New screen printing equipment, new pre-press equipment, a new packaging line and plans afoot to move six companies under one (very large) new roof – there‘s a lot going on at Fresh Air, discovers Images

“It‘s not easy, there‘s not a lot around,” says Lee Craze, director of Fresh Air. Finding new premises is never straightforward, but Lee‘s search is on a different level to most. He is looking to move to a factory of around 100,000 sq ft, which is four times the size of Fresh Air‘s current building. It needs to be near a large post office that is capable of handling the thousands of parcels the company dispatches each day, and also not too far from the company‘s current home in Brent Cross, north-west London – staff are important to Fresh Air and retaining them is a top priority. Veneta, who is one of Fresh Air’s most experienced printers, has been with the company for 23 years, while Dominica, another lead printer, has 12 years under her belt. Both are “phenomenally good printers“, says Lee.

The move is planned for 2020 and brings into sharp focus just how far Fresh Air has come since the company was founded more than 40 years ago. “It was a tiny little one carousel business,” explains Lee. It was sold to another T-shirt group, and then Lee bought it back two years later, while he was in his mid-20s. These days, the group is turning over £30 million a year – up from £6 million just five years ago. This substantial growth has been noticed: Lee says he had “a very good offer” during the summer to buy the group, but he‘s not interested at the moment.

At present, the company comprises four businesses: Fresh Air, which is the original screen print business; Brands In, the licensing section that was founded five years ago; Absolute Cult, an online company which has been operating for a couple of years; and a partnership in Silk City, a US print business based in Paterson, New Jersey. The US operation adopts a similar trade-only, vertically integrated business model to Fresh Air‘s UK print shop. It is currently a screen print operation, producing work for some big domestic customers, although that‘s likely to change. 

The efficient screen department now includes a Spyder II DTS

“What we‘re probably going to do is end up putting a lot of DTG into that business. We‘ve just bought a Brother GTX to get the basics going, and then we‘ll be manufacturing for our print-on- demand,” says Lee.

Back in the UK, Fresh Air, Brands In and Absolute Cult all operate under the one roof, and they will be joined in the new premises by additional decoration businesses. “I‘m involved in three other print businesses as well,” Lee reveals. He won‘t name them at the moment, although he does say they are all based in the home counties. It will, he says, make his life a lot easier to have all the businesses working from one location. “It will be one big operation with everything centralised; there will be a lot of machines. We‘ll have bigger and better facilities with the companies all operating under one roof.”

Vertical ambitions

The scale of Fresh Air’s current operation is already impressive. Well- known for screen printing music merch, an average day for the company involves the production of 30,000 screen prints and 3,000 DTG prints and the posting out of around 5,000 Royal Mail packages a day; 7,000 on a busy day. Its DTG output is especially notable given that it wasn’t even involved in this sector two years ago.

The scaling up began in earnest five years ago with the recognition that generating its own workload would give the company more control over its future. “I just always felt licensing was a good way forward,“ explains Lee. “Whereas a lot of people in this industry rely on work coming in, working for third parties, we‘re working for ourselves. Our production is very geared around our own businesses. Absolute Cult and Brands In are the biggest customers of Fresh Air. They go and sell T-shirts every day and they come and buy them from us. And likewise, they couldn‘t do what they‘re doing if they didn‘t have this behind them. I think if we‘d just sat back and relied upon trade orders, we wouldn‘t have got anywhere. We would have had a big T-shirt business, but that would‘ve been about it. We‘re more in control of our destiny. Obviously, it‘s risky. You‘ve got to invest. A lot of money‘s been invested.”

Over the summer the company invested more than a quarter of a million pounds in an 18-colour MHM Synchroprint 5000 auto, an M&R 16-colour double-decker Chameleon manual carousel for samples, a Spyder II direct-to-screen machine, and a packing line consisting of an M&R Amscomatic K-950 Automatic Shirt Folder and LS- 350 Long Sleeve Folder in combination with a Beck Packautomaten bagging machine from Friedheim International. “It‘s a very good bagging machine. Our problem was bagging hoodies and then T-shirts and switching about all the time – with this, you don‘t need to change the bags. We used to have to do a lot of it by hand. We‘ve had the machine about four months now, and we‘ve already done over half a million bags through it. It‘s paid for itself.”

Fresh Air has a mix of MHM and M&R machines, although Lee favours the MHM presses, which he describes as “more robust, sturdier“ machines. “Our old one here, our 4000, we think it‘s done about 10 million prints and never missed a beat. It‘s as good as the day it was new.” He adds that the new manual sampling press is an M&R “because they do good carousels”.

The new M&R 16-colour Chameleon double- decker manual carousel

Online growth

The group also has two Kornit Storm and one Brother GTX DTG printers. Yet in spite of all this equipment, it has already hit capacity and outsources around 1,000 DTG prints every day to another printer – one of the three businesses that will be moving into the new premises.

Speaking of DTG, Lee believes that digital technology still has a way to go before it replaces screen printing. “Eventually, maybe in 20 years‘ time, it will all be digital, but not yet. If you‘ve got to print 10,000 Iron Maiden T-shirts with a 14-colour print on it, they‘re just not there yet [on DTG]. Small runs of 200, though: you don‘t have the origination costs and it works. These new [Kornit] Avalanches, they‘re phenomenal quality. But they‘re 400 grand each. Whereas our new MHM is 100 grand and that‘s a top-of-the-range T-shirt machine.”

Online is where the real potential growth for the business exists, confides Lee. “We can take that as big as we want to take it. That’s what the future‘s really about for me. The whole operation will be around online. It‘s worldwide and it‘s 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, printing music and film and character designs onto T-shirts. It works.” He adds that the T-shirts appeal to everyone no matter what language they speak, making them easy to export. Plus, T-shirts are “non- perishable and very transportable, they don‘t break in the post. It‘s a really good product.”

For Fresh Air, maintaining the licences from companies such as Disney and Warner Bros is vital: the company employs two people at Brands In whose jobs involve doing precisely that. The company also prints for a large number of retail shops including New Look, Sports Direct, Topman, TK Maxx, River Island – the list rolls on.

The new packaging line, which includes the Beck Packautomaten, has already handled more than 500,000 packages

The new 18-colour MHM Synchroprint 5000 auto

Further investment

Fresh Air’s investment in its business is on-going and one of the first areas of its new facility to see further investment will be the pre-press department. Automated cleaning and reclaiming equipment similar to that which the company already uses at Silk City is top of the shopping list. However, Lee is quick to point out that the current manual system, run by two staff at Fresh Air, is highly efficient. “I‘d put them up against Silk City all day long and they‘d beat them hands down,” he says. 

Lee would also like to add an inline reclaimer, because he feels that it’s a better way to reclaim screens compared with reclaiming by hand – it is, he says, “more of a cleaner than a reclaimer. You put the screens in one end, it cleans them and blasts the old emulsion off”. Screen coating will probably still be done by hand in conjunction with the new Spyder II and older M&R direct-to-screen exposure units that are already in place.

For all this talk of new equipment, new technology and new premises, Lee is adamant that the key to running such a large business successfully is the staff. There are around 90 people working for Fresh Air, 15 for Brands In, 25 for Absolute Cult, 70 at Silk City and 50-60 in the other three companies. “There are good managers in all the businesses, and good people.” The merging of the six businesses under one roof will no doubt bring numerous challenges, but ultimately it will also provide huge opportunities, which will be serviced by the best machinery and facilities. Once the move is completed, the new facility will also be one of the largest, if not the largest, garment printing units in this part of the world, and the projected combined turnover of £70 million will certainly elevate the group into a league of its own. “It‘ll probably be the biggest and best in Europe by a mile,” concludes Lee.