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Denim Brands Turn to T-Shirts to Make a Positive Impact

Can T-shirts save the world?

It’s a sentiment fueling some of the latest fashion campaigns using the wardrobe staple to elevate a social message of their choosing. Los Angeles-based denim brand Citizens of Humanity has adopted this strategy for years, releasing artfully designed shirts connected to organizations like maternal health nonprofit Every Mother Counts, children’s education initiative Sesame Workshop and a slew of others. American lifestyle retailer Abercrombie & Fitch and denim brand Mavi have also followed suit, dedicating collections’ proceeds to initiatives driving LGBTQ+ support and environmental cleanup.

But despite their expertise in denim, many of the brands launching these community-focused collections choose to do so with a T-shirt. According to Alicia Joines, Citizens of Humanity’s global communications director, the garment is a sartorial representation of democracy.

“A T-shirt is as inclusive as it gets—it’s one of those few universal items that can be worn by anyone, anywhere, and styled in a way to make it their own,” she said.

Traveling back

But before any of these brands found success selling T-shirts for good, activist and fashion designer Katharine Hamnett most famously birthed the slogan tee. In 1981, she designed her first socially charged shirt donning the message “Choose Life”—a central tenet of Buddhism that she coined for use as an anti-drug and anti-suicide campaign. The striking black lettering positioned against a solid white T-shirt served as the eye-catching prototype for a range of messages to follow.

Hamnett’s other designs included “Education Not Missiles,” “Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now” and “Use a Condom,” the latter of which was emblazoned across T-shirts and displayed on top of a sheer vest famously worn by model Naomi Campbell for the designer’s Spring/Summer ’04 runway show. The message intended to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic and safe sex practices—a cause that many designers promoted throughout the industry at the time.

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In 1990, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and Vogue Magazine launched 7th on Sale, a fundraiser that sold luxury apparel to benefit HIV/AIDS organizations. For its 2005 installation, the fundraiser was made available online for the first time, and featured a limited-edition T-shirt designed by Kenneth Cole to further spread awareness. That year, the fundraiser brought in $1.7 million for related organizations.

Today’s T-shirts

Today, denim brands are joining the charge and launching T-shirt collections driving awareness—and funding—to a wide range of global and local issues alike.

According to Stacy Gerritse, marketing director at Mavi, the synchronicity between T-shirts and denim makes these programs a seamless transition for denim brands. “Like denim, the T-shirt is a wardrobe staple,” she said. “Affordable and ubiquitous, the T-shirt transcends race, class and gender to give voice and visibility to our values and the cases we care most about.”

Mavi has made significant contributions through the Indigo Turtles project, its longest standing T-shirt program. The collection raises funds and awareness for the Ecological Research Society (EKAD), an environmental project dedicated to protecting the endangered Caretta caretta and Chelonia mydas species of Mediterranean sea turtles. Now in its eighth year, the nonprofit has saved over 1 million turtles and funded research, education and grassroots mobilization to protect these species.

Last summer, Abercrombie & Fitch launched a range of T-shirts designed by Ohio-based artist Francesca Miller centered on optimism and beauty in the Black community. The retailer simultaneously donated $35,000—the capsule’s anticipated net proceeds—to The Steve Fund, an organization that supports the mental health of young people of color.

Similarly, Citizens of Humanity released a line of artist-designed T-shirts benefiting Girls Inc. of Greater Los Angeles, an organization that provides hundreds of girls from under-resourced communities with interactive programming and educational resources in STEM, literacy and math. Ranging from $28 to $34, the collection features short- and long-sleeved unisex white T-shirts with feminist designs and phrases, each designed by a different artist. With 100 percent of the retail selling price donated to the nonprofit, the brand has raised over $23k, and sales are still continuing.

Driving change

The volatility of recent years has led to an uptick in socially charged fashion focused on movements like Black Lives Matter and the 2020 election. Set to the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, these cultural moments took center stage—and brands rallied behind the cause.

In partnership with sister brand Agolde, Citizens of Humanity released a series of voting-themed long-sleeve T-shirts in 2020 that brought together a trio of collaborators: the estate of Tupac Shakur with Willo Perron & Associates art director Brian Roettinger, The Haas Brothers and Virgil Normal. The collection raised more than $77k in support of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California (ACLU) on its 100th anniversary.

Voting is a central theme throughout philanthropic T-shirt collections. Levi’s, Gap, Tory Burch and Banana Republic are just some of the labels that joined forces with young voters nonprofit Rock the Vote to produce politically charged T-shirts during the 2020 election season benefitting the organization.

During the U.S. 2020 election season, voting-themed T-shirts were in high demand. Data from global fashion search platform Lyst showed that voting merchandise saw an increase in popularity in the U.S.—most commonly in the form of a white T-shirt—with searches including the word “vote” growing 29 percent week-on-week.

While a T-shirt alone may do little to drive change, it’s an effective strategy for building a foundation from which to launch concerted efforts. According to Joines, these initiatives have helped connect individuals under one shared goal.

“We’re amazed by how these charitable products can bring our community together in a small yet powerful way,” she said.