Life in T-shirt business is good for duo

August 23, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

T-SHIRTS WITH nasty expressions in the windows of boardwalk shops: one of the staples of a beach vacation.

Along with taffy, funnel cakes, caramel popcorn and french fries, you must steel yourself against these T-shirts and their artless messages. They aren't good for you, either.

"It makes you wonder who buys them," said Bert Jacobs. "I mean, if you are going to choose to make a statement, why that kind of a statement?

"Sure, they get a laugh for a minute. But do you really want to say, `This is what I stand for' all day long?"

Bert Jacobs and his brother, John, sell T-shirts that make a different kind of statement, and I stumbled on them on the boardwalk at the beach this summer, too.

"Life is good," the T-shirts say. All of them. And each design shows a smiling stick figure named "Jake" engaging in a different happy pursuit, like skateboarding or cycling or lounging with a cold one at his elbow.

"Life is good" is the inspiration of Bert and John Jacobs, the Ben and Jerry of T-shirts.

"We're into spreading positive vibes," Bert said.

The two brothers from Boston began by selling T-shirts on campuses out of the back of a van in 1989.

They'd make a few bucks, go back to Boston, throw a kegger for their friends and think up a new T-shirt idea.

After five years, Bert said, they had about $78 in the bank, and the prospect of real jobs loomed large.

That's when Jake was born - the outdoorsy mascot with the beret and the sunglasses and the glass-half-full attitude toward life.

The brothers put him on a T-shirt with "Life is good" printed under his feet and took him to a street fair.

That was 11 years ago. Now Jake "does" everything from spitting watermelon seeds to riding in what might be the Tour de France.

And he and his new dog, Rocket, who also wears sunglasses, will bring in about $55 million this year.

But, as you might guess, it isn't about the money. The brothers - Bert is 40 and John is 37 - don't even advertise. The idea of a glossy magazine campaign made them queasy.

It is all grassroots, word of mouth. And boardwalk shop windows.

That's where I bought a "Life is good" T-shirt. Its design included a beach chair and a beach umbrella, representing my favorite outdoor activity.

But I confessed to Bert Jacobs that I didn't buy the T-shirt because I think life is good.

I bought it so I would remember that life is good.

"That's the whole point," he said.

"We aren't about the guy in the yacht or the guy in the Mercedes," Bert said. "We're about the guy who knows it is about today."

Bert and John get letters from parents, thanking them for giving kids the kind of optimistic message that isn't out there anywhere else.

But they get other letters, too.

"We get letters from people going through chemo, and they buy our hat to cover the fact that they are bald. They tell us they look at the hat every day and decide to be strong," Bert said.

"Sometimes they write us these letters, and you feel like you aren't even worthy to read them."

It seems ironic that a T-shirt with such a carefree, care-less message would have such a sad back story.

But the Jacobs brothers (they were both called "Jake" as kids) have used these lemons to make lemonade as well.

With the "Life is good" T-shirts and ball caps as the centerpiece, the brothers and their co-workers stage festivals to raise money for kids who are facing what Bert calls "unfair challenges."

For example, this fall they are going to try to light 30,000 jack-o-lanterns in Boston Common to earn a spot in Guinness World Records and to raise money for Camp Sunshine in Maine, a place for kids who face life-threatening illnesses.

The goal is to hold fundraising festivals like this all over the country, and then, all over the world, Bert Jacobs said.

The brand is expanding, too, and there are now "Life is good" baby clothes, dog food bowls, stickers, coffee mugs and all sorts of other gear.

Unlike their ice cream counterparts Ben and Jerry, the brothers vow never to sell Jake to a corporate overlord, although there have been many mega-million-dollar offers.

"People think we just hang out on couches and throw Frisbees, but we bust our butts," said Bert, of his company's shorts-and-flip-flops culture.

"But we have a smile on our faces while we're doing it."

He said it was about good vibes and good karma.

"No question about it. My brother and I are not geniuses by any stretch. Never, since Day 1, did we think this was because of us. There is just good karma all over the place."

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