Story by Rebekah Swank

Photos courtesy of Nick Vaaler


French Toast: a popular breakfast item and now, a popular clothing brand among KU students. The man behind the online clothing and accessory shop is Nick Vaaler, a fourth year architecture student from St. Louis. He’s been a creative his entire life, but when his parents refused to let him attend art school, he decided to use that creativity to make buildings. Art was always his first love, so when he was a freshman at the University, he turned his graphic artwork into fashion. Vaaler has sold his curiously endearing paintings and screen-printed garments online for four years. Lawrence townies, St. Louis homies, and even artsy fashionistas abroad wear his brand proudly. Style on the Hill sat down with him to see what makes him and French Toast tick.

Style on the Hill: Tell me about French Toast and your shop.

Nick Vaaler: French Toast is my monicher that I go by on the internet, and it’s turned into kind of a brand. It’s hard to call it a brand sometimes. Basically, it stemmed from artwork. Freshman year of college, I was painting a lot and posting stuff. That was when I really started posting what I was doing. I started drawing on my own clothes and shoes. People started asking for things. I needed a name, and it just happened to be my Instagram name, so that’s what I went by. 

SOTH: Why French Toast?

NV: That stems from early high school, when I first had Instagram. Me and my friends would go get brunch every weekend. French toast was my go-to brunch food, so I made that my Instagram name. By the time I had a brand, it was too late to change it because people had already started calling me “French Toast Nick,” so I felt like I couldn’t change it. It’s kind of a nice, silly name too, so it doesn’t feel too serious.

SOTH: Where do you get your inspiration for French Toast?

NV: My artwork is all inspired by my own experiences and thoughts. I draw characters and they’re always supposed to represent me in certain ways. I think a lot of my inspiration comes from buildings and people interacting with other people that I see. So, a lot of what I paint is a character in an environment. I think the environment is really important in what the character is actually doing in that space.

I think I get a lot inspiration from music. I like a lot of old music from the 60’s, and partially the clothing they would wear. Their album covers are always really graphical. I like a lot of jazz records. There was an era where the jazz record industry was producing probably the best graphics of all time. Those kind of things definitely influence me, and I’m always listening to music or watching an old TV show when I’m painting. 

I really like Boston for it’s Brutalist architecture.I went there about two and a half years ago, and that inspired a whole body of work. Most of the public doesn’t understand it, which is interesting to me because it’s my favorite architecture now. Just the name alone, Brutalism, gives it a bad connotation, but it’s not talking about actually being brutal. It’s just the forms being really heavy and solid, and typically made out of concrete. If you look at the work that I produced, especially the year right after I went there, it’s pretty clear that I was inspired by that.

SOTH: What has been the best part of selling your artwork and accessories?

NV: I’m my own boss, and luckily enough, people have wanted what I want to make. I don’t have to cater to people. If they don’t want it, they aren’t going to buy it. The best part is just being my own boss and seeing people walking around wearing my clothes. Some of it is shipped overseas and all around the country. It’s really satisfying to know that my stuff is existing somewhere other than my house.

SOTH: Tell me about your creation process.

NV: For paintings, I do sketches that are really really small, probably a centimeter and half by a centimeter and a half. Little tiny squares. I do hundreds of those, and those are just compositional studies. Those may or may not turn into a painting. All my paintings are very graphically based, so the composition of the piece is probably the most important thing. Having all of those sketches is my way of translating looking at, say a window that is in a room and how that plays with the size of the walls, or where a person is sitting in relation to that. It’s a process of sketching and going through a picking which ones are interesting, and which ones tell a story. I think the clothing is influenced by the sketches more so than the paintings themselves. Recently I did a few prints that were direct paintings, but typically I think my sketches are more powerful as prints because there’s no frilliness to them. There’s no color, it’s just black and white, really graphical images that are almost made for screen printing. I think the sketching process is the basis for the paintings and the final prints.

SOTH: How long does it take you to make a print, a t-shirt, a tote?

NV: The screen printing process takes a good while. I’ll make a screen, and that’ll take about three days. I’ll do a series of test prints and determine if I need to remake the screen or not. Once I make the screen and the test prints, it probably takes a week’s time of pretty solid work to print one set. For example, I’ll print all the purple shirts at one time. It’s hard to tell piece-by-piece because I do so many at a time.

SOTH: Do you do anything else? It sounds like this is really time consuming.

NV: This is what I enjoy doing, this is what I like the most. I do some other things, I shop a lot. I really like vintage clothing and vintage furniture. I go to concerts. I don’t drink or anything, I don’t go to parties, so I think that saves a lot of time and money.

SOTH: How would you describe the French Toast style?

NV: I think just soft colors, typically, but pretty vibrant graphics. I’ve never thought about that before.

SOTH: Does French Toast as a brand influence your personal style?

NV: I think it used to influence it a lot more. I used to try to do the whole self-promoting thing and wear my own clothes all the time. I still use my own tote bag every day. I think I’ve tried to incorporate my things more subtly now, instead of being like “Oh I’m wearing an entire outfit that I made.” It’s influenced me a good amount, but I’ve also gotten a lot more into more tailored things and old clothing that I can’t produce. I think what I wear, what I desire to wear influences what I make. Trying to figure out how I can make what I enjoy making instead of just t-shirts or something.

SOTH: What do you see for the future of French Toast?

NV: I’m hoping it can continue to sustain itself, because I’ve used it as a way to continue creating things. My French Toast shop online will basically fund a big art show, where there’s no way I’d be able to frame all my art if I didn’t do something like that. 

SOTH: What do you get most excited about when you’re in the midst of creating?

NV: The end product is my favorite part. I think that’s why I create so much, just having those end products. It’s really nice to feel like you finished something. Especially in architecture, we do so many projects that take years and years to ever be completed, so having something I can complete almost on a daily basis. I like to schedule things like that where I have something done to make me feel good about what I’m doing.