Island Style: Local teen launches CHESS-CLUB

Chess-Club is a fashion brand run by students Gabriel Nelson, Jack Rizza, Thiago Muniz, Olin Turnell, and Ennis Foster.

Gabriel Nelson, a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School junior, recently launched his clothing brand he’s calling CHESS-CLUB. He runs the company out of his house and his team is comprised of other MVRHS students —Thiago Muniz, Olin Turnell, and Ennis Foster and Jack Rizza from the Charter School. CHESS-CLUB is trendy urban-wear with reasonable pricing, but Gabriel has goals to design high-fashion luxury pieces. We talked to Gabriel recently.

Where did you get the idea for CHESS-CLUB?
The idea of CHESS-CLUB started while I was working at Jack Wills, a clothing store in Edgartown. I was just getting into fashion but I had always had a passion for design and photography. After a month or two of working at Jack Wills, I decided I was going to make my own clothing company. I usually got out of work around 10:45 pm and I’d ride the bus home from Edgartown to Vineyard Haven. During those bus rides, I’d spend my time thinking up different names for my brand. At the end of August, CHESS-CLUB hit me.

Why chess? Does the game hold any significance?
I’m actually awful at chess! I just love the way CHESS-CLUB sounds and the image it creates. When I think of CHESS-CLUB, I think of an erudite person, or someone of affluence. When people see my clothing, I hope to create that kind of atmosphere, but I also aim to add an urban twist to it to attract youth.

What was the process of getting funded like? Who were your biggest supporters?
Honesty a lot of it was luck. CHESS-CLUB was funded by me, my dad, and my friend Thiago Muniz. I started with $80, then I got my friends to pitch in some money and we eventually managed to get about $1,000. I put in all the money I had in my account from working at Jack Wills over the summer, Thiago Muniz pitched in $600, and my dad (Brian Nelson) put in $300, to help pay for samples. From there we honestly just played it all or nothing, kinda. We’d put down a down payment of about $600 on a 100-item order and hope that we got enough pre-orders. That’s kinda the situation we’re in currently too. We’re still trying to break even but we understand it’s a process. Order by order, we will get there.

Chess-Club designer Gabriel Nelson was inspired to start his own clothing company after working at Jack Wills.

Who does your manufacturing?
In the beginning, we used sites like Vistaprint and Custom Ink. These sites would let us drag and drop our logo and brand name on a shirt. They’d send us a shirt, we’d take pictures with it, and hope we could get a kid from school to buy it. Very quickly, we realized this wasn’t going to work. Luckily, I remembered my friend Jonah Larsen. I’d met Jonah over the summer and his family ran a screen printing and embroidery company in Halifax, Canada. I called him up and explained my situation to him. I spent an hour or so on the phone explaining what I wanted to turn CHESS-CLUB into. I told him that what I was doing was special and that if he gave me a chance, I wouldn’t disappoint. He listened. Then he said “Yes, I’ll help you out.” Jonah gave us a discount to get the first official CHESS-CLUB shirts made. I was beyond ecstatic. We currently work with Jonah Larsen and his team at Metro Screen Prints for almost all of our items.

Can you tell me more about your sales?
Most of our sales have been local but we really hope to try and expand our audience throughout the course of this year. Almost all our sales are done through our website but during school, I always try to confirm a sale if presented with an opportunity.

Can you describe your perfect customer?
My perfect customer would be someone between the age of 17-23. They’d be involved in some kind of underground art movement or underground culture. They’d have a melancholy vibe to them. They’d be unique from the crowd. They’d be unique because they’d use what they wear to express something, rather than just wearing it to be hip or to fit an image. This would be my ideal customer. Someone who was a part of something secret (big or small), wasn’t incredibly ebullient, and expressed emotion through their clothing.

Where do you see your company in six months? A year? Five years?
Six months from now I see CHESS-CLUB hiring employees to help ship out packages from my room. One year from now I see CHESS-CLUB owning an office space as well as a warehouse to store our items. Five years from now I see CHESS-CLUB being featured in magazines, runway shows, and online blogs. I see myself and my team moving to a major city and owning a flagship store in New York. I eventually want to turn CHESS-CLUB into a high fashion brand (what I mean by high fashion is runway attire). Right now it’s kind of just trendy, urban wear but my dream is to be the next Chanel or Dior.

What steps are you going to take to turn that into a reality?
My senior year I plan to start going to fashion shows and conventions with the goal of making connections and connecting with different designers. Right now we’re just trying to establish a brand following that’s willing to eventually pay a premium. We’re doing this by putting products on our website that vary greatly in price so that when we do make the big leap from urban to luxury, it won’t be a huge shock or surprise.

Is it hard to balance this and school work?
Yes! It’s really challenging sometimes. When I first started the brand I did it as more of a hobby but now that there’s money involved I have to treat it as more of job. I frequently stay up late to finish up a designs but I always put my school work first.

How much time would you say that you spend on it a week?
Right now about 15-17 hours a week, sometimes more. It really depends. If I’m releasing a new collection then I’d say I spend a solid 30 hours a week on CHESS-CLUB. But if I’m just managing social media, talking to manufacturers, and taking pictures I’d say I spend between 17-20 hours a week on CHESS-CLUB.

The Chess-Club shirt, worn in Menemsha.

Can you describe the process involved in a piece of clothing going from a concept in your mind to a shirt or jacket?
I usually start on paper and I doodle down my ideas. After narrowing down what I want my piece to look like, I go to my manufacturer and find a picture of a product that looks like what I was imagining. I take the photo I got from the manufacturer and put it into Adobe Photoshop. After I have the photo in Photoshop I design all the details in Adobe Illustrator then put them on the photo in Photoshop. From there I show the CHESS-CLUB team and we decide if it’s a yes or a no. If it’s a yes, then I contact the manufacturer and perfect the design. If it’s a no, then I start over.

Have there been any challenges that you haven’t foreseen but run into?
Yes, the biggest challenge we’ve faced that we didn’t expect was a lack of funding to create our items and finding people to actually create our items. The other big challenge we’ve faced is trying to get the brand exposure. With all the different social media platforms you’d imagine it’d be pretty easy to get your brand out there but because social media is so accessible, the clothing market has been over saturated.

What’s your favorite part about the business?
Oh gosh, probably people’s reactions to my designs. As a designer it’s really hard to judge your own work and because I’m selling a product my opinion on my pieces doesn’t mean much. When a customer really likes the way a piece feels, looks, or how it makes them look, it really makes my day.

Check out CHESS-CLUB at their website or on Facebook or Instagram.