When Merch Aid pops up on Instagram it instantly gives the look of something exclusive and fashionable. “Dropping tomorrow,” a hype-beast baiting post hinted on Sunday in spare red letters. Another post was just a video of an X filled in with changing fragments of designs, and the next blared the date it would all go down: “04.27.2020.”
What was going down, it turned out, was the limited-run drop of a T-shirt promoting Black Seed Bagels, a bagel shop with a few different locations around New York, designed by artist Gabrielle Lamontagne. It proclaimed “Support your local bagel,” and it quickly sold out.
It was the first of 12 new designs that are being revealed over the next couple of weeks, each of which is a collaboration between a designer and a local business that has been impacted by coronavirus. This is the second round of “drops” for Merch Aid, a project of the ad agency R/GA, which has paired a curated list of designers with restaurants, nail salons, laundromats and sandwich shops throughout the city. The first round, in which 100 percent of proceeds went to the businesses involved, raised more than $40,000. Moving forward, R/GA will be recouping expenses and handing over just the profits to local businesses.
“I think the most surprising bit was that it was not just locals buying the merch,” said Chloe Saintilan, a senior copywriter at R/GA, who helped launch the project with some of her colleagues. “It’s people everywhere wanting to help these people out and join in on the fun of wearing this very niche merchandise. Like we had people from all over the country buying Harlem Doggy Day Spa T-shirts, obviously having never been.”
Each sale starts with about 100 of each item, with items getting restocked if they’re popular. One drop this week, a T-shirt and poster designed by artist Lauren Martin for Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema, sold $13,200 worth of merchandise overnight.
“Every drop gets crazier and crazier,” Saintilan said.
Jashon Singh, whose father owns Punjabi Deli, the tiny Houston storefront that serves up $6 meals to cabbies and celebrities alike, says his family was glad for an opportunity to bring in revenue while the shop is closed without resorting to donations.
“A lot of people reached out to us regarding a GoFundMe and wanted to create it and I think it’s a cultural thing for us to not have that,” said Singh. “I don’t want to use the word ‘pride,’ but it’s like culturally, we’re not worthy of people giving us donations and holding us in such high regard because we feel kind of embarrassed by it.”
But the shop still has to pay East Village rent while it’s closed (Singh declined to say how much, but emphasized that it wasn’t cheap) and was denied a small business loan it applied for. Singh says his father has enough savings to withstand one more month of being shut down, but hasn’t been able to pay employees.
Selling merch, he said, is a way to capitalize on the brand his father built without accepting charity. In fact, he had long been talking about doing just that and this project proved it was worth it.
“Everything sold out within like an hour,” said Singh, referring to the $25 T-shirt and $20 tote featuring Punjabi Deli menu items designed by artist Matt Starr. “It was super cool to see that my father built this brand without even knowing it. I realized there’s a real opportunity here for us to continue the growth of this idea of the American dream plastered on a T-shirt.”
Separately, Jenkem, a skateboarding magazine, put Punjabi Deli T-shirts, hats, and hoodies in its online shop to help raise money, and those sold out, too.
Soon, Punjabi Deli will be selling its own wares featuring the iconic storefront and a person sitting on the stoop next door—the spot where many enjoy the food they just bought there.
The Merch Aid project is one of many that have popped up to create merch for local businesses across the country that have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. They range from small, local operations to Vans’ “Foot the Bill” project, which hawks sneakers designed for independent venues, art galleries, restaurants and skate shops in different cities, including New York institutions like Max Fish and Elsewhere.
Merch Aid is also expanding to other cities now, starting with Austin and Los Angeles, and is seeking corporate sponsorships in order to be able to pay the designers, who have so far been working pro bono.
In some cases, designers have nominated businesses they want to support and in others RGA has paired businesses and designers they think would be a good match. That was the case for Brooklyn-based illustrator Felicia Liang and dim sum restaurant Jing Fong.
In quarantine, Liang has been channeling her creative energy into drawing Chinatown storefronts, using red to indicate the ones that are still open and black to indicate the ones that are closed. Claudia Leo, who handles marketing and special events for Jing Fong, said she was already familiar with Liang’s work when an R/GA employee suggested they collaborate.
The collaboration yielded an illustration of the restaurant represented as a dim sum cart with steamers stacked high on top of it. Tote bags and T-shirts featuring the design sold out within 36 hours, raising over $3,000 for the restaurant, which has shuttered both its flagship Chinatown location and Upper West Side outpost amid the pandemic. Leo and Liang have decided to continue the project, sourcing and selling merch themselves and splitting the proceeds.
Liang says supporting local businesses has been a positive creative outlet during the pandemic. “I think at first I was a bit shocked and even as an artist, I was like, ‘What’s the point of making art when the world is falling apart?’” But then, she said, “I thought of the restaurants and bars and all these businesses closing—everything that made New York New York.”