Images visits DoomsdayCo in South Wales to find out how Corey Smith-Wilkes has turned a passion for tattoos into a booming garment decoration business

Corey Smith-Wilkes was a schoolboy when he got into tattoos – far too young to actually get any himself. Watching reality TV show Miami Ink, he became fascinated with tattoo artwork so, as he couldn’t get inked himself, he started printing designs onto T-shirts so he could at least wear those instead. Nearly a decade later, and now aged 24, with plenty of tattoos to his name, Corey has turned his passion into a rapidly growing garment decorating business – DoomsdayCo – which boasts in-house screen printing, DTG and embroidery facilities and customers across the world.

With a core workforce of 10, DoomsdayCo is now located in two units covering 5,750 square feet on Brackla Industrial Estate in Bridgend in south Wales. However, its genesis was 15 kilometres to the east, in the spare room (nicknamed ‘The Void’) of Corey’s parents’ home. Using blank T-shirts from a local business and a press at printer Merch Asylum, where he had a part-time job, he started out on his garment decoration journey. “It wasn’t really to make money at the start, it was about having the stuff I liked on clothes that I could wear, and it just went from there.”

Ding, ding, ding

After finishing school, Corey went travelling for 18 months, getting tattoos around the globe, but he kept the business going with UK operations run by a friend who worked as a screen printer at Merch Asylum. At this point, one of the world’s most popular YouTubers, PewDiePie, wore one of DoomsdayCo’s tops in a video after buying it through the website, and demand soared. “I was being tattooed in Australia at the time, and my phone just started going ‘ding, ding, ding’,” Corey recalls. “We were really lucky.”

While travelling, Corey spotted that many tattoo studios had paintings by Pain1666, aka Diego Delfino, on display, so he got in touch with Diego to discuss a collaboration on a T-shirt with the artist’s Xerografia design. “It went absolutely crazy. Even though there are now hundreds of brands out there doing tattoo art on garments, it wasn’t such a thing when we started.”

With demand growing, DoomsdayCo invested in its first equipment in 2016: a Riley Hopkins six-colour manual screen print press, with a small dryer and exposure unit, plus a single-colour Riley Hopkins press for inside neck printing. A few months later, a one-head Tajima TMBP embroidery machine was added. Two and a half years ago the company moved to its current location in Bridgend.

The manual press has now been replaced by an MHM X-Type Plus eight-station, six-colour automatic screen printing press, with screen print expert (and Images columnist) Tony Palmer, of Palmprint Consultants, providing guidance and training on how to get the most out of the auto. Meanwhile,
the embroidery section has grown to comprise four Tajima machines – a four-head, two TMBP single-heads and an SAI single head – plus there is a Zoje automatic sewing machine for adding tags and stitching. There are also two Brother GTX and one GTXpro DTG printers, matched with a Chiossi e Cavazzuti dryer.

“Because there’s only the six-colour press, we can’t print anything over six colours so we would have to outsource,” Corey says. “But as we want to do everything in-house, you need digital to achieve the more complicated prints. With a lot of the tattoo artists we work with, if you tried to print their artwork on a screen printing machine, there’s texture and blending in the colours that you can’t achieve on a press. The DTG can print 30 T-shirts an hour while the press can print 1,000 T-shirts so it would be nice to be able to put everything on the press, but to achieve the colour quality, you just can’t do it.”

Corey with the Tajima machines

Corey with the Tajima machines

Sewing on the Zoje machine

Sewing on the Zoje machine

Customer lifetime value

Although a few independent stores place small orders for reselling, sales mainly come through DoomsdayCo’s website, where the bestselling Xerografia T-shirt retails for £24.99 and hoodies for £44.99. T-shirts are 100% cotton, usually at 190gsm or 230gsm, which Corey says is not only thicker but better for printing. Some designs can take up to an hour-and-a-half to embroider, with over 100,000 stitches. “We’re cheaper than the high-street brands that we consider as our competitors,” he adds.

“Our customers understand that it’s not mass-produced. There’s more value to it.” Marketing is mostly through social media which is effective but not cheap, making it vital that customers are pleased with the quality. “Sometimes costs per purchase are a crazy amount – as much as £30 – so we have to make sure they come back every time. Our customer lifetime value is extremely high. Every garment goes through quality control and is checked individually.”

Corey learned about the business of garment decoration while looking after goods in and out at Merch Asylum. He has now assembled a team around him with more technical skills, including Robbie Davies who has been trained in how the machines function, Callum Crewe, general manager, and Callum Appleton, who oversees print and embroidery production. Corey also continues to draw on Tony Palmer’s expertise. “I’m so grateful for what Tony has done. It’s not just a job for him – he’s so into it and wants us to be the best we can be. Without Tony, the growth we’ve had wouldn’t have been possible.”

The DoomsdayCo team members are all under 25 and Corey says there is little hierarchy within the company. “Everyone has their own specific things to do and knows what they’re doing without being told.” It is part of a company culture of being a fun place to work, he adds, boosted by the presence of Corey’s three dogs: a four-year-old boxer called Doris and two young Italian mastiffs called Florence and Gwen.

The Xerografia T-shirt

The Xerografia T-shirt

Managing stock at DoomsdayCo

Managing stock at DoomsdayCo

Printing on the MHM X-Type Plus

Printing on the MHM X-Type Plus

Company culture

This company culture, founded on a genuine passion for tattooing, has helped to attract artists from around the world – from Tony Blue Arms in Norway and Baldo in Italy, to Manh Huynh in Vietnam, Samantha Fung in Hong Kong and Alex Gracia in Australia, as well as British artists including Alex Roberts and Amber Rainbow. “I can’t draw at all myself but I’m such a fan of the art and work with my favourite artists,” Corey says. He finds artists via Instagram and seeks to collaborate rather than simply buy or license artwork like other clothing companies.

“Our competitors tend to use UK-based graphic designers to do the designs for them, but we are more well-known for our collaborations with tattoo artists. We work together to produce it, and that’s what people buy into. If you live in Berlin and you love a tattooist from Singapore, not everyone can get a flight to Singapore to get a tattoo – although me and Crewe would do that – but at least you can wear their art on a T-shirt.”

Working with tattooists around the world also boosts international sales. “When we work with a new artist, we tend to see more sales coming from those countries. For instance, we didn’t get many Asian sales but since we’ve been working with two artists from Asia, we’ve had a lot more sales from there.”

With around 134 new products introduced last year to bring the range up to 940, DoomsdayCo has continued to diversify. It now includes dungarees, sherpa jackets, corduroy trousers and shorts as well as tapestries, or throws, which are woven for the company in China. It also offers prints and posters of up to A1 of some artists’ work after investing in a Canon TM-200 large-format printer. This follows “massive” growth in 2020 when online fashion sales soared because of people stuck at home during lockdown. “Every year, it has just got bigger and bigger, but 2020 was just another level. It plateaued a little bit but then at the back end of 2021, with Black Friday, it was crazy again.” Taking on new people was a challenge at first, Corey adds, but “now they know their jobs so well”.

Overseas orders

About 60% of orders come from overseas with 40% from the EU, so Brexit has been a challenge. “Europe is central to the business and that took a massive hit with Brexit,” Corey says. “Before, we were charging customers a £10 shipping flat fee no matter what was bought, and free if over £100; we then had to charge them £25 no matter what they were buying. That caused uproar. We didn’t get much from Europe after that and it’s only just gone back to what it was. But I’m sure we would have seen a lot more growth from Europe.”

Brexit red tape has also been a headache, especially for Callum Pembridge who looks after shipping. “The amount of forms and software, with breakdowns for every item we had, with its own HS [Harmonised System] code. If that wasn’t exactly right, they would be sent back.” Brexit and Covid-19 continue to cause uncertainty; however, Corey has ambitious plans for bigger premises and more equipment in the longer term. He would like to revive Evergreen Print Co, which he set up in the early days to provide decoration services to other companies. “We closed that down when we moved into this unit as it was too much to manage, but when we get our new unit, I really want to get another press and do that on the side.”

He also wants to fully shift by the end of 2022 to using DoomsdayCo’s own custom garments. “We used to buy in only blank garments but now we order high-quality garments made for us overseas to our own specifications.” With six extra people taken on in November 2021 to help with a peak in orders, DoomsdayCo looks on course for the growth that Corey hopes for. “I love everything about it. When I started out at 15, I never thought I’d be doing anything like this.”

www.doomsdayco.com