On a cool late Friday afternoon at Clothing of the American Mind in Echo Park, Carly Miller is explaining what makes for an effective political T-shirt. "First of all, you want it to be something that people want to wear," says the New York native who helped her friend, COTAM's founder Caitlin Blue, sell nearly 50,000 stylish political T-shirts online and at peace marches and progressive events during the 2004 presidential campaign. "A shirt with coffins on it is gonna be harder to sell than a shirt that says 'I Heart Civil Liberties' or 'Stop Wars.' [And] if we don't sell shirts, then we can't donate money."
Miller's company donates nearly a quarter of its net profits to organizations like MoveOn.org and Planned Parenthood, and she estimates that in the four years it's been in business, COTAM has donated nearly $100,000 to progressive causes. When its flagship store on Sunset Boulevard opened in 2006, the space also hosted weekly yoga classes, a documentary series and the occasional fundraiser shindig.
Two years later, things have quieted some at the store — which also doubles as a warehouse and office space for Miller and her longtime partner, Matthew Gerbasi, who together run the retail business and day-to-day operations of the company. Yoga classes, screenings and parties have been put on hold while Miller and Gerbasi tend to the business of selling T-shirts — whether it be working the store, servicing the company's nearly 70 retail accounts or drumming up new business. The pair have also been on the road for a good chunk of this tumultuous campaign season — at the Democratic Convention in Denver and various progressive political gatherings in places like Chicago, San Francisco and Austin — a development that's led to the store being closed from time to time.
"When we're in town, we're here from around 11 to 5," assures Gerbasi. "But we ask that people call first. It's really no different than the high-end boutique that asks customers to call for an appointment."
Miller says next year, after their travel schedules ease up, the couple will concentrate again on doing events at the store on a regular basis. Meanwhile, as the most historic election of our lifetime heats up, the focus for the rest of the year is on selling T-shirts and diversifying the line to avoid becoming an election-year novelty act. COTAM's new green-themed T-shirts have helped sales and even led to new accounts in places like Alabama and Utah. ("Reduce/Reuse/Recycle/Rethink" has been a hit.) The company is also doing custom designs for organizations like the ACLU, who commissioned the "I Heart Civil Liberties" T-shirt.
"For us, this isn't really about us getting rich," says Miller, who's eschewed the T-shirt look today for a Pollack-inspired tank top and gray leggings. "It's about getting messages out there and raising awareness about issues and causes."
And a T-shirt, Miller is quick to point out, "is a very powerful medium. It's like a piece of art."—Bob Makela