Election-Year Messages Fit To a T(-Shirt)

That staple of American wardrobes, the ever adaptable T-shirt, is morphing again in this presidential election year — as a message board.

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LOS ANGELES — That staple of American wardrobes, the ever adaptable T-shirt, is morphing again in this presidential election year.

The T, selling from $20 to $80, has taken its place alongside bumper stickers, campaign buttons and a cornucopia of other paraphernalia as prime space where people literally wear their political hearts on their chests — if not their sleeves — while President Bush and Sen. John Kerry battle for the White House.

Against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, terrorism and worries about the economy, the messages on T-shirts reflect the volatility of the times. They can be blunt, profane, witty and creative.

“There seems to be a lot more passion in this election than in the past few years,” said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., near Los Angeles. “There also is a lot more reference to politics in today’s popular culture, from movies to television shows. So where they go, T-shirts follow. It’s all part of the same fabric.”

As a result, more people are buying. Sales in the T-shirt category for the first half of the year, including the online market, are up 8 percent compared with a 2.5 percent increase for the overall apparel market, according to the NPD Group, a research company in Port Washington, N.Y. That’s a reversal of last year’s trend, when T-shirt sales fell 7.3 percent to $5.6 billion. NPD doesn’t break out half-year sales figures.

T-shirts took off as political message boards in the Sixties when logos were added on to the traditional undershirts famously worn by movie rebels such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, said Kevin Jones, curator of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles. Their popularity soared during the era of the counter-culture, the Vietnam war and the presidency of Richard Nixon.

“It’s perfect throwaway fashion and a cheap and easy way to get your message out in two minutes,” Jones said.

What’s different about T-shirts this year is twofold: the do-it-yourself revolution has spawned mini online empires, and fashion-minded companies are also behind the product in their quest to reach young voters and women — especially singles.

This story first appeared in the August 25, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Only 33 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in 2000, and more than 21 million single women did not vote, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. To reach them, grassroots organizations are hawking tank tops, crewnecks and even panties.

National Voice, a nonprofit group, has shipped 30,000 T-shirts emblazoned with “November 2’’ (Election Day) to online customers at $19.99 each since June, distributing to such celebrities as Helen Hunt, Jodie Foster, Minnie Driver and Pierce Brosnan, said Suzanne Stenson O’Brien, communications director for National Voice.

Designers, including Patricia Field and Sean “P. Diddy’’ Combs, are promoting call-to-action messages.

Proceeds from the sale of Field’s “Let’s Vote” T-shirts are benefiting Russell Simmons’ Summit Action Network’s Hip Hop Team Vote. Combs launched a campaign last month intended to boost the participation of young voters with an album and a line of “Vote or Die” T-shirts that Up Against the Wall, a Washington, D.C.-based chain of urban streetwear, has already reordered several times, according to co-owner Wendy Red.

Combs “got this T-shirt thing rolling, and the demand is huge,” Red said. “We had to sell them, because the demand was there from our customers and we are, after all, based in Washington. We’re surrounded by politics.”

Politically minded designer Kenneth Cole participated in a celebrity judging panel for an online T-shirt contest called Designs on the White House in June, and he has incorporated his positions into an ad campaign in the September issue of Vanity Fair. Spokeswoman Kristin Hoppmann said Cole is also shipping T-shirts in two weeks to some of his company’s stores, using the following signed slogans:

  • Our search for intelligent life continues. It’s called an election.

  • 100 million voters made a huge impact on the last election. They didn’t vote.

Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham and Richard Tyler have partnered with Beverly Hills-based Declare Yourself, founded by television producer Norman Lear, to create limited-edition T-shirts to benefit the nonprofit organization and its mission to energize the young adult vote. About 5,000 have sold since June at $20 each at declareyourself.com, said communications director Christy Salcido.

Tyler, who paid tribute to the Sixties with a pink tie-dyed look featuring the peace sign and the word love, and the message, “Be the change you want to see, vote” on the back, said he had to participate to encourage nonvoters to step up to the electoral plate.

“People should be using the democratic process to their advantage,” Tyler said. “I don’t like it when people complain and don’t do anything about it.”

A domestic manufacturer, American Apparel, a $150-million-a-year company, is the manufacturer of choice for more than half a dozen groups, including Declare Yourself and AxisofEve.org

“We’re getting more inquiries from organizations than we have in the past,” said Cynthia Semon, spokeswoman for American Apparel. “In terms of actual sales, the impact is minimal, but in terms of awareness in the political realm, it’s been very significant.”

Seeking a fashion edge, SheVotes.org, which promotes online female voter registration, linked up with contemporary Los Angeles apparel line Three Dots for its three-quarter-sleeve cotton T-shirt and tissue-weight tank top. SheVotes.org’s T-shirts sell for $45 on the Web site.

The organization, whose president is Sharon Davis, the wife of former California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, has taken a nonpartisan approach so as to appeal to a wider female audience. “Fashion is just another way to connect with women, and this election is all about connecting with women and not alienating them,” Davis said.

But a number of women’s organizations have adopted a different tactic, expressing cheekier messages using double entendres. Periel Aschenbrand, an author who created an antiBush shirt selling on her Web site bodyasbillboard.com, hasn’t had a problem finding her audience. Author Gloria Steinem is among those who have worn it, and designer Betsey Johnson bought a $35 shirt at Catwalk in Los Angeles, said co-owner Renee Johnston.

“So far, we haven’t had negative feedback and even have had people take pictures of our window,” she said.

T-shirts and panties are on sale at WomenAgainstBush.org, a project by the Running in Heels political action committee, which is also promoting Yoga Against Bush parties.

“We’re going after that ‘Sex and the City’ high-heels voter,” said Caryn Schenewerk, the organization’s founder and president, who is an international trade attorney.

AxisofEve.org is another site whose founders and members are spreading a message on its fashion-minded panties and T-shirts, such as the black tank with the pink slogan, “Weapon of Mass Seduction.” The site has received more than 3 million hits in the first two weeks of August and has sold $40,000 worth of panties and T-shirts.

“The woman’s body is very controversial, and that’s why we think it makes a good platform for our message to get out in a nonconventional and fun way,” said a woman who identified herself as Eden. “Politics doesn’t have to be about dowdy white men in suits.”

Also benefiting from sales are Web sites, including CafePress.com, that service organizations that don’t have the time and wherewithal to court their own retail accounts. San Leandro, Calif.-based CafePress.com will ship more than a million political products this year, more than double their numbers from last year, said co-owner Maheesh Jain.

Sean Bonner, owner of the Sixspace Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, is one of the sellers pushing conventional boundaries. Two days after Vice President Dick Cheney told Sen. Pat Leahy on the Senate floor to “Go f— yourself,” Bonner created a T-shirt with the directive that is one of the top six sellers on CafePress.com. He said he is not surprised that he’s sold more than 1,000 T-shirts in one month.

“It’s a direct quote, and people can take it however they will,” Bonner said.

At CafePress.com, two pro-Republication shirts are among its top six sellers, including one reading “Firefigthers For Bush.’’ The three most popular shirts at New Jersey-based ChoiceShirts.com favor Republicans.

Bush supporters can also shop at the GeorgeWBushstore.com, run by Louisville, Ky.-based Spalding Group, the official licensed supplier for Republican presidential nominees. It has already sold out of size medium and extra large women’s black V-neck T-shirts adorned with a large “W” on the sleeve.

Los Angeles-based boutique Intuition has already reordered the Inprint line’s vintage-inspired high-end T-shirts, selling out of 50 units last weekend. The $60 to $80 T-shirts include slogans such as “Bush’’ and “Kerry is My Homeboy.”

“It’s very hard to find designers who are creating pro-Bush T-shirts,” said Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition. “As a store, we definitely want to try to represent all of our customers.”

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