Make It Work: This T-Shirt
Soho House New York member Cassandra Aaron shares how she built a T-shirt company from scratch and raised $500,000 for New York and LA restaurants
By Corinna Burford Illustration by Elena Xausa Tuesday 29 September, 2020 Long read
Featuring the slogan ‘Bought this T-shirt and Stayed the F**k Home’, the collection highlighted dining hotspots from around New York and Los Angeles, including Lovely Day, Chinese Tuxedo and Cafe Habana, and all profits from the project went directly to the restaurants. Since then, the project has expanded to help several different causes, including ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the Emergency Release Fund. Most recently, Aaron and her team have joined forces with the Lebanese restaurant Au Za’atar to raise money for Beirut. ‘We’re now essentially a community platform that connects organisations and individuals in need with people and brands who want to help,’ she says.
Here, Aaron shares how she founded This T-Shirt, how the platform has evolved over the past few months, and where it’s going next.
Life in ‘the before’
‘Prior to the pandemic, I had moved from a strategist position at Milk to start at DS Projects. I think it was in December or January. The advertising and marketing space is constantly changing, so even back then it was an interesting time to be in that world. We had a lot of things that had been signed off and were waiting to be executed when COVID-19 hit. After that, pretty much everything got put on hold. All these brands were going through massive amounts of change and pivoting, and we had to respond to that.’
The big idea
‘When COVID-19 came to New York, we felt hopeless as an agency and really wanted to put our skills to good use. Restaurants, in particular, were being hit hard, and food culture is loved and appreciated by everyone. So, we had this idea to sell merchandise on behalf of restaurants on a basic e-commerce platform.
‘We launched it within two days, even though we didn’t even have a manufacturer at that point. We just created a website and threw some products up. It was me, my partner Dylan and Samah Dada, who is a chef on the Today Show, as well our friend Josh, who executed the designs. None of us had ever done e-commerce, but we knew we could market a campaign. We started with about 32 restaurants in New York and LA, and paired well-known institutions with more corner-style eateries. We sold the T-shirts on behalf of them, pooled the funds, and then distributed them equally.’
Taking the leap
‘Step one was like, “OK, we have this idea. Now we need to get restaurants on board.” Throughout this entire campaign, whether it was a restaurant we were working with or an organisation we were raising money for, it was truly collaborative. We didn’t just launch the T-shirts on behalf of businesses – we had to get their permission. That’s where Samah came in, because we were able to use her and her credibility to build trust with restaurants during a really difficult time. We started with everyone from Chinese Tuxedo and Lovely Day in New York to Élephante in LA.
‘The second step was then sourcing a manufacturer. It was at a time when businesses weren’t operating, so we had to find somewhere that was open and that could produce at the scale we needed, for the right prices. We didn’t actually make any money out of this. The only thing that was ever taken out was the cost of making and fulfilling the goods. That meant we needed these costs to be really low, so we were working 15 hours a day to make it happen. But we pulled it together and it worked out well.’
Expanding the scope
‘This year has thrown so many crazy things at us and we found ourselves morphing into a bigger platform that responded to world events. In June, everything was going on with the BLM movement and we wanted to find a way to help. For us, it was important to never take away from what was going on – only to add another channel to raise money and awareness. So, we released a collection with the Emergency Release Fund called “F**k Cash Bail”. We collaborated with an up-and-coming LA designer called Laurel Way to create custom hats and realised that we were not just becoming a community platform, but also taking a page out of the drop culture playbook. Celine Yousefzadeh, who has a lot of experience in the hospitality and non-profit spaces, oversaw our LA operations, and we also worked with the photographer Lauren Moghavem to shoot all our campaigns.
‘After that, we partnered with the NAACP to raise money for the youth and college division, specifically around voter education programming. Right now, we’ve joined forces with a restaurant in New York called Au Za’atar to raise funds for Beirut, and coming up we have a collaboration with The Fader to raise money for music venues there.’
‘Everyone’s reaction has been so positive. I think it’s because what we’ve done is turn everyday people into merchandise-wearing fans who also stand for a powerful message. Merchandise, specifically, gives people the opportunity to show that they’ve supported something. It’s like a “Where were you during COVID-19?” type of thing.
‘Granted, we had to work out a lot of things as we went along, and we weren’t that efficient at the start, but I think the environment we were in meant that people weren’t very competitive. People wanted to do whatever they could, which gave us a bit of time to figure things out. In terms of the feedback from customers and individuals, it’s been incredible. Essentially, it was all through Instagram, so we had a direct line for people to communicate with us. It felt like we were on the same team as everyone else.’
Life in ‘the after’
‘We’re definitely planning to continue working on This T-shirt for the foreseeable future. People are socially conscious, and these are purposeful purchases, so the need is not going away. Things happen all the time, a recent example being [the tragedy] in Beirut. With that, it was like, “OK, we have this integrated manufacturing system, we have the design skills, and we have the marketing ability. How can we respond to something like this in a meaningful way?” This is now a service that we offer brands too, which has helped us fund the project. It’s really special and is our way of contributing at a time when people need it – whether that’s with those who need help or with those who want to help.’