Arts and Entertainment

Coronavirus Merch: A Profitable Predicament

Brands have recently released designs in hopes of fundraising for the relief efforts for the pandemic, some succeeding and some falling short.

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By Ismath Maksura

Rejoice! Celebrities and entrepreneurs are selling coronavirus merchandise and apparel and donating 100 percent of the profits to relief efforts—it seems like our fight against the outbreak is drawing to an end, or at the very least, close to it. What seems like a noble effort by these business moguls is, however, usually a deleterious failure in disguise; producing the aforementioned merch has put brands’ ethics and motives under speculation.

Singer-songwriter Harry Styles, for instance, received backlash after advertising his new T-shirt design, which adorns the words “Stay Home. Stay Safe. Protect Each Other.” in black ink across the chest, with all profits to be donated to the Solidarity Response Fund for WHO. Many criticized the singer for creating the insensitive design that directly referenced the ongoing pandemic.

Though there are double standards when it comes to criticizing coronavirus merchandise, certain brands were exempt from the backlash. Skateboard fashion brand Supreme did not receive nearly as much criticism for their apparel designs as Styles. The shirt in question, a white tee with the archetypal box logo made in collaboration with Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, was released on April 24 and sold out almost instantly—not unlike their other apparel. The brand thus raised a lot of money for homeless shelters in an extremely short amount of time.

But the problem lies in the fundraiser’s ethics, which became unclear when resellers took the purchased tees and resold them at exorbitantly higher values than what was originally paid. They mark up these items and gain a profit from an item meant to supply a charitable donation to those in need. Many resellers have explained this pandemic has left them provisionally jobless, and the $700 they could potentially make from selling the charity tee is worth it given their circumstances. Despite the discrepancy that arose between Supreme’s intention for the relief tee and resellers around the world, the piece is in circulation and has unequivocally raised a hefty sum for their charity.

Other small-scale companies have seized the opportunity to spread awareness about the outbreak, though the public has deemed their designs insensitive. Owner of merch line Arrogant Bastard Guillermo Campos designed a COVID-19-inspired graphic tee of Mickey Mouse singing into a mic, with the words “Coronavirus World Tour” labeled on the front and “Coming To a City Near You” on the back. Campos quickly received a flood of criticism, including a death threat. “Most of the people who had a problem with the shirt were not familiar with my brand before seeing it,” he remarked in an interview with fashion magazine i-D. “The people who were already my fans understand that I’m not this capitalist trying to profit off a tragedy but that I’m trying to make something about this particular moment that will survive the circumstances.” Misinterpreted or not, he and other young entrepreneurs have made the attempt to spread awareness of the crisis.

Though many company owners have put their brand to good use, even the fashion community acknowledges that many entrepreneurs have not been proactive in employing their brand for an important cause. New York-based creator Jon commented, “It annoyed me, considering how many of those brands have a platform they could utilize to help people in need or bring awareness early in the pandemic.” Many designers have much influence on their community but opted to continue selling merchandise with no compensation for those affected by the pandemic.

Among the worst of the designers are those who have shocked the public by selling clothes with controversial messages. California-based artist Jess Sluder made headlines when she released a design for a $60 long-sleeved tee branded with a Chinese takeout out box labeled “No Thank You” and stuffed with a bat. The situation became even more disastrous when Lululemon senior staffer Trevor Fleming promoted the appalling design on Instagram, sending online communities into a flurry of madness—and rightfully so. Lululemon announced that they had no affiliation with the predicament, and the employee was fired shortly after. Sluder, the perpetrator of the conflict, stated online that the tees were not sold for any personal profit. Many have pointed out, however, that the nature of the profit did not mitigate any of the consequences of the design.

Nevertheless, we should not overlook the companies that have made a tremendous effort to support the fight against COVID-19. Fashion behemoth Ralph Lauren has pledged $10 million to relief efforts, and French luxury brand Hermès is donating 20 million euros to Parisian hospitals and distributing 31,000 masks and 30 tons of hand sanitizer manufactured in their own factories. A myriad of fashion companies have taken into account how debilitated the community currently is and have shown strong initiative by stepping forward and propagating awareness of the outbreak. With able-bodied company owners and entrepreneurs aiding the people in need during this global pandemic, there is a light at the end of this tunnel.