The complicated issue of coronavirus merch

The next big fashion trend or simply problematic? We investigate.

by Sara Radin
21 April 2020, 5:00pm

via @talentless

With the pandemic raging on, we’re seeing coronavirus-related items like T-shirts, hats, and jewellery popping up everywhere almost as quickly as the virus itself. Take brands like Weekday, Scott Disick's Talentless, and Chinatown Market for example, who over the past few weeks have been encouraging people to wash their hands, practice social distancing, and stay home with their corona inspired merch. Similarly, a group of young independent designers and labels have jumped at the opportunity to design items that reflect these trying times -- often raising funds for good causes like health organisations along the way. But while some people might support and appreciate the mission behind these products, others might find the items insensitive or off-putting. i-D spoke to a few designers to find out more about the incentive behind these items.

Jon, who made a T-shirt with an updated Purell logo that instead says “Pure Hell” and the words “disinfect the fucking world” underneath, explains it was the chaotic response to people buying hand sanitisers in bulk early in the pandemic that inspired him to make something. “I realised at some point how close sounding Purell is to ‘pure hell’, and how very hell-like this coronavirus situation is for many.”

The New York-based creator made the tee quickly with the intention of raising money for coronavirus-related funds, while bringing awareness to the situation and influencing other brands and people to do the same. This was in contrast with what he noticed was a slew of brands or people of influence trying to create coronavirus-inspired clothing or merch for personal gain. “It annoyed me considering how many of those brands have a platform they could utilise to help people in need or bring awareness early in the pandemic.” Offered for a limited time, a donation from the profits was made to both the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund led by the World Health Organisation, ⁣⁣and the Readiness Response led by Food Bank for New York City.

“I was inspired to make a tee thanks to those vintage or bootleg ones that have these strong statements on them that people feel but are too scared to express,” says Herman Little, who made a white T-shirt that says “Fuck Corona” in bold black font and shared it on Instagram. The 19-year-old decided to use this particular message because it represented how he was feeling, and how he thought it was indicative of how other people felt, too. “Even though everyone is stuck inside, fashion is still an expression,” he says. Additionally, the Miami-based creative wanted to have something tangible to look back on when all of this is long over. Since posting it online, he’s received positive feedback and plans to sell it to the public soon. ”People like it and find it very outlandish.”

Guillermo Campos, who runs his own merch line Arrogant Bastard out of Birmingham, Alabama, decided he wanted to design a COVID-19 T-shirt for the present and the future. It resulted in a graphic that includes a version of Mickey Mouse with the coronavirus bacteria on its head, singing into a mic with the words “Coronavirus world tour” on the front and the words “Coming soon to a city near you” with a map of the world and a list of international cities including Wuhan, China, where the virus reportedly had its first outbreak on the back. Creating a fake concert tee was a way for Guillermo to talk about how everyone is being affected by this virus. “That’s what makes the shirt relatable. It’s basically a shirt for a concert you don’t want to go to.”

While the shirt sold out, the creative got his fair share of hate for it, something he says isn’t really typical for his art. People called it insensitive, unoriginal, an abomination. He even received a death threat. “Most of the people who had a problem with the shirt were not familiar with my brand before seeing it,” he tells 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.” He enjoys the idea of a kid finding one of his shirts in a thrift store some 20 or 30 years down the line.

Mindblown is another small-scale company responding to coronavirus through clothes. The brand’s “self-isolate” tee was meant to bring positivity through typography, which was inspired by the work of cartoonist Robert Crumb. Co-designers Millie Dunstan and Ben Lucas Jones believe that using the phrase “self-isolate” was a way to reference social distancing while making it more personal. “It's about what each of us is doing to help. If we all self-isolate, we will work as a team to slow this pandemic.”

Then there’s Virus Collective, which was founded by a group of fashion industry professionals committed to donating their time and talents to positively impact the current global pandemic. “Because the founders want the focus to be on philanthropy and not ego, they are choosing to work anonymously and creatively,” the brand said over Instagram DM. Their shirts say things like: “I’m not anti-social, I’m social distancing”; “toilet paper hoarder”; and “quarantine and chill”.

“We’re aiming to bring levity to an incredibly serious situation and give back to the global community,” says one of the brand’s co-founders. With this in mind, 25% of the brand’s proceeds are being donated to the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 Response Fund. “Fashion, like every other industry, is in uncharted waters and we’re all trying to find a way through. If we can have a bit of fun by putting our talents to good use and making even a small contribution in the process, we absolutely must.”

But why the name Virus Collective? The co-founders say they wanted a name that was simple and straightforward while also reflective of the collaborative efforts that went into it. Graphics-wise, they wanted to create designs that are irreverent of the virus without being insensitive to those who have been impacted by it. “The goal with our brand is never to be disrespectful but rather finding a way to bring a bit of lightheartedness to an incredibly serious situation.” Plus, they also wanted to create these items as keepsakes marking this time in history. They believe any pushback they receive is from those who don't understand the brand’s mission.

While some people might support and appreciate the mission behind these products, others might find the items insensitive or off-putting. It’s precarious when big name brands jump on a sensitive moment just to sell more stuff. And this is especially poignant since some scientists claim that deadly viruses like COVID-19 can be traced back to human exploitation of the environment, meaning that systems like the fashion industry are part of the problem.

Still, these shirts seem to reflect people's desire to create something in response to their current circumstances, stay connected with others, and also to create wearable artefacts. So, where do we draw the line between artistry and capitalism? Tazia Cira -- who runs a brand called Xyst Ugli that makes upcycled and handmade clothes with phrases taken from their experience as a queer trans sick person -- believes that when white, able-bodied folks make COVID-19 merch without donating a significant amount of the proceeds (in their mind half or over half) to folks especially in need during this time such as disabled people and BIPOC, it’s repeating a cycle in which privileged people profit and appropriate off the needs and culture of the sick. “It’s hurtful, but unsurprising," they say.

“I’d be conscious about wearing a T-shirt like this when obviously there's people out there dying. This is such a big crisis and yet some brands are capitalising on it,” says trend consultant Sam Trottman, who has yet to see many people online wearing these T-shirts. After all, they could just be hanging in people’s closets since we’re all stuck inside. Only time will tell if this trend catches on, receives further public backlash (and is cancelled by Diet Prada), or becomes something that’s sought after later.