MESSAGE ON THEIR CHESTS: T-SHIRTS WITH A MISSION

SARA ESSEX PHOTOGRAPH

What sums up New Orleans better than anything else: a poor boy, a beignet or a T-shirt? Not just your plain white variety, or the salacious ones you can find on Bourbon Street, of course. Rather, T-shirts that celebrate the city, its culture and its language so well that they just couldn’t be made anywhere else.

Graphic shirts with iconic local images and inside jokes are the driving force behind at least three successful businesses in the city. Take Fleurty Girl (8611 Oak St.), for instance. In 2009 Lauren Thom, a single 28-year-old mom of three, took her $2,000 tax return and invested in a website and some shirts. Within a few weeks, she had sold out with a back order and now she’s about to open her second store on Magazine Street.

What is her secret? It is her ability to celebrate the city’s indigenous culture through off-beat humor and original designs. Her first shirts: “French Quarter” (with a picture of a 25-cent coin) “Brake Tag,” “Crawfish – Don’t eat the straight ones” and “Poncha Train” (with a picture of a train) are all inside jokes based on the language and life of people in the city. As Thom says, “The ideas for the shirts come naturally to me from being a girl from New Orleans. Many of them are inspired by my grandma who would say ‘zink’ instead of ‘sink’ and call the ‘fridge’ the ‘ice box.’”

Hurricane Katrina galvanized Thom into action. “I moved to Baton Rouge for school, and I was horribly homesick. It was only an hour away, but a different world, where I missed so many little things about New Orleans. After we nearly lost this city in Katrina, I had to get home. There were no jobs so I created one.”

Thom believes her shirts strike a chord with other people who are homesick for New Orleans or have a special connection to the city.

Thom is also representative of the many smart young entrepreneurs working to restore and rebuild New Orleans.

She saw a gap in the market for shirts designed for women, with the writing slightly higher up on the chest and with a better feminine fit. She was also brilliant at harnessing the power of social media (such as Twitter) to launch her company and build her business. With more than 29,000 fans on Facebook as of this article, Thom still posts online at least three times daily and conducts her research by posing questions on these sites.

This sense of community was no stronger than when the NFL tried to slap a ban on Fleurty Girl T-shirts for their ‘Who Dat” designs. A rush of support steeled Thom to keep selling her T-shirts and the NFL eventually backed down.

Thom is already giving back to the city she loves so much: “If we didn’t have this culture, we wouldn’t have this business.” Two dollars of sales from each shirt with a Chris Rose quote go back into the city. Following the BP oil spill in the Gulf, she raised over $16,000 in days, with her “Rescue Me” tee in collaboration with Audubon Institute’s Louisiana Marine Mammal & Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

It was the same sense of pride and passion – and a sticker – that fuelled the business of Blake Haney and Patrick Brower, who now own the Dirty Coast print and T-shirt business at 5704 Magazine St.

Brower explains: “One day after Katrina, Blake just came up with ‘Be a New Orleanian, wherever you are’ and we immediately realized its power.

“These simple stickers were a way for the thousands of people displaced by Katrina to tell the world that, although their city was in critical condition, they were still proud of where they came from.”

He continues, “We printed 30,000 stickers and distributed them in as many coffee shops and bars around the city that were open at that time.”

The tagline, as we now know, became an anthem. Websites showed people holding up their stickers all around the globe including The Great Wall of China and Brazil. It was a way for people to connect and build a sense of community after the devastation of the storm.

Brower and Haney started making the famous “Be a New Orleanian” T-shirts, and then other locally inspired designs which used clever ironic humor, iconic images of the city and current events to create fun and interesting shirts.

Brower explains their appeal: “Our business has been built on pride in our city. Our first shirts were a huge statement of belief in the city in the post Katrina world. However, they are also a manifestation of our 300-year-old culture to express ourselves in our unique way … Our T-shirts put thoughts out there and start conversations wherever you wear them.”

There are thousands of T-shirts with 60 to 70 designs crammed into the tiny store, including new T-shirts every two to three weeks. A “Make Wetlands Not Oil” tee is generating funds for the United Fisherman’s Association following the BP oil disaster.

Brower comments: “Our name was originally a play on we’re not East Coast or West Coast, we’re the Dirty Coast. We eat our dirty rice and part of our economy has been built on oil. Unfortunately, the oil disaster has given new meaning to the name.”

Angelina Jolie, Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Matthews, Anthony Bourdain and now the cast of HBO’s “Treme,” have all been seen sporting the funky Dirty Coast designs.

Brad Pitt on the other hand, might be more likely to shop at Storyville (3029 Magazine St.). Husband and wife team Josh and Natalie Harvey, who run the family business (and met in the Baton Rouge store), linked up with Tulane Professor Thomas Bayer to produce the hugely popular “Brad Pitt for Mayor” shirts. With a list of the top 10 reasons to vote for Pitt on the Storyville website, the shirts became an instant success with locals, tourists and other celebrities such as Kevin Spacey and Ann Curry from the “Today” show.

The store prints and sells shirts by local designers. Josh Harvey explains: “Anyone can come to us with an idea for a T-shirt to sell or just for themselves. With our own hand screen-printing store down the road, we can produce a run of shirts as small as 12.” He continues, “While our name has its roots in the red light district in the city which existed between 1897-1917, it sums up our mission to enable people to express themselves through wearing shirts with jokes, statements or images; to literally to wear their own story.”

“There are many places where you can buy New Orleans inspired shirts with the fleur-de-lis or the famous Defend New Orleans strap-line; and these shirts are great. Our unique purpose is to go further and be a place where everyone can find a shirt which appeals to them, whether it has a local saying, a political statement or is classic New Orleans, like the dancing Beign Yay!”

Echoing Brower, Josh Harvey says, “It’s in our nature to express ourselves, and T-shirts are the easiest way to do it. I knew that if we could capture the pride and self deprecating humor of New Orleanians, in a positive way, this business would work.”

Perhaps the success of these business is due to the fact that after all the levels of adversity and moments of joy this city has experienced we’ve just got more to say than ever; and there’s no easier way to say it than with a simple T-shirt.
 

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