In 2006 Casper, Wyo. natives Benson Fong, 23, and Austin Roberts Santiago, 23, decided that they wanted to start an all encompassing clothing company. They wanted to take local Bellingham culture and transform it into a brand focused on community, Santiago said. Fong described wanting to create a local brand that Bellingham residents would be proud to wear. They gathered together $800 from friends and family and created a clothing company called Buildstrong Clothing.

“There's a vibe here and a music scene that is really amazing when you come from basically nothing,” Santiago said. “People don't know how lucky they are to live in an area with this flow of ideas.”

Santiago said that they chose their companies name from the rap song “Build Strong” by RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, in which the rapper challenges himself to stand on his own two feet and reject materialism.

“The name is not in vain, it has a message and a meaning, it keeps us grounded,” Santiago said.

Fong, a graphic design major at Whatcom Community College, drew up some designs and they started selling t-shirts to their friends and acquaintances. When they had 100 shirts preordered before they were even printed, Benson and Fong said that they realized that they had hit on an untapped market.

One of the most unique aspects of Buildstrong is that they operate as a collective, under the tentative mission statement “A collective of people coming together for a common cause,” Santiago said. Buildstrong has grown from its original two into so many that they find it hard to keep track, he said. Fong described their main goal as being to promote all local artists, whether that be in music or the visual arts.

Mainly they work with local DJ's, as well as local reggae and hip hop artists and some groups from Seattle. Santiago had already been involved in the music scene in the Northwest, booking shows for the Nightlight, the Rogue Hero and other venues. Buildstrong currently helps promote local shows by making posters, publicizing upcoming events, and giving out free apparel to the artists. In turn the artists wear their gear and give them publicity at their shows. Buildstrong apparel is also for sale at most of these events, Fong said. Buildstrong has helped promote and publicize many shows in town, and is currently promoting a show at the Rogue Hero on Feb. 22, in which local group The Productionists will perform along with three MC's from Seattle.

Santiago said that the closing of the Nightlight will change the dynamics of the downtown music scene and the area probably won't draw the national acts that it used to; however, he isn't that worried. He described Bellingham as being remarkably resilient. Buildstrong has plans in the works to set up monthly shows at the Rogue Hero.

But they don't want to be pegged as a brand that only caters to one or two genres.

“We support different groups, from rock to hip hop, athletes to authors, we don't say we're one type of clothing, we want to do it all,” Fong said. Santiago said that Buildstrong also has close ties to indie rock band Karate Kitchen and held a show with them a few months back.

“A lot of people who get big move to Seattle,” Santiago said. “Part of our mission is to support the local scene here.”

Currently they have expanded from their original $800 budget to $3,000 to $4,000 in inventory and $1,500 in the company account, Santiago said. Now they have more variety also with 12 unisex t-shirts for sale, as well as four women's cut shirts and two hoodies. Buildstrong has recently been able to produce enough products to sell their clothing through the local store, Locust, located at 1210 Cornwall Ave., as well as Hidden Wave in Burlington and Mountain Sports in the founders' hometown of Casper.

They plan on having their next line come out in March and will be switching to American Apparel products, Fong said. The line will include new t-shirt and sweatshirt designs and embroidered baseball caps.

Ramsay Grove, a 22-year-old WWU senior and sales clerk at Locust said that the Buildstrong shirts had sold steadily and that Locust was currently sold out of Buildstrong designs.

“Their Miles Davis shirt was great and the new stuff we're getting in looks good,” Grove said.

The most recent plans of Buildstrong include putting out a series of t-shirts designed by Northwest artists. They are currently trying to work with Seattle graffiti artist Taj, giving him free reign to design three shirts, Santiago said, which should hopefully come to fruition in spring.

Santiago also talked of the upcoming primaries. If Barack Obama wins, Buildstrong plans on producing t-shirts in support of his campaign. They will then give away the t-shirts to whomever requests them online, for only the price of shipping. Santiago cited Obama's powerful speaking style and his message of hope and change as rallying young voters, such as himself, into political action.

“I think if you wear a logo you should identify with it,” Santiago said. “If anyone is interested in becoming a part of us feel free to join, we want anyone who wants to be a part of Bellingham.”

You can reach Buildstrong Clothing at their Web site: http://www.buildstrongclothing.com.