Unlike the high-sheen merch created by Fairey or department-store-favorite designers, there’s something gritty and DIY about the emergence of BernieGear. “There’s a message and vibe in the campaign that’s really grassroots and that it’s really owned by the people,” says Sonya Sombreuil, who designed the Rage Against the Machine tee. “Every little group can feel like they have like authorship in this how this goes. So I think it’s the same with the merchandising of it.” Most of these T-shirts evoke punky countercultural music: Rage Against the Machine, Minor Threat, Subhumans, or The Grateful Dead.
Sombreuil originally designed her contribution as a one-off to give to her boyfriend as a Christmas present. (Her boyfriend works for the Sanders campaign and he loves the band Rage Against the Machine. Simple as that really.) And when Sombreuil posted the image of a grim Sanders on the shirt to Instagram she saw how much her followers took to it, despite her initial reticence to make a political statement. “My impression was that I was doing something that would make me a martyr,” she says.
Instead, the shirts have been so wildly successful that to donate the enormous bundle of proceeds on her own, Sombreuil would have needed to register as a Super PAC. (Individuals can donate up to $2,800 to a candidate while PACs can contribute $5,000) And unlike previous campaign merch, the Sanders tees aren’t always about showcasing a happy-go-lucky candidate brimming with optimism, or capital-H Hope. Sombreuil chose the photo of Sanders on her tee because “he looks so indignant and determined,” she says.
All the brands I spoke with mentioned making the merch as something they felt compelled to do to support the candidate they believe in—a moral obligation. Kenny put it to me slightly differently, in a way I really liked: what if you could make a T-shirt so irresistibly awesome a non-Sanders supporter might want it even if they’re, say, a Joe Biden fan? “I had this idea of, ‘Aw, man, if only there were an Online Ceramics-looking Bernie shirt, maybe we could win South Carolina!” says Kenny.
After all, getting the votes is the end game for all these designers. “T-shirts are awesome, but at the end of the day fuck a Bernie Sanders tee,” Kenny says. “I want a Bernie Sanders president.”