By William Engel
Edited By Colleen Page
Photos By Third Wolf Designs and William Engel
Alexa Varano is an artist with an unusual canvas: clothing. Varano is the founder and owner of Third Wolf Designs, a Denver-based independent business that sells handcrafted hoodies, t-shirts and tank tops internationally. A self-made businesswoman, Verano prides herself on the fact that she hand-paints every item of clothing that she sells, and that her merchandise is all made from eco-friendly, sustainable materials.
Recently, I sat down with Ms. Varano and asked her a few questions about her art, her business, her philosophy, and her experience as an independent artist.
WILLIAM ENGEL: Tell me about your educational background. Where did you go to college?
ALEXA VARANO: I went to school in Boulder, Colorado. I went over to the University of Colorado in Boulder; that’s what brought me out there, actually. I started studying international affairs, and I ended up taking a lot of different turns in my life. But at that point, I wanted to essentially do international development. I was doing a lot of travel and humanitarian stuff. I took a couple of trips, one of which was impactful for me in a little bit of a traumatic way, and it diverted my path, so I switched my major to political science.
ENGEL: Tell me a bit more about that trip. How did it impact you?
VARANO: I was involved in an organization called “People to People International”. Basically, their mission statement is “peace through understanding,” and they take delegations of kids and bring them around the world, and it’s just very educational and humanitarian. So since I was twelve, I was going abroad with them. But I had decided that I wanted to see and experience different cultures from less of a protected “American westernized” view point so I went on a trip with a different, more grassroots organization. I went to Kenya with a different organization, not People to People, very hands off. I basically went to Kenya alone, flew to Nairobi by myself and met up with a girl from Canada to be placed in an orphanage in very rural Kenya. It’s a very long story. The trip was high intensity, rich in a lot of ways, traumatic in many ways, and very tumultuous. It definitely changed my life. That’s what caused me to change course. It brought me a much more realistic view of things in the world, which I needed at the time because I was in a very idealistic state of mind. It humbled me immensely.
ENGEL: I’d like to hear about the inception of Third Wolf Designs. When and how did you start the business? Has clothing design always been a passion of yours?
VARANO: No, it hasn’t been. As I was saying, the travel and all that kind of stuff really took my road for a long time. I was going to go to law school. But I dropped the idea of law school, just because I knew – I’m a very intuitive person, and I trust myself and my instincts – and [law school] just was not resonating. I was losing sleep over it, and I pulled out; I didn’t actually end up going to law school, but I pulled out of the idea of it. I remember calling my dad, and he said, “Okay, so what do you wanna do?” And I said, “I just wanna paint. That’s what I wanna do.” And he was like, “Cool, go with it.” He was very supportive. And so I just started painting relentlessly, and I was just letting it all out on canvas, and I took a couple of art painting classes in Denver. I was going to carry that on into a master’s program for fine arts, but then I was diverted again, and it happened through a gallery show at a yoga studio. I had my paintings hanging, and some woman said, “Your art would look so cool on yoga pants!” And that just struck an idea in my mind. I was like, “I’m gonna paint on clothes. I’ll reach more people faster, get the message out there faster.”
ENGEL: Where did the name “Third Wolf Designs” come from?
VARANO: Originally, the company was called “Tribe Vibe”, so “Tribe Vibe Apparel” was the name of my brand, up until around October of this year. And it changed because I had to apply for a trademark, and they declined it because of another company. Ultimately, when I sat with it – it was weird, because I was at a transitional point with the brand, and I was ready for it to change. I’m really into symbols, and three is a really big number for me. Essentially, the number three is that idea of living a spiritual life through a physical body. Sacred geometry is a really big part of my symbols, and my brand. As for wolves, I use a lot of animal symbology as well. The wolf is like the pack mentality, and yet also sovereignty, so it borrows from both sides – the idea of wholeness.
ENGEL: What did you have to do to get your business off the ground? How did you advertise it?
VARANO: In the beginning, it was a lot of just word-of-mouth through friends and social media, and kind of just hustling it any way that I could. Very, very grassroots is the way I went about it. And then things started to get bigger through events. So I found a marketing angle through pop-up shops; the product is high-quality, so it really speaks to people in person. So I took that angle for a long time to get people to fall in love with it face-to-face. Festivals, craft shows, that sort of thing.
ENGEL: I took a look at your site, and it really emphasizes the fact that all your clothes are made from renewable materials. Is that part of the reason why it’s so important that you do this? Are you hoping to convince larger corporations to switch to bamboo and hemp?
VARANO: Yeah. The way I see it is, if I’m going to make an impact as a brand, I want to make a positive one. And that’s a personal thing for me; I mean, I just don’t want to leave a footprint that would be obnoxious in any way, and I want to take care of and respect the earth. Truthfully, I really do believe you can lead by example – and I think companies are, actually. I think there’s been a wave of people, conscious consumers, almost forcing these bigger brands to start looking at sustainable materials and different ways they can leave less of a damaging impact. I don’t feel like it’s my call to force that upon companies, though.
ENGEL: You’re just gently encouraging them, right?
VARANO: Yeah. Show them that it could be a good thing.
ENGEL: This may sound kind of broad, but what do you think it means to be an independent artist?
VARANO: I see that as, ultimately… I can only answer that from my own perspective. No box: the ability to take who you are, and express it limitlessly in a lot of ways. When I see myself, I’m a hard person to pin; I’m very objective, and I can stand on a lot of different ends of a lot of different spectrums.
ENGEL: Actually, I’ve noticed that eastern religion and spirituality are common recurring themes in your blog. Are they also common themes in your art?
VARANO: Yes, with the Third Wolf Designs definitely. In my own paintings and art, I guess it comes in and out, but not as much. But my symbology is something that goes beyond just eastern [theology]. Even though there’s a lot of eastern influence in it, I just believe in, again, like we were just talking about, keeping things objective.
ENGEL: Okay… aside from that, then, what are some of your fears and concerns going forward?
VERANO: As an independent artist, I think that there’s a lot of stuff that’s in your… I don’t like the terminology of the “starving artist” or the “suffering artist”. My mind works in a way that I really believe that you create your own reality, and I really understand the power of your thoughts and the power of your energy and what you put out into the world and what you believe. So I think there’s this movement of artists who are stuck in the mindset of the suffering artist or the starving artist, and I really encourage breaking that, strongly. Set your sight on what you want and where you want to go, and then go get it. There are struggles, of course. There’s going to be difficulty in the whole process with all sorts of things – finances and whatever else you have to go through. But you can just do the next thing in front of you each time you get there.
ENGEL: Here’s something I was particularly curious about. On the site, you pride yourself on the fact that every piece of clothing you sell is handcrafted.
VARANO: Each one.
ENGEL: But what do you plan to do if your business reaches a certain level of popularity? Do you fear that you might not be able to keep up with demand?
VARANO: That is absolutely a good question, and it’s something that’s been brought to my attention by a lot of people. I will say that, for starters, it will stay the way that it is; that I know for sure. Something about the hand-painted quality of each piece really speaks to people, really connects to people, and it really sends a message that screen prints wouldn’t do. It’s what makes my product my product. I’ve already thought through production in my head with how I would make that happen. I know that, with a team, we could absolutely get a large number of paintings done. It might just have to be… kind of manipulated in a way, like maybe prices change if supply and demand gets bigger than production can handle at the time. It’ll come with time. A lot of it is just something in the process that I just trust, but I’ll be primarily keeping everything hand-painted.
ENGEL: Thank you for your time
VARANO: You’re most welcome.
For more information about Alexa Varano and Third Wolf Designs please go to www.thirdwolfdesigns.com [TAOM]