Clothing and Politics: A Recipe for Success

Two very different apparel direct marketers have experienced sales gains in this election year thanks to political associations that are intentional for one, unintentional for the other.

Clothing of the American Mind, which sells T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Vote,” was created with a political agenda. Vineyard Vines, which makes silk ties featuring golf clubs and other images, was established to sell clothing reminiscent of Martha's Vineyard.

The two companies' target audiences couldn't be more different. The former appeals to young activists seeking political change while the latter's customers are interested in anything related to the good life.

However, both brands can attribute their success this year to the publicity generated by the famous people who wear their clothes and the fervor surrounding the upcoming election. Politically active celebrities such as Sheryl Crow and Whoopi Goldberg have a penchant for Clothing of the American Mind's T-shirts while politicians such as Sen. John Kerry and former President George Bush have been seen wearing Vineyard Vines' distinctive ties.

Clothing of the American Mind, Los Angeles, launched March 20, the anniversary of the start of “the second Gulf War,” founder Caitlin Blue said. The original collection of T-shirts for sale that day included the best-selling “Vote” variety and ones sporting the slogans “Constitutional Tramplers” and “Halliburton Overchargers.”

Blue created the company because of “a desperate need to get involved,” she said. She chose T-shirts as her medium because they “seemed like a really good place for a real discussion.”

Sales have averaged $30,000 per month since March. Net proceeds are donated to progressive political organizations committed to the defeat of the current President Bush, such as, NARAL, the Democratic National Convention and John Kerry's presidential campaign. Blue expects donations to total $10,000 by Election Day.

Select items from the line — which has grown to include sweatpants, a sweat skirt, shirts and women's underpants — have been available at specialty retailers since May, but Blue said she does 70 percent of her business from the brand's Web site, Most items cost $25, except for women's underpants, which go for $20.

To generate awareness for the brand and site, Blue hands out postcards at political events. Clothing of the American Mind representatives also are invited to parties at private homes to sell products. Events have occurred in Connecticut, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere, with the average party size being about 50 people. The company also generated awareness this summer by driving across the country in an RV and stopping along the way to register voters and sell T-shirts.

No matter what happens Nov. 2, Clothing of the American Mind is “here to stay,” Blue said.

Vineyard Vines, Greenwich, CT, was founded in 1998 by brothers Ian and Shep Murray with a line of boldly colored ties featuring hand-drawn sailboats, dolphins and other icons reminiscent of Martha's Vineyard, where the company originated.

Since January, the line has added polo shirts, canvas dock shorts, swim trunks, canvas tote bags and belts, which are available in specialty retailers nationwide as well as in the company's catalog and on its Web site, By the end of 2005, the company expects to be able to dress men and women “from head to toe,” Shep Murray said. Prices range from $18 to $110.

Ties remain the company's core business, thanks partly to their popularity on Capitol Hill. Along with Kerry and former President Bush, former governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean of Vermont and attorney general John Ashcroft are customers.

“The publicity that we've gotten has done a lot to create awareness of our brand,” said Ian Murray, who noted that sales have risen substantially this year as a result of the publicity.

The political connection was never intentional. It just happened, he added.

Another result of the attention has been that for the past year, several hundred people daily sign up on to get the company's catalog.

The company sends two catalogs and four supplements yearly to about 50,000 names per mailing. In the past year, the average book has grown from 30 pages to 50 to make room for new merchandise. Mailings always go to the house file exclusively.

The brothers view the catalogs as a marketing vehicle to create awareness and drive customers into stores.

“Our business is smoother when we send our customers to retailers because they can see the product,” Ian Murray said.

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