Downtime

Who Is Buying “Life Is Good” T-Shirts Right Now?

The cheery company’s co-founder explains what the hell the brand is doing about 2020.

Person wearing a "Life Is Good" T-shirt, with the word "not" drawn in and inserted before "good"
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Anomaly on Unsplash.

Scrolling through an online sale recently, I was shocked to come across a batch of “Life Is Good” T-shirts. If you’re not familiar, the brand makes apparel featuring various upbeat designs, all printed with the slogan “Life is good.” But wait, I thought: Life is not good! A pandemic is ravaging our country! This damned election! I thought we were all on the same page that life is bad!

In normal times, Life Is Good apparel holds a certain appeal. The brand is most famous for its “Jake” shirts, featuring a grinning stick figure participating in a variety of activities—kayaking, roasting marshmallows, shooting hoops. It symbolizes to me the wholesome fun and good humor of the people from my New England hometown, where the brand is especially popular. It’s a lifestyle I do not embody myself, but it seems pleasant and harmless.

But now, as I stared into Jake’s beaming cartoon face, I simply could not get into his mindset. I had a series of increasingly paranoid questions: Why wasn’t he wearing a mask? Where exactly was this game of hoops taking place? Was he playing with a buddy? If so, were they quarantining together, or was he playing with a stranger? Had the stranger been out of state recently? Also: Who is buying this stuff right now?

I wanted to speak to someone at the brand to understand how they were thinking through this moment. Life Is Good is run by brothers Bert and John Jacobs, who started making T-shirts together in 1989 and selling them from a van at East Coast colleges. The company has since grown enormously—in a normal year, it can pull in $100 million, and it has both a wholesale business and brick-and-mortar stores. Beyond its wide range of apparel, there is also a variety of branded miscellany, including but not limited to flying discs, tire covers, and Adirondack chairs. It even has a line of wines “celebrating the power of optimism.”

I admire all of this, but when I reached Bert Jacobs by phone, I first had to know: Did he think life is good now?

“What we like to say is that life isn’t easy, and life isn’t perfect, but life is good,” he told me, practiced and unperturbed. “We like to think of ourselves as rational optimists.” He went on to espouse the need for positivity in trying times.

Jacobs said Life Is Good experienced its own unique catastrophes as much of the U.S. went into lockdown. Store closures led retailers to cancel orders, and the company lost much of the 45 percent of its business made up by wholesale. And there was a deeper trouble: Could you really sell a T-shirt that said “Life is good” in 2020? The brothers decided very quickly that they had to make a radical shift to stay afloat.

But this was not the first time the company faced a problem like this. Following 9/11, Jacobs said, the brothers faced a test. “Everyone was saying to us ‘Life is not good right now. World War III is about to start.’ We froze in our tracks. We didn’t know what to do,” he said. Then, one employee had the idea to print an American flag T-shirt and donate all the revenue to United Way. The design was phenomenally popular, and the revenue from accompanying purchases ended up saving the business.

This time, the company decided to switch its whole business model to print-to-order. This meant that rather than creating designs 12 to 18 months in advance, Life Is Good could speak to what was happening now. The majority of these efforts went into cutesy riffs on the present moment. A couple of the initial designs included a dog in a bathtub with the slogan “Wash Your Paws” and one that read, “Stay Cool, Stay Calm, Stay Home.”

”Of course there was a lot of internal trepidation,” Jacobs told me. “People are suffering. You have to be careful about what your messages are and are not. But it showed that a lot of people who were quarantining wanted messages about being in this together, supporting each other, being rational optimists.” (One might venture that what people really wanted was reliable government support and a coordinated public health response, but yes, these are cute and comforting.)

These shirts, with their mild, cheery humor, have been a success. The jokes are not edgy or controversial—one of the bestselling shirts simply reads, “Weirdest Year in History.” (Jacobs said of that design, “You might say that’s not necessarily optimistic, but it’s a sentiment that everyone’s thinking out there—the world is weird.”) With this new plan in place, the Jacobs brothers were not only able to avoid layoffs, but managed to recoup all their initial losses and will be increasing their workforce by 100 people. In the apparel business right now, that’s remarkable.

Even so, I can’t shake the idea that Life Is Good and its laid-back, Margaritaville-style ethos simply don’t make sense with the anxiety and uncertainty of this moment. If your shirts absolutely must say something, do they have to say “Quarantini”? Could Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh fit on a T-shirt?

On second thought, maybe I should leave this to the Jacobs brothers.