Alex Blaze

Activism Chic

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 16, 2011 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: ACT UP, HIV/AIDS, New York, t-shirts

The Shophound found something interesting at Barney's in Chelsea:


ACT-UP T-shirts at the chic retailer go for $50 a pop, which is totally a reasonable mark-up for a T-shirt that they probably paid 15 cents to an Indonesian sweatshop worker to make. Heck, they promise to give "a portion of the proceeds" to ACT-UP, a phrase so vague and meaningless that I can pretend they care.

Kidding aside, this reminds me of a story in law professor Patricia Williams' book The Alchemy of Race and Rights, in which she talks about the loss to the value of a product if the tag is ripped out. If a brand-new pair Abercrombie and Fitch jeans is sold without the tag that says it's Abercrombie and Fitch, how much of the product's value is lost? Williams said she had a hard time explaining to students that the answer is not 100%.

alligator-shirt.jpgThat was the 80's - brand-name culture has completely taken over today. LaCoste even did a parody of themselves when they produced a T-shirt made entirely of their little alligators. The kids buy basic T-shirts that say "D&G" across them for €85 and then wonder why they don't have money for charity.

Andy Towle calls it "AIDS chic," but I'd call it activism chic. ACT-UP's cultural cache isn't just from HIV/AIDS but from the fact that they held highly visible actions that required a great deal of commitment and often risk, actions that actually changed the way the world worked.

We don't really have that today, although things are looking up in Wisconsin, but people are hurting and they're looking for something they can do to make it better. Of course, our culture tells them to watch TV and to shop, to be happy with their lot in life and to work harder if they think something is lacking, but that doesn't change the fact that most people can sense that there's something wrong in the world even if they don't have the facts to correctly assign blame or the language to effectively describe how they feel.

So, in the place of real activism, there's activism chic. It's about a step down from what I described as "diet activism" last year, where people do things they think will help but don't require risk or commitment. Activism chic is just buying something because it contains the cultural value of real work for a cause.

What's in that label, which makes up all the value of an item of clothing nowadays, is hundreds of millions of dollars spent on advertising, on carefully cultivating a brand so that an image like a logo or a name makes people automatically think of all sorts of positive things. Nike makes people think of an essential respect for sports, Apple makes people think of contemporary casual creativity and smarts, and Disney makes people think of wholesome childhood fun. Creating those links costs a lot of advertising money.

But when it comes to activism chic, a corporation like Barney's don't even have to spend a cent on developing the brand - folks who were dying, organizing, and acting up 20 years ago did it for them and they can just sell the T-shirts now.

act-up-t-shirt.pngIt's not too different from the (red) brand, which is about selling the idea of charity ("Shopping is giving," Oprah proclaimed, instead of just giving the money she would have spend on those objects to charity). "A portion of the proceeds" is left intentionally vague, but if the amount of money is anything less than $50 minus the cost of making, transporting, and selling the T-shirt (at a living wage for whoever did those), then Barney's is profiting off of other people's suffering.

This is what the nonprofits are selling when they fundraise, although more directly and they end up doing more good in the end than a for-profit corporation does. But it's the exact reason orgs like GetEqual and HRC and all the others plaster their logos over their materials and their actions - they want the subconscious, emotional credit for the work to be associated with their brands.

Because eventually someone else is going to desperately feel like they need to do something, anything to change the way the world functions for the better, what with all the very real problems people are facing, and they want their logo to be the first thing that person thinks of as they grab their checkbook. Then, 20 years from now, Barney's in Chelsea can sell T-shirts with the GetEqual logo on it for $50, selling the cultural cache that group is building today with its actions.

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I absolutely agree, right up until the end -- I'd hardly equate a mainstream "equality" organization like Get Equal with the radical work of ACT-UP.

I'm not passing judgment on the validity of what groups like ACT-UP, Get Equal, and HRC do, just pointing out that all of them are being used like brands.

But GetEqual seems more like a Code Pink for today's gays than an ACT-UP.

I had a T-shirt like this in the 1980's, and I sure didn't pay $50 for it -- it wore out decades ago, and now I wish I had given it more TLC. I never dreamed it would become a collector's item.

But, I mean ... fifty dollars? ... even P.Diddy only charged $30 for his trendy hip-hop "VOTE" T-shirts during the 2008 campaign season ... and I thought $30 was outrageous!

Had a senior moment ... P.Diddy's trendy T-shirt actually said, "VOTE or die!" ...

Hey, Yasmin ... let's do an updated version that says


... and charge $50 a pop for them!

Well, A.J...since you bring it up:
we don't have the t-shirts yet (we're working on that idea) BUT we do have these glorious button sets of three different designs, which anyone can get for a mere FIVE DOLLARS, postage paid, and one of them does actually say "Marriage=Death."

See, we're not hypocrites - we do price things within everyone's range.

You can of course, also buy the book, for the equally ridiculously cheap price of $10 postage paid, or $8 at your local bookstore. And it comes with those three fabulous postcards for free.

And when we do the t-shirts, we'll charge HRC $50 a pop (they all secretly want one). Everyone else: cost plus a reasonable profit margin.


It's funny because this post made me finally look up how much those D&G t-shirts I see all the time cost and they're 85 euro. Like, I could eat well for a good 2-3 weeks on that.

I still have one of my old ACT UP shirts saved in storage. I can get $50 for it now? Isn't there a premium for vintage? :)