Last week, a debate was unfolding at The Cut, New York magazine’s flagship women’s site: would it be Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande or hangry? Earlier in the week, news had broken that Davidson, a comedian, and Grande, a pop star, were engaged after less than a month of dating. The Cut was on the news.
The staff of writers and editors found themselves in a challenging position—would this week’s T-shirt memorialize the improbable union? Or would they go a different route, culling a headline from a weekly dating column that read “Being Hangry Almost Destroyed My Relationship?”
“I personally think the hangry option is much funnier,” Stella Bugbee, The Cut’s editorial director, says as she weighed the merits of both. “That one will hold. I don’t know that anyone is going to care about Pete Davidson next week.”
Earlier this spring, The Cut launched a T-shirt shop through Amazon’s print-on-demand service, and since then the staff has been having some version of the Davidson-Grande-hangry debate on a weekly basis. Every Friday, The Cut drops a new shirt design emblazoned with a quippy line of text that sells online for $24.99.
The tees are effectively a piece of merch for the website. They look like The Cut—white shirt, black display font in Canela —and read like The Cut. “We call them walking headlines,” says Emilia Petrarca, this site’s fashion news writer who leads the project. But unlike traditional merch, which functions more or less as a walking advertisement for a brand, The Cut’s graphic tees—however silly they may be—are a clever take on what it means to build a multimedia brand in 2018.
The shirts started out as a joke. New York magazine had just celebrated its 50th birthday, and for the occasion printed a line of commemorative T-shirts with a streetwear brand. It got Bugbee thinking. She figured if any brand at the magazine was going to be in the T-shirt business, it would be The Cut, but she didn’t want to approach it in the traditional way of printing then storing in a warehouse.
The internet is fickle, and content is ephemeral. What resonates today probably won’t matter tomorrow. For Bugbee and her team, this truth presented an opportunity. “Because it’s print-on-demand, we’re not really carrying any stock,” she says. “It’s just the idea of a T-shirt until some human being orders it.” The design process itself is almost anti-design. At the beginning of every week, the staff discusses what should be on Friday’s drop then they upload the text through Amazon’s platform, and the shirt is good to go. There are no color options, no typographic variety. The only design element that changes is the words themselves.
Low overhead in both money and time allows the writers to think about the T-shirts the same way they think about tweets. In theory, they can produce as many shirt designs as they want and do it with a Cut-appropriate level of irreverence. “There was an inherent absurdity to producing a T-shirt every single week,” Bugbee says. “It basically allows us to do editorial content as physical meme.”
Sometimes the shirts boast hyper-current cultural references like “Rihanna is my Pope” or “John Mayer’s New Song is About Bath Bombs” (Davidson-Grande lost out to “hangry,” for what it’s worth). Other times, it’s an opaque but catchy line pulled from one of the site’s rubrics or relationship columns like top seller “I Think About This A Lot”). Of the shop’s 43 T-shirts, I only understand what half of them refer to, and I’m in the target demographic. “We have a shirt that says ‘My Favorite Meat is Hotdog,’” Petrarca says, referring to a Mitt Romney quote. “If you weren’t on the internet at a very specific time, you probably would’ve missed this completely.”
That kind of inscrutability has proven powerful in the Instagram age (Some proof: this hashtag). So far, the shop has sold nearly 1,500 T-shirts, which has translated to a lot of Instagramming, but not so much revenue. “This wasn’t about money,” Bugbee says. “It’s print-on-demand, so we really only see a small fraction of it.”
Rather, the shirts are a low-risk experiment in how to translate “webiness” to the physical world. Unlike tote bags, which often read as a too-earnest broadcast of self-expression, The Cut’s T-shirts have a touch of the irony and aloofness that the internet’s cool kids wear so well. People can feel like they’re subtly airing their allegiance to a brand without sacrificing their own brand. The shirts are unapologetically insular, almost to the point of being universal. “I think all memes are basically an inside joke, but made larger,” Bugbee says. If you don’t understand that “Mystery Blonde” refers to a mysterious blonde spotted making out with Timothée Chalamet, that’s cool. The beauty of it is, you can still wear it anyway.