Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The often subtle (and occasionally lucrative) art of expressing city pride, via t-shirt.
T-shirts are universal billboards, professing our allegiance to sports teams, universities, political candidates and rock bands. They’ve also become an expression of urban pride.
From Buffalo to Austin, Boston to Detroit, there are dozens of t-shirt companies selling slogan-decorated apparel that appeals both to locals and to people who’ve moved away. But beyond showing support, urban t-shirts also have become a ticket to entrepreneurship.
Among the best-known players in the Midwest is Made in Detroit, whose symbol is an auto worker with a wrench. The company, founded in 1991, nearly went out of business last decade until it was rescued by native rock star Kid Rock. Its shirts, stickers, patches, hats and even Frisbees are sold online and all over Detroit, at places ranging from Barnes and Noble book stores to the Motor City Casino.
A smaller counterpart is the CLE Clothing Company, whose shirts and other gear aim to instill pride in Clevelanders (CLE is the city’s airport code). Its collection, sold online and in two stores, include its basic CLE t-shirt as well as men’s briefs with the Ohio map.
At the far end of the spectrum are the tiny, one-person outlets selling shirts with a hyper-local meaning that only an insider can deduce. These can be found on sites like CafePress.com, and some people even operate them as a sideline to their day jobs.
That’s the case with Chicago L-Shirts, a company started three years ago by designer Kyle Eertmoed. He was sitting on a Chicago L train when the idea for t-shirts featuring L stations and train lines (named by color) struck.
“Chicagoans just have an immense sense of pride for their neighborhoods,” says Eertmoed. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have a Rockwell Brown Line shirt, or a Damen Blue Line shirt?’”
Of course the city has far too many lines and stations to make comprehensiveness feasible, so he decided to focus on four colors – brown, purple, blue and red – and four stations, Chicago Avenue, Addison Street, Logan Square and Sox/35th. There’s no advertising, nor are the shirts available in stores. Unlike the bigger companies, he only sells basic men’s and women’s t-shirts, for $20 each, and relies on word of mouth and his website for sales.
Considering his size, sales have exploded. In his first year, Eermoed sold 15 shirts; in 2010, he sold 153 and last year, 215. Six out of 10 of his sales are to people who don’t live in Chicago.
Despite his vow to stay simple, Eermoed is looking to branch out to a very young demographic. “Onesies. People love onesies,” he says. “We’ll get there eventually.”
Below, a survey of some of our favorite classic (and perhaps less-than-classic) city-themed t-shirts from around the country: