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After studying for hours learning the computer language of electrical engineering, coding and programming during his freshman year at UC Davis, Benson Chou traded in his seat in the computer lab of Kemper Hall to turn his passion for art and graphic design into a growing business and clothing brand known as The Imaginary Zebra.
Chou has created more than 50 T-shirt designs, and he said he has sold about 2,000 T-shirts since his freshman year when he and a few of his friends personally designed, screen-printed, packaged and shipped hundreds of T-shirts.
As the demand rose, Chou moved to selling all of his T-shirts online exclusively through his website, which he designed and created. He gets his T-shirts professionally printed at a print shop in Pinole, Calif., and they are all printed on American Apparel T-shirts.
Through monthly T-shirt sales of around $3,000 - $4,000, Chou said he earns enough money to break even and cover his basic expenses.
Seventy percent of his sales come from around California, and the rest of his sales are from out of state.
Image by: Courtesy of The Imaginary Zebra
“The Imaginary Zebra, right now, is a brand that I use to spread a message telling (people) that it’s OK to go ahead and pursue your passions,” Chou said.
The name developed from the acronym TIZ, which Chou came up with in high school, he said. The letters didn’t stand for anything, but he decided to bring TIZ back as he started his business.
“I wanted something that people could hear and envision right away,” Chou said. “Zebras are animals that have stripes, and all their stripes are like fingerprints. No two zebras have the same stripes. I thought this symbolized a uniqueness, but – when grouped as a whole in the herd – they serve as a protective mechanism against predators.”
Though the themes of his T-shirt often vary they always include Chou’s signature zebra head logo.
In 2008, Chou registered a fictitious business name, got a business license and seller’s permit and filed a copyright for his logo design as The Imaginary Zebra grew during his undergraduate years.
Image by: Courtesy of the Imaginary Zebra
The Imaginary Zebra has become a growing trend on the UC Davis campus. Chou has worked with over 30 clubs, student organizations and fraternities to create custom T-shirts and fliers.
Adrienne Cheng – a third-year design major at UC Davis and current photography intern for The Imaginary Zebra – met Chou while he was tabling at a fashion show during her freshman year.
“Benson is kind of famous,” Cheng said, “at least in Davis. He’s just a really nice person, and when you meet people who are kind of famous, you don’t expect them to be so nice.
“I really like his motto: ‘Dream like you mean it,’ ” Cheng added. “I probably would’ve stuck with my science major if I didn’t meet him. And I probably wouldn’t have realized how much I liked photography and how much I wanted to pursue something other than what my parents wanted me to do.”
Chou releases “random and spontaneous” series of four to five T-shirts about three times each year based on what interests and inspires him at the time.
He makes a limited amount of each design, and he does not do reprints when they sell out.
“I see my designs, and I see my T-shirts, and it’s more like artwork,” Chou said. “I want people to find value in them and be able to collect them.”
He said he hopes to release his next series in November or December.
After graduating last year with a bachelor of science degree in managerial economics, Chou is working full time from his home in Richmond to further develop The Imaginary Zebra. Image by: Courtesy of Plushtography
Chou is also working on another project known as Plushtography with Kevin Tam and Christine Wong. The three recent college graduates hand-sewed over 200 intricately crafted photography-themed pillows. The pillows are temporarily sold out, and there is a waiting list on the website.
Five interns from UC Davis are also working with Chou to further pursue the goals of TIZ and put together a club in Davis that will allow students interested in anything from graphic design, entrepreneurship, photography, cars, electrical engineering or any other different hobbies to gather, teach each other and work together on projects.
“Everyone has their own expertise,” Chou said. “We definitely spend a lot of time dedicated to something we enjoy doing, even though that might not be a career.”
Chou said he was skeptical about doing art and graphic design in college because it was just a hobby for him. But, the next thing he knew, his friend had signed him up for the screen-printing class offered at the UC Davis Craft Center and encouraged him explore that route.
“Slowly I felt like I was definitely more motivated and spent a lot more time doing designs and printing my shirts,” Chou said. “I could spend up to 12 hours in lab just printing out shirts as opposed to five to six hours in the computer lab.”
To learn more about The Imaginary Zebra or to purchase T-Shirts, visit its website here.