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Tanks for the Message

Amber Valletta tells us what she really thinks.

From the outside, the Echo Park shop looks closed. Red security gates cover most of the windows, and, inside, the space doesn’t look any more open. Sparsely stocked shelves hold tank tops that read “Stop Wars” (in the Star Wars font), along with the best-selling tee that brags “My Bush Is Pro Choice.” A few boy-short undies — the word “VOTE” splashed across the derrière — hang from the walls.

The uncluttered look is intentional. Here at Clothing of the American Mind, the events held at the shop — including voter-registration drives — are as important as the merchandise.

Designer Caitlin Blue started the company in March 2004, partly in response to the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. She wanted to give activism a style overhaul, and provide people with an outlet for expressing their feelings about the war. So she began printing slogans on all-American-made, sweatshop-free cotton tees, and started selling them at local boutiques, even taking them on the road. Blue and her partner, Valerie Dillman, toured the country in an RV across 13 swing states, all the way to the Democratic National Convention, registering thousands of voters along the way. Blue also set up a Web site where celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis and Evan Rachel Wood can be seen modeling the tees available for purchase.

Last month, the pair opened the Echo Park flagship store on Sunset Boulevard, making it even easier to buy their tees, which now come in 100 percent organic cotton. A portion from every sale goes to organizations like MoveOn.org, Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood. They’ve raised more than $20,000 so far with the help of benefits like Fashion 4 Change, a fashion show/dance party with drinks and food; Vote 4 Change, which featured a DJ and a sketch-comedy show; and Yoga 4 Change, a weekly yoga night (Tuesdays) where participants choose what organization gets their 10 bucks while they downward dog and half bridge for peace.

A week before this past Tuesday’s Election Day, Blue and Miller were planning to keep the store open into the night so they could host L.A. Election Protection Rapid Response Teams in coordination with Video the Vote. “The store is going to serve as a dispatch center,” says Miller, as she gets things ready. “We’re sending teams of activists, attorneys and videographers to document instances of election fraud, disenfranchisement and intimidation.”

“We thought we could raise money for progressive causes, using fashion- and event-based parties,” says Carly Miller, the company’s director of public relations. “We’re looking into involving youth in a new way, not sitting people down and lecturing them, but offering them something more interactive, so they can see participation in government can be fun. You become a billboard for change.”

Of course, when you put yourself out there as a force for political change, your customers’ expectations for even something as simple as a logo are high. After a few woman customers mentioned that they thought the company’s clothes-hanger logo reminded them of unfortunate times in the women’s movement, Blue changed it to a subtle American-flag design. “We’re taking back the symbolism that has been co-opted by our administration — the flag. Progressives are thought of as un-American, and our administration has accused anybody who argues with its decisions of being unpatriotic, but this is still our country. Dissent of opinions is the basis of democracy.” So put that on your shirt and wear it.

Clothing of the American Mind, 1284 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, (213) 481-2004 or www.cotam.org.

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