On the Monday after the presidential election, Shawn Farr stood on the rooftop of the Casa Vertigo event space and instructed his employees to take down a 54-foot black banner bearing two words in white capital letters: “Trump Now.” The sign, which was visible to the thousands of motorists who drove past it daily on the 10 Freeway east toward the 110 interchange, had been erected atop the four-story building once earlier this year and then again a month before the election, prompting a flood of negative attention. Photographs of the massive sign turned up in disapproving Instagram and Twitter posts, and on Facebook some commenters denounced the business, pledging to boycott because of its support of Donald Trump.
Farr says he received calls and emails from people who threatened to burn down his building, and some clients asked if they could cancel weddings and quinceañeras they’d booked at the venue months in advance. (Operations manager Maria Caballero denied that anyone actually canceled an event.) There were others, too, who quietly thanked Farr for the sign, he says, because they were too embarrassed to publicly show their support for the Republican candidate. Then one night, someone climbed onto the roof of Casa Vertigo and vandalized the sign, blacking out the letter “W” so it read: “Trump No.” Farr later repainted the letter; he never found out who pulled the prank.
“To me, this is America. This is freedom of speech,” he says. “You shouldn’t be threatened because of your ideas.”
Farr doesn’t take those First Amendment rights for granted, and he is not the typical Trump supporter — white, rural and working-class — who so often gets portrayed in the news. He was born and raised in Iran, where he says he was persecuted for being Jewish and jailed after getting caught sending money to relatives in the United States. In 1984, five years after the Iranian Revolution, he immigrated to Los Angeles and began working with a cousin in the Fashion District, where they imported clothing from France and retailed it at a markup, quickly learning the ropes and opening their own shop not long after.
“I came in the time of Reagan,” Farr says. “Everything was good: Real estate was good, job was good, profit was good. People were making money, people were happy. America was safe. And that’s what I see from [Trump] now.”
Today, his businesses include the 88,000-square-foot event space and the women’s fashion brand Vertigo USA, which operates three showrooms in downtown Los Angeles and a retail boutique in Beverly Hills, near where Farr now lives with his family. He says his businesses have been lucrative, but he can’t say the same for some of his relatives. Another cousin who immigrated to Los Angeles from Iran operated a sewing factory that was successful in the 1980s, Farr says, but he’s now struggling to compete with clothing companies that manufacture goods overseas, where labor and other costs are much cheaper.
“I was talking to him and I told him, ‘Don’t give up, this is going to be the best opportunity,’” Farr says, referencing the effect he believes Trump’s presidency will have on U.S.-operated factories. “Where we’re going to make our money is exporting it to the rest of the world.”
Throughout his campaign, Trump pledged to bring jobs back to the United States, revitalizing American-made manufacturing in a bid to appeal to unemployed or underemployed factory workers. But economists have cast doubt on the idea that renegotiating international trade deals will do anything to save the industries that began dissolving decades ago, sometimes replaced entirely by new technologies.
Farr has so much disdain for jobs shipped overseas that he once dreamed about partnering with American Apparel to make his own T-shirts: “Fuck China, Made in the USA,” he imagined they would read. A marketer with an eye for seizing on popular trends, he is nearly always scheming new ideas for businesses. His latest is a lifestyle brand called “I Am Gay,” which includes T-shirts, baseball caps and purses plastered with a logo that resembles a mix between a smiley face and a yin-and-yang symbol.
The brand, which aims to be provocative, is yet another example of Farr’s seemingly paradoxical views. He is not gay, but he says he believes more people should embrace calling themselves gay, at least in an attempt to show solidarity with others who are. When asked about whether he felt the Trump administration posed a threat to gay rights, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s history of voting against same-sex marriage and opposing antidiscrimination laws, Farr says he doesn’t think so. “I understand that he might be against the gays, but he won’t change the policy of America,” he says. “He seems to go with the flow, go with things that are right.”
It’s not just Farr’s politics that are polarizing — the vinyl banners he regularly installs on the rooftop of Casa Vertigo have gotten mixed reviews. The first, which appeared shortly after Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2013, read “Twerk Miley,” two words that at the time were nearly as cringe-worthy to some as “Trump Now” would later become to many (Farr counts himself a big fan of the singer). After the VMAs the following year, Farr loosely waded into politics — as far as the MTV crowd was concerned — when he posted a banner reading “Kanye 2020?” in response to the rapper’s suggestion that he’d run for president. And last January, Farr ushered in the New Year by quoting a lyric from Kendrick Lamar: “We Gon’ Be Alright.”
But like most of Farr’s endeavors, the rooftop banners are, more than anything, a marketing tactic to draw attention to his business. And he’s not opposed to installing a custom sign for the right price — he says the ad space, which he estimates is seen by 300,000 commuters a day, is available for clients to rent for $50,000 a month.
Now that Trump has been elected president, Farr is looking forward to taking a break from politics and returning to his usual tongue-in-cheek, nonpolitical signage. “We want everybody to think positive toward this man and move on,” he says of the president-elect. But for many people in Los Angeles, which boasts the country’s largest population of Latino immigrants, thinking positive is easier said than done, given Trump’s vows to deport millions of immigrants, create a registry for Muslims and roll back access to abortion, among other things.
That day, on the roof of Casa Vertigo — which is slightly higher than eye level with the 10 freeway, so close to it that you can clearly see individual cars pass by — Farr’s immigrant workers, one from Korea and another from the Philippines, disassembled the 54-foot-long sign. Neither of them are citizens, but they said they aren’t worried about Trump’s stated deportation plans. They aren’t criminals, they pointed out, and besides, it would be a long time before Trump enacted any of his proposals.
In the empty space where the “Trump Now” banner had been, they installed a new banner. It’s printed with the word “THINK,” followed by a plus sign, which Farr intends to be read as “positive.” Next to that message is a large black-and-white logo for Farr’s new clothing brand, “I Am Gay” — because even though the banner is about spreading a statement of unity, Farr knows it’s also a prime opportunity for advertising.