Inside a sprawling industrial building below a Pittsburgh police station, Jay Fanelli stands next to a big wheel-like structure stamping a red-white-and-blue pattern on grey t-shirts.
The t-shirts say “Thanks Obama” with stars-and-stripes lettering. Since the election of Donald Trump, Fanelli’s t-shirt company, Cotton Bureau, has looked for designs that oppose the president. And they’ve been flooded with requests for t-shirts, like the Thanks Obama tees, which were designed by a Pittsburgh artist.
“People on the other side politically use ‘Thanks Obama’ as an insult,” says Fanelli, a self-described liberal. “And we’ve seen a couple people use Cotton Bureau t-shirts to try to take [the phrase] back a little and use it as a compliment.”
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Sporting a black hoodie, shaved head, beard and glasses, Fanelli is standing at the printing presses of Clockwise printshop, which is just a few feet down a hallway from Cotton Bureau’s warehouse and delivery space.
It’s been an unlikely journey for Fanelli and his custom-print t-shirt business into the role of clothier for the Trump resistance. Fanelli and his partners owned a graphic design business. But they wanted to make t-shirts for fun, so they founded Cotton Bureau almost four years ago as a way to make and sell t-shirts for designers and illustrators. The business grew, and eventually the team closed the graphic design business.
The artists submit their designs, and if Cotton Bureau accepts them, the company prints and sells them on its web site. Often the shirts are sold to raise money for charities like medical research or promoting STEM education.
But the business plan changed in November. Fanelli and co-founder Nate Peretic made the decision to focus on anti-Trump shirts, not necessarily because of his policies, but due to what Fanelli calls the “undermining of democratic norms” — things like the potential conflicts of interest posed by the president’s many business ties around the world.
“We felt like we couldn’t be neutral,” says Fanelli, who is also the company’s lead designer. “We didn’t come out as a company in favor of Hillary Clinton. We’re coming out against Donald Trump.”
A week after the inauguration, the company received an email from someone affiliated with the @RogueNASA Twitter account, one of many alternative government accounts created to oppose the administration. It tweets often about climate change, which Trump has called a hoax.
Their contact at RogueNASA (they don’t know the person’s identity) wanted a t-shirt to sell for charity. The logo Fanelli helped design uses NASA’s “meatball” logo — a simple blue circle with white stars and red arrow, with the word “Rogue” on it. It went up for sale on Cotton Bureau’s web site, then all hell broke loose.
“It went live and it crashed our site,” Fanelli says. “We’ve never had that happen before.”
They sold 14,000 RogueNASA shirts. That’s nearly three times the previous highest order on the site.
They’ve sold t-shirts for Pod Save America, a podcast run by former Obama aides and speechwriters. And the investigative website ProPublica commissioned a “We’re not shutting up” shirt in response to Trump adviser Stephen Bannon’s statement that the media should keep quiet.
One of the best sellers was a t-shirt with the word “Resist” emblazoned on the hat of a character resembling a displeased Smokey Bear.
That t-shirt — titled “Only You Can Prevent Alt Facts” — will benefit national parks, though it’s not affiliated with any federal agency. So far, they’ve sold over 9,000 of that one.
All this means a lot of work for Fanelli and his small crew.
“The most t-shirts we’ve packed in a short amount of time is 15,000. It’s going to be about 50,000 over the next three or four weeks,” Fanelli says. “We’re not only all hands on deck; we’re asking anybody who has a brother or boyfriend or coworker who has a few hours to spare to help get these orders out.”
In Cotton Bureau’s small warehouse space next to the printing press, Nate Peretic’s brother, Joel, sorts through a pile of packaged Smokey shirts ready to ship to various places — everywhere from Fairfield, Ohio to Brooklyn and France.
“We get orders from all over the place,” says Joel Peretic. “We get a lot of Asian countries. We ship to every continent.”
“We felt like we couldn’t be neutral. We didn’t come out as a company in favor of Hillary Clinton. We’re coming out against Donald Trump.”
Fanelli says it’s not surprising that t-shirts referencing agencies that study climate science and promote conservation have sold well. “Science and environmentalism have been under attack from the right for years. I don’t think it’s any coincidence these two shirts have become lightning rods for that kind of activism.”
Fanelli says they’ve lost customers with their foray into activism, but not nearly as many as they’ve gained. In any other election, he says, the company probably would have tried to stay in the middle. But with this president — Fanelli isn’t sure there is a middle ground.
“It’s a little bit morally conflicting to know that things are going so well for our business and that’s because we have the president we have.”