Today’s New York Times has a nice little article about t-shirts and city pride. The article includes references to GLUE – Great Lakes Urban Exchange, Spreadshirt.com and the Pittsburghers are Tasty T-shirt. I have just added some more tasty t-shirts and tote bags to the shop.
I enjoyed talking to the reporter for this article – t-shirts and Pittsburgh have been a theme a recurring theme. When I first started screen printing t-shirts 5 years ago, the first shirt we made was the IheartPGH shirt, the blog came a few years later. My friend Breen came up with the idea for the Pittsburghers are Tasty t-shirt which has also been very popular.
It was a kind reader of IheartPGH that first emailed me about Spreadshirt about 2 years ago. Spreadshirt.com is an awesome web platform that lets anyone design and sell t-shirts on the web – the IheartPGH shop is powered by Spreadshirt and I get to help other groups use t-shirt to tell their stories too.
By CATRIN EINHORN
Published: July 13, 2008
ST. LOUIS — As Jeff Vines pulls down the iron on the heat press in his small studio here, he is trying something far grander than simply searing another image onto another T-shirt. The machine hisses, Mr. Vines opens it and sizes up his handiwork: a cotton weapon in his quest to revive his long-challenged city.
The St. Louis-themed shirts that Jeff Vines and his identical twin, Randy, make are not for tourists. They sport neighborhood references and inside jokes unintelligible to those not from here. Some easily offend, displaying profanity and raunchy innuendo. But to the Vines brothers, their edginess is part of their mission for St. Louis — a place many of their friends from high school fled — to rehabilitate its image from the inside out and, ultimately, to make future generations want to stay.
“You have to get the people who live there to be the best advocates for the city, or else you don’t really have much,” Randy Vines said. “So you need to change the psyche and change the way they see their own city.”
The Vines brothers, 30, are not alone in their effort. In cities like Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit, damaged by the decline in manufacturing and decades of population loss, entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s are pushing back with the simple stuff of T-shirts, tote bags and soap. Faced with condescending attitudes from outsiders and grumbling from many locals, they are determined to peddle in pride, and hope to convert others in the process.
“It’s reframing the identity of these places that have been misrepresented,” said Abby Wilson, a co-founder of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange, a new group dedicated to bringing post-baby boomers together to work for the health of postindustrial cities in the Great Lakes region.
The Vines brothers’ company, STL-Style, makes retro-looking T-shirts that extol and lovingly tease St. Louis; slogans include “My Way or Kingshighway,” and “Where the Mullet Meets the River.” In Pittsburgh, Lindsay Patross, 28, offers T-shirts and aprons that read “Pittsburghers are tasty.” At City Bird in Detroit, siblings Emily and Andy Linn, 30 and 25, make clocks, lamps, earrings and bracelets patterned with maps of their city. Another company, Rusty Waters Apparel, sells skull-adorned T-shirts celebrating Youngstown, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. A quote on the company’s MySpace page says: “Don’t mess with the underdog. Rustbelt Warriors!”
Another Rusty Waters Apparel design depicts a downtown Youngstown building, the Home Savings and Loan, hanging upside down from the neckline, with birds flying around it.
“The fact that it’s upside down signifies the struggle that Youngstown has gone through,” the shirt’s designer, Kate Butler, 24, explained. But the birds are flying right side up, symbolizing hope, she said.
These T-shirt makers know, of course, that their merchandise will not cure the deep-seated problems of their cities. But they see them as one way to fight against powerful stereotypes, and consider them more authentic than city officials’ public relations campaigns.
Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of men’s wear design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, said T-shirts can have a profound effect on social change, and that these shirts should not be underestimated. “It’s saying we’re cool, we’re here,” Mr. Blackman said. “We’ve not jumped out of the boat, this city is cool and we’re making it cooler, and look at us.”
T-shirts became popular in the United States after they were issued to soldiers and sailors in World War II, he said. They became acceptable to use as outerwear, and companies and political campaigns soon realized that T-shirts could be turned into walking billboards.
The tourist-oriented location T-shirts, of course, are hawked the world over. The iconic “I ♥ NY,” started by a state marketing campaign in the 1970s, is widely mimicked, and has been parodied in some Rust Belt cities; perhaps to portray gritty authenticity, the Rusty Waters Apparel version replaces New York’s heart symbol with an anatomical heart.
In 2002, Michael de Zayas catapulted a place-driven apparel craze with Neighborhoodies, a company he started after he was hounded for the hooded sweatshirt he made, emblazoned with the words Fort Greene, the name of the Brooklyn neighborhood he loved.
People love flaunting where they are from and where they live, said Jana Eggers, chief executive of Spreadshirt, an online retailer that lets users design T-shirts and other apparel and sell them online.
“It’s all about identity,” Ms. Eggers said. Shirts featuring places are popular items to make and sell using her site, often displaying inside jokes.
But can they affect a city?
“It’s not the T-shirt that’s turning around the image,” Ms. Eggers said. “It’s the conversations that start.”
While some of the T-shirt makers said they made essentially no money on their merchandise, most dreamed of building successful businesses and expanding to other Rust Belt cities.
In their first year, the Vines brothers sold about 250 T-shirts; six years later, in 2007, they sold about 1,400, plus some 300 other items, including underwear, onesies and stickers. Both work full-time jobs.
About 40 percent of their T-shirts, they say, go to people who have left St. Louis. Occasionally, they get e-mail messages from homesick St. Louis natives.
“Thanks for promoting my favorite city,” wrote Jim Saracini, who left St. Louis 30 years ago after failing to find the right job there.
But as Randy Vines sat at his desk, stuffing T-shirts into envelopes to ship out, he seemed especially pleased to see an order going to a St. Louis address. “One more proud city resident is going to be sporting these,” he said.