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BY NANCY STETSON nstetson@floridaweekly.com from floridaweekly.com


They’d banter.

They’d make witty observations.

They’d drop bon mots like Oscar Wildeor Dorothy Parker-wannabes.

Now, we let our T-shirts do the talking for us.

And Mike Draper thinks that’s a good thing.

A native Iowan, he’s built a small empire upon clever sayings printed on cloth”_ and paper, and mugs.

He saw a need, and started a business to meet that need.

He grew up in Van Meter, Iowa, a small town of 900 people just north of the county seat of Winterset. (”Home of Bob Feller, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the 1930s,” he says. ”He was called The Heater from Van Meter.”)

He knew his state – heck, not only his state, but the entire surrounding cluster of a dozen or so Midwestern states – was viewed as ”flyover country” to those living on the east and west coasts.

But the Midwesterners have hometown pride and love local references and injokes.

And they love wearing these pithy sayings on their chests.

Mr. Draper makes T-shirts that say things such as: ”I put the ‘sin’ in Wisconsin,” ”Iowa: 75% vowels, 100% awesome,” ”Missouri: the South of the North” and ”I went to the Iowa State Fair and all I got was Type 2 diabetes.”

Some are obviously tongue-in-cheek: ”Dubuque! The Riviera of Iowa!”

Others are slightly suggestive: ”Kansas City: Two States at the Same Time” (referring to the fact that Kansas City is in Kansas but also in Missouri.)

There are quotation shirts:

”I grew up in Kansas. That’s about as American as it gets. – Superman” ”’Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa.’ Field of Dreams” and ”’No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.’ – Captain Kirk”

Mr. Draper made and sold his first T-shirts in his senior year in college at the University of Pennsylvania. A store that originally sold ”Not Penn State” T-shirts had gone out of business. Mr. Draper saw how popular the shirt was when he wore his, so he printed 100 T-shirts that said ”Not Penn State” and with some friends, sold them on campus.

”I made some other college-based stuff, in-jokes. The first several months of the company was just selling on busy intersections of college campuses. Not the most desirable job in the winter.”

After graduating, he also sold shirts in Boston, Philadelphiaand in New York City at Union Square and Times Square.

”The whole concept of funny phrases on shirts was, I had to sell a shirt to a total stranger in the time it took for them to walk past me. We got pretty good at making products that people would purchase quickly.”

Then, in the spring of 2005, he opened up his first store inDes Moines. (”Des Moines: French for the Moines.”)

”I thought, ‘I know this city.’ There are all sorts of inside jokes about Des Moines and Iowa. I was privy to all that. Not a lot of people make shirts about Des Moines and the Midwest”_ I like the idea of having something that’s just here.”

In the beginning, the Raygun company consisted of just him.

”I had a staff of just one very goodlooking employee,” he jokes. ”We had that going for us. I printed every shirt, rang up every sale. ‘Iowa: Wave the next time you fly over.’ ‘Iowans: The few, the proud, the extremely attractive.’ Those were some of the really early ones. It laid the groundwork for what became this overly positive content about Des Moinesespecially: ‘Des Moines: The greatest city in the world!’ ‘Des Moines: Hell yes’ ‘Des Moines: Let us exceed your already low expectations.”’

He originally called the store Smash, but learned aCalifornia company already had the name. So he changed it to Raygun.

”I wanted a noun, four or six letters, spelled properly,” he explains. ”I just like the idea of this all-powerful weapon that doesn’t exist. It would be a pretty powerful weapon if someone could make it work, but until then, it’s just a toy. Menacing and not menacing.”

He opened another store in Iowa City in 2010 (”Iowa City: All our creativity went into our name”), and then a third inKansas City, Mo., in 2014 (”Kansas City: Too much city for one state!”) He now has 40 employees, including two full-time designers.

At right: Mike Draper’s Raygun T-shirt store in Des Moines, Iowa.Any staff member can suggest a T-shirt slogan or product ideas.

For every T-shirt they offer, there are 25 ideas that didn’t make it, Mr. Draper estimates.

”In a creative environment, you want everybody to throw out ideas and white board ideas,” he says. ”It’s a pretty interesting place to work. I own 100 percent of it: no investors, no board, no shareholders. Just me and the bank. It makes for a nice environment; anything we come up with can happen, there’s nobody else to clear it with.”

There are no $50 T-shirts at Raygun. For one thing, Midwesterners, especially Iowans, are too practical to spend that much on a T-shirt. Raygun keeps the prices low, at $21. And they’re good quality, made by American Apparel. All their paper products are made by union labor on the north side of Des Moines.

Inside the Raygun T-shirt store in Des Moines, Iowa.COURTESY PHOTO”I’ve been to every facility that makes stuff for us,” he says. ”We take the supply chain more seriously than other companies. I think it shows in what we do: My goal is not to grow it as fast as possible and sell it to venture capitalists, but to build something that I enjoy but also adds to the community. Our employees should be well paid. The people we buy stuff from should be well paid.

”Our stores are all in downtown (areas). We’re not adding to the sprawl, we’re not opening up next to Best Buy in the suburbs. We want to add to the core of the city.”

He also doesn’t do business with national chains or large, publicly held corporations.

”I don’t think they contribute anything,” he says simply.

Mr. Draper, who’s married to a woman he met in college, has printed a number of T-shirts supportive of same-sex marriage. Iowa was the third state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage after Massachusetts and Connecticut. He made a shirt: ”4.3.09 Iowa is now finally as gay as Connecticut.” And more shirts followed, including, ”5/14/13 Minnesota is now finally as gay as Iowa.”

Recently, Raygun created a series of special black and white shirts in response to the Iowa caucuses.

”Every four years we’re in the news,” he says. ”(Typically) we get in the news if famous people visit or enough people die: George Clooney visiting or a tornado comes through.”

The T-shirts sport sayings such as: ”Is there a bale of hay I can interview you next to?” ”Sorry to interrupt your meal, but are you alive and have an opinion on the election?” and ”Didn’t I interview you four years ago?”

The T-shirts have been mentioned on NBC, CNN, C-span and in the New York Times.

”We enjoy having the media here,” he says, acknowledging that they’re ”extremely hyper-local.”

And they may not sell as well as, perhaps, ”Decorah: Lutherans Gone Wild” or ”Art: Just another get-poor-quick scheme.”

Sometimes, people just don’t understand their humor and will write to him to ”correct” the slogans. They take exception to the shirts that say ”Des Moines: French for the Moines” and ”Chicago: Home of the El train, which is Spanish for”_ the train.”

”It’s interesting to be in the business of humor, to see what people don’t get, or get offended by,” he says.

And everyone, it seems, has an idea for a T-shirt.

”At the birth of our first son,” Mr. Draper says, ”the doctor was like, ‘You guys ever do any doctor-related T-shirts?’

”That’s bizarre.” Ìâ_

What makes a good T-shirt slogan?

Mike Draper, founder of Raygun, has been brainstorming T-shirt slogans for more than a dozen years. He follows a couple of basic rules.

First, make it as direct as possible.

Use as few words as you can.

”Start with one word and go from there, start smaller and work your way out,” he says. ”If you start longer, then try to eliminate words.

”Delete unnecessary words,” he says, sounding like E.B. White in Strunk and White’s classic ”The Elements of Style.”

In high school, he wrote for an alternative weekly in Des Moines, he says, which taught him to be ”very punchy, getting to the point early.

”Strip everything down,” he says.

Second, he says, make a declaration of some kind.

”For example,” he says, ”If you want to make a T-shirt about Naples, you don’t want to start with a roundabout joke that refers to Italy. That’s really common knowledge. Instead, make a declaration about Naples. It can be kinda an inside joke.

”It’s harder than you think it’s going to be,” he warns. ”It’s difficult to make an appealing slogan in only seven words that you can sell to strangers.”

– Nancy Stetson