sort of soothsayer or that we could see the future or his renaissance coming. We just really felt like, “Hey, here’s a guy that put in a lot of great work in the ‘90s who sort of disappeared after a while and has really not been at the forefront of our minds." When we were growing up, he was in seemingly everything that we watched, so let's build a collection around him.
At the time that we made that decision, he had yet to be announced as a lead in the new Darren Aronofsky movie, and it didn't feel like there was the campaign for him that is there right now. We just took a swing and it did really well.
That's the collection that put us out there and gave us a huge audience. To this day, we get people tagging us in these viral posts on Twitter and Instagram, with people seeing the bumper sticker out there in the world. That bumper sticker has really been the only thing that we've made that's been knocked off by multiple shops out there, like on Etsy and everywhere else, which is perfectly fine. We don't own any licensing rights to that specific phrase.
We really tapped into a division of thought that was there, right? A lot of people had this feeling about The Mummy, and how maybe it wasn't being talked about in academic circles or whatever, or film scholars weren't redeeming it at that point. We were just thinking, “This is a fun movie that we really enjoyed as kids. It's got a great guy in it, great performances, a lot of fun… let's do something for it.”
What have been some of your biggest challenges? For instance, how have you figured out sourcing shirts, how many of each size you need to order, and so on?
I could go on for days about the challenges that we see on a day to day basis, in the grand scheme of things. The thing is, I have no background in this whatsoever, and the team that we built around, I wouldn't say that a lot of them have a lot of experience in this field either. None of us have ever started a brand or opened up a shop or anything like that. We've assembled this fantastic team, but at no point were we adequately prepared for everything that we face. We’ve been learning everything on the fly.
I don't even remember what it was really like pre-pandemic, to be able to place an order for blank shirts and put things into production. It feels like we're still getting adjusted to the ongoing effects that had on every aspect of life from supply chain issues to production to customers to sales. We're still figuring all that stuff out.
Thankfully, we've built an audience that hears us out and understands that we're just a bunch of dummies doing the best that we can, and that we’re not really totally prepared for everything that comes our way. We're just trying hard, and we have a lot of earnestness in what we do.
You’ve made a number of shirts shining lights on under-heralded female performers, from Judy Greer to Kelly-Marie Tran to Kathryn Hahn. Why is it important to you to shout out the little guys?
I’m the son of immigrants, and there's nothing that I can do in this world that isn't seen through the perspective of that background or that upbringing. I can't be naive and just assume that that's the case, or that I can live without that being prevalent in everything that I do in my life.
When we're choosing who to highlight and what to do, we're always asking ourselves, “What are these other perspectives that maybe aren't being highlighted?” I think it's exciting that we've gotten the recognition that we have for highlighting some of these guys. Judy Greer is a tremendous performer and a fantastic character actor, and she really helped us, whether she knows it or not, to sort of establish ourselves. She’s part of the perspective that people don't have the forefront of their minds when they're thinking about movies in general, right? I don’t know how to explain it.
You all also made a shirt standing up for Kelly-Marie Tran, who was experiencing a lot of online vitriol, and people really seemed to appreciate that, as well.
That was definitely made on the fly. We've never been reluctant to just throw stuff together that, I wouldn't say is touchy or sensitive or anything, but we're not interested in necessarily always playing it safe. Then again, it's just a shirt that says “Be nicer to Kelly-Marie Tran.” It's not necessarily groundbreaking.
It felt prudent to bring that to the forefront of the conversation, because here's a person of color who is experiencing vitriol online. We have to ask ourselves why that is, right? We're trying to be mindful of the reality of everything.
There have been times in the past where we’ve said, “Let's highlight this person or that person,” but we’ve asked ourselves, “Is this the right person? Is this the right time for this? Does this feel a little too narrow minded? Are we only looking at movies through the lens of the most popular point of view, which is, unfortunately, the white audience and in particular, men?” I'm a straight guy, so I know that my scope is limited there. I have to be conscious of the fact that there are so many different people watching movies, and so many different movies that affect people in different ways. You can't be naive to the reality of that.
Has anybody you’ve put on a shirt come to you and said, “Hey, I don't like it.”
Just one person. It totally made sense. It was early on. We weren't really being mindful of how we were doing things. We were just throwing stuff together. We got the one cease and desist from someone who was like, “Hey, we’d prefer you don't use this name and likeness,” and they were very polite about it. We wrote back and said, “You're right, I'm so sorry. Thank you so much for letting us know. Please don't sue us.” And that was the end of it.
That being said, I don’t know why more networks and streamers aren’t working with you all and sending, say, “Rian Johnson whodunnit” shirts out in their mailers to press.
Some official people have reached out to us and said, “We like what you're doing. We can't officially condone it, but we like what you're doing.” I think in their eyes it works because they're getting free publicity and we're doing something fun that we feel earnest about. We're not being shills for anyone out there. We're picking the stuff that we want to do based off our own personal interests, and not because someone says like, “Hey, do you want to do this? We'll give you the rights to it.”
Sometimes I wonder, “How do I have that conversation?” What if I weaseled my way into saying, “Hey, Netflix. Do you want to work together in some way?” We've emailed with people from Netflix before, but we always kind of get put on hold. If anyone from Netflix is reading this right now, please email me back. I would love to have that conversation with you.
How do you know when one of your ideas is going to do well?
I have no idea. Sometimes you get a feeling based on what's done well in the past.
Here's the thing: We are terminally online. We are constantly online, just because that's the nature of our brains. That's the way that we're hardwired now. I like to think that we're listening to a conversation, and we're definitely participating in it, and we're trying to see what's in the zeitgeist. What are people talking about that we also feel passionately about?
It's not enough for something to be popular. It has to be something that's popular that we also feel good about, that also feels like a good thing to do, and that wouldn't be selling out for a quick profit. Based off that, we can sort of determine what we think is going to do well, but that's never really stopped us from taking a bunch of leaps of faith and saying “You know what? let's print 50 Luis Guzman shirts,” because even though Luis Guzman is one of my favorite character actors, it's not like people are talking about Luis Guzman everywhere you go.
I'm just waiting for the Super Yaki line of Melanie Lynskey shirts to roll out.
That's gonna happen at some point, right?
What does the future look like for you all? Where do you want to be down the road if all things go to plan?
Someone asked us that in the past. It was our friend Karen Han, who was interviewing us for a podcast. She asked, “Are you going to expand into different products like puzzles and poster prints and toys,” meaning the Mondo route, where they went from making shirts to posters to toys and stuff.
I don't think so. I think we just want to get really, really good at apparel and what we're doing here and just focus on improving that in every aspect. Not just the production side, but how can we get better creatively? What can we do better? I just want to get really good at this one thing, and I'm sure there's room on the edges to try out new things and see where that goes.
I'd like to see us at some point eventually, maybe making our way to Los Angeles. About a quarter of all our sales come from Los Angeles, which makes sense I guess.
Hollywood people love movies.
We're definitely going to try and make our way there just so we can be a little more accessible to a larger swath of our community and hopefully get lucky and make some really cool connections there as well.
Honestly, I try not to think too far ahead. As the business owner, I’m doing payroll every week. I just want to make sure that everyone is getting paid well and that they've got their benefits and their vacation time. If I can figure that out, we can continue doing this for as long as humanly possible, because I have a responsibility to our team to make sure that we're still here tomorrow, the day after that, and the day after that.