T-shirt business grows, gives back

Kyle Poissonnier, the owner of Catalyst for Change, screen prints all of the company's T-shirts in house at the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook. He plans to move into a larger space in the building by January.

WESTBROOK — Kyle Poissonnier isn’t afraid to admit he’s failed.

Failure, as well as the feeling of being at the lowest point in one’s life, is what makes his business what it is today. With his T-shirt company, Catalyst for Change, the Portland resident helps people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“I had a lot of life experiences that made me want to help people instead of just selling shirts to make money,” Poissonnier, 32, said.

Located in suite 341 of Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill, Catalyst for Change is not the same business it was when Poissonnier started it and it will be changing even more in the coming months. By the start of 2018, Poissonnier expects to open a larger store with a lounge in the mill.

The company has been through a handful of iterations since 2008 when, under the name Elykssor Clothing, it was born out of a school project at Husson University. It was relaunched as Catalyst for Change in September 2013 and moved into its current space in the mill in June 2016. Getting to this point, which Poissonnier considers his most successful so far, hasn’t been easy.

His first business appeared to be successful, Poissonnier said, but it wasn’t. With national television appearances, a TED talk and being inducted into Husson’s Young Alumni Hall of Fame, his life appeared good from an outsider’s perspective.

Despite the attention his business received, it didn’t translate to sales. Poissonnier said he had to work at additional jobs, making it difficult to focus on his company.

“It looked better than it actually was,” he said. “It wasn’t a living, breathing business, but it looked that way.”

Poissonnier knows that personal struggles aren’t always visible to others and that often they’re kept hidden until it’s too late. He said he’s lost a couple of people to suicide and went though a hard period of his own when two of his grandparents and his best friend all died within one year of each other.

“All my life people viewed me as the jovial, happy jock, but I wasn’t that guy,” he said. “You never know what’s happening in someone’s life so we have to reach out.”

Poissonnier is doing just that with Catalyst for Change. Every month, 10 percent of the proceeds go to an organization that works for suicide prevention, as well as to one other local organization. This year the two organizations are the Maine chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Locker Project.

The T-shirts, tank tops and sweatshirts feature sayings like “strength,” “forever,” “dreamer” and the popular limited release “just a kid from Maine.” Most of the shirts feature a silhouette of Maine, and other states can be requested as well.

“With the internet you can get any clothing you want in five minutes, so it’s important for us to have a story behind it,” Poissonnier said.

As the only full-time employee in his company, Poissonnier does it all. He comes up with T-shirt ideas, designs them on his computer and screen prints the shirts in house. Prior to moving all operations into the mill, Xtreme Screen and Sportswear, of Westbrook, did all of the company’s screen printing.

“Getting to see your ideas come to life, that’s where it all came together for us,” Poissonnier said of doing the screen printing himself.

The screen printer is located in the same space as Catalyst for Change’s store, with the 1,100-square-foot room being separated by a heavy black curtain. The plan is to move into a 2,500-square-foot space in the building by January.

“I never thought when we moved in here that it’d ever become too small, but the demand is there,” Poissonnier said.

He said he sells an average of 600 shirts per month and that interest keeps increasing. Adding the charitable component to the business and increasing social media marketing has helped the business, Poissonnier said.

Having a larger physical space will hopefully bring more people into the store, he said.

“It’ll be like a lounge where people can come hang out, maybe have a drink and something to eat,” he said. “I want the store to be more of a meeting place and a representation of who we are.”

Sharing his experiences, whether through a T-shirt or a face-to-face interaction, is important to Poissonnier. Being vulnerable is what made his business’s expansion possible.

“When I started embracing my failure and the uncertainties, that’s when my company started growing,” he said. “People care about you being a human being and telling your story.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Kyle Poissonnier, the owner of Catalyst for Change, screen prints all of the company’s T-shirts in house at the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook. He plans to move into a larger space in the building by January.