Minnesota Pride has carried Sota Clothing into a UMD success story

Photo courtesy of Sota Clothing

Photo courtesy of Sota Clothing

In the seven years since its inauguration, Sota clothing has entered over 70 retail locations, opened its own store front in St. Louis Park, been featured at the State Fair and showcased by Minnesota Vikings player Adam Thielen. Creating items themed around the state of Minnesota, its outdoor concepts appeal to many in the land of 10,000 lakes.

While a student at UMD, Spencer Johnson was tasked with creating a design for a fictional business, an assignment that included creating logos, graphics and a website for a brand. After receiving positive feedback from his classmates, Johnson decided to keep going and turn it into a reality.

Sota Clothing’s first production facility was Johnson's college house basement.

“We screen printed shirts in the basement of our house,” Johnson said, “We made about 20 designs and sold them while we were still students. I also worked at the Media Hub on the side.”

The first design, named the “Sota Circle” was the logo Johnson presented to his class, a design they still sell today.

Photo courtesy of Sota Clothing

Photo courtesy of Sota Clothing

Graphic design was not always Johnson’s focus however, and the clothing brand was not always his goal. Entering UMD as a photography major, he was unsure of what he wanted to do next.

“I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but not always positive on how.” Johnson said, “I didn’t change to Graphic Design until way later, and the clothing company idea didn’t come until after I did the class project.”

Since leaving the University of Minnesota Duluth, Sota Clothing has created more than just shirts. Their catalogue now includes sweatshirts, mugs, glasses, blankets, scarves, winter and baseball hats. The demand for Sota Clothing’s products was so high, they usually could not fit enough product in their current warehouse, so moving was constant.

To help meet the demand for more product, Sota Clothing needed more people, so the company began to grow.  

“Half our employees are my siblings, the rest are fans of the brand,” Johnson said, “All of our hires have come off of job postings on our social media. It's important that whoever we hire has a passion that we all share.”

Photo courtesy of Sota Clothing

Photo courtesy of Sota Clothing

While many of the employees of the company are family, their positions were not just handed to them. Coming from backgrounds such as shipping and merchandising, they have become a vital part of the operation. During busy times, such as the holidays when a few more hands are needed, even his parents will step in to help.

“We like to joke about how we had five of the six Johnson’s packing orders last holiday season,” Johnson said.

Earlier this year, one of his employees received an email from Honda.

“For sure, send them any shirts they want,” Spencer replied, but they were not just looking for merchandise, they wanted Sota to be featured in a shoot.

“We filmed in May, and it first aired in June, we had no idea it would play during the Vikings games,” Johnson said.  

With so much happening, it would seem hard to pick a highlight for the company so far according to Johnson.

“The storefront has been better than we could have hoped for, but the State Fair hands down has been the best. That is our target audience,” Johnson said, “ But it’s all a collective, the fair, the commercial, and Adam Thielen wearing our stuff has all contributed to make our store what it is.”

Sota has also used its success to give back. Starting in 2017, they launched the Minnesota Nice Project. Every year the company picks a charity to donate to, then they create an apparel item and put all the proceeds towards the cause. In 2017, the sales and donations, totalling over $14,000 went to the U of M Masonic Cancer Research Center. This year, they will be raising money to support the Cancer Kids Fund in Minnesota, a charity that assists families affected by pediatric cancer with medical expenses.

In the future, Johnson hinted that Sota might be opening up another store front, but that is just a dream right now.

Their goal for the near future, “To keep pumping out clean designs,” Johnson said. “We want to stay true to what was held close when Sota started.”

CultureTim Killian