Biz News
Headlines making fashion
A local T-shirt designer gives political malcontents something to get off their chest.

By Lorraine Sanders

photo by Lori Spears
AS SIX- foot-five Chris Gorog spreads out marketing materials for Headline Shirts (415-401-8469, on a table at open-air Mission District hangout Papa Toby's Revolution Cafe and Art Bar, he resembles a big kid. Clad in a short-sleeve Headline Shirts original, baggy pants, and funky sneakers, Gorog is not your stereotypical graduate of Stanford University's MBA program, nor does he look like a guy who'd admit to watching MTV's House of Style during his formative years.

But things are often more complex once you scratch the surface, as is the case with his company's new line of supersoft, tagless men's and women's cotton T-shirts. With bright yellow block letters against a black background, the "Hecho en America" (Made in America) shirt signifies more than the fact that it, like all Headline Shirts, was manufactured in the United States. The Spanish implies a new status quo in which American-made products are increasingly likely to be geared toward a Latino audience. And then there's the matter of American products and American wealth produced from the sweat of Spanish-speaking laborers. Similarly, each of the nine hand-screen-printed designs Gorog created with business partner Jake Ginsky references something larger than itself.

"We're taking something that we think is a good message, and we're making fashion out of it," Gorog says.

By fashion, Gorog means shapely cuts and substantive designs. Despite the shirts' plush texture and lasting shape, some of the designs have been too controversial for retailers, even in San Francisco. The "Too Many Rich Crackers" T-shirt, which bears some resemblance to a Ritz Crackers package, is one such example. American Rag wouldn't sell it, Gorog recalls. Though he understands the retailer's decision, he says the designs are meant to be thought-provoking, not combative, and reflect tensions already running through national media.

"The New York Times releases this study that says that the top 1 percent of earners are getting richer, and the rich are getting whiter," he says of the shirt. "It's a comment on what we're already seeing."

Headline Shirts finds inspiration in American media images, but the idea for the company came from a chance meeting in another country.

"It was the randomest thing in the world," Gorog says of a day last March when he was strolling near a Venezuelan beach and noticed a group of men hand-printing stencils of Diesel logos onto T-shirts. Gorog was amazed at how easily they produced the shirts. At the time, he was finishing up graduate school and looking for a business idea that incorporated his varied interests in pop culture, design, and production. T-shirts became the perfect start-up medium.

"All through my career, I've been the person who makes things look good," Gorog says with a grin. As a former user-interface designer, Gorog had experience taking Web content and making it pleasing to the eye. Now all he needed was a crash course in the T-shirt industry.

Since graduating with his MBA in June, Gorog has embraced a self-described obsession with learning the business. He studied eco-friendly ink production, T-shirt suppliers, vintage washes, fatigue washes, screen-printing techniques, and marketing strategies. He hunted down a Berkeley artist to make water-based inks in custom colors. He secured shirts through sweatshop-free California supplier American Apparel. With Grinsky and a team of designers from Salt Lake City to New York, Gorog tweaked design concepts and printing techniques for months on end.

In the midst of scrambling for the company's launch last December, Gorog also found time to work as a freelance film producer, organize sponsors for the launch party, and hunt down a worthy community organization to receive part of his company's profits.

"I believe in being for-profit, but I also believe in social venture," he explains.

Somewhat ironically for a tall, blond, East Coast transplant who just moved to the Mission a few months ago, Gorog settled on the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, which has advocated for low-income neighborhood residents and against gentrification for years.

"It's the whole idea of acting locally," he said. "There is a way to work together."

Headline Shirts are available at Villains Vault (1653 Haight, S.F. 415-864-7727), Retrofit Vintage (910 Valencia, S.F. 415-550-1530), and Max Muscle (3600 16th St., Ste. 5, S.F. 415-626-2244).