The New York Times: July 29, 2008 The New York Times: July 29, 2008

The New York Times: July 29, 2008

7/29/2008 4:00

EVERYTHING’S FINE! MY T-SHIRT SAYS SO.

Everything’s Fine! My T-Shirt Says So.

By ERIC WILSON
Published: July 24, 2008

WHEN the temperature here broke into the 90s at lunchtime on Saturday, it was too hot to smile.

Standing in the green grass of Boston Common, well out of reach of the shade of bordering elms, Travis Piotrowski, the director of information technology for Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee, nevertheless wore a big grin, literally painted across his face.

It was not his own smile, mind you, but that of a cartoon stick figure named Jake, the mascot for the contagiously popular line of T-shirts with the motto — somewhat out of step with the times — “Life is good.”

“I think the happiest people alive are the ones who are happy with the simple things,” said Mr. Piotrowski, who, with his wife and their two daughters, were among the thousands in the park for a Life is good festival, one of about 17 such events around the country this summer for the growing legion of Jake fans.

The Piotrowskis discovered the brand while camping in Wisconsin several years ago and have since acquired at least 20 T-shirts, 4 coffee mugs, matching pajamas and a paddleball set that show Jake’s uncynical and ever-smiling face, which never seems to be discomforted by humidity, adversity or even that he looks more like a French mime — with his beret and white face — than a symbol of American optimism.

But Mr. Piotrowski and his family appreciate Jake’s perspective on life. “With this type of economy, people really need to take a step back and look at the big picture,” he said. “Be happy with an ice cream sundae or playing with your kids in the backyard.”

It is hard to say whether Jake is just a fad or, judging by the crowds here, a movement. As many as 30,000 people attended, according to Life is good Inc., which renders its brand name like a complete sentence.

Last year, the company sold 4.2 million of its $25 T-shirts and had sales of roughly $107 million, said Bert Jacobs, who along with his brother, John Jacobs, founded the business in Needham, Mass., in 1994 with only a handful of styles and a van.

They were trying to create “a symbol about what was right in the world,” he said; Jake would be a character “who was happy not because of anything he had or because he was materialistic.” Their most popular style has Jake and his pie-faced grin sitting in an Adirondack chair as if there was nothing more to life than kicking back.

“People relate to the concept because it’s simple,” Mr. Jacobs said, “and because too much of what is happening in the world is complex.”

Like the mass popularization of smiley face buttons in the early 1970s, which coincided with another oil and economic crisis, Life is good T-shirts have caught on among people who feel the products are spreading a positive message in a troubled world.

The invention of the smiley face is largely credited to Harvey Ross Ball, an advertising executive from Worcester, Mass., who drew the symbol in 1963 to improve worker morale at an insurance company that had merged with another.

It later became a fad when printed with the slogan “Have a nice day,” selling countless pieces of merchandise as an almost subversively counterintuitive message that in many ways seems to be repeating with “Life is good” today.

“The years when the company has thrived the most have been the most economically, politically and socially challenged years,” Mr. Jacobs said, adding that the company is on track to reach $135 million in sales this year through retail stores and a Web site. (In addition to the 4,500 stores that carry the Life is good merchandise, there are about 105 independently owned shops in airports and cities across the country that sell only Life is good products.) “The people who face the most adversity are the ones who embrace ‘Life is good’ the most,” he said.

The festivals, which began in 2003, are extraordinary in that they draw thousands of adults (and their children) to socialize with like-minded cheerleaders, while partaking in folksy contests like relay races, dog-bowl bowling and watermelon-seed spitting. The events have also raised more than $3 million for children’s charities.

Those who have embraced the brand have done so wholeheartedly, buying T-shirts as vacation souvenirs and collecting styles that reflect the many sides of Jake: playing a guitar, sharing an ice cream cone with his dog, golfing, barbecuing or drinking coffee.

They have bought hats, beach towels, flip-flops, bracelets, dog bowls and flowerpots. One T-shirt shows a pair of sandals with the phrase, “Not all who wander are lost.”

It would be fair to describe most of the brand’s customers as family oriented, and among them are a surprising number of educators. Dawn Morris, a special education teacher from Wallingford, Conn., has at least six T-shirts, and her husband has 15, she said, as they shopped for more under a blue tent at the festival. Tim Seston, a high school teacher at Concord Academy, wears them so often that his students ask him whether he owns anything else. Both were inspired by the product’s positive messages, which could be described as the antithesis of the sexualized branding of American Apparel.

“I’m Life is good obsessed,” said Shelby Dames, a teacher from Lunenburg, Mass. “We have the Jeep wheel covers and the backpacks. We have it all. I have my Life is good coffee mug in the morning, and I drive into work with it. It makes me remember that things are not so bad.”

The day before, in a Fenway Park skybox, Bert Jacobs spoke to 42 sales representatives with his arms spread wide, casting a crosslike shadow against a PowerPoint projection behind him showing childlike drawings of the designs for the next season. They looked not unlike those of the 20 to 30 preceding seasons, printed on the same dusty dishwater pastels: blue, green, gray and a pink resembling the byproduct of a pair of red socks tossed into a load of whites.

“I don’t see recession,” Mr. Jacobs said. “I see opportunity.”

Life is good is expanding, he explained, with pocket T-shirts and a polo shirt, denim shorts and skirts, new workout clothes (which carry the phrase, “powered by optimism”) and a green collection made of bamboo and hemp fabrics (“optimistic by nature”).

But it may be that what happened to the smiley face — people became tired of it and started making frowny faces — is now happening to Life is good. One company now sells a line of T-shirts with the phrase, “Life is cruel.”

There will always be those who see the glass as half-empty. Mr. Jacobs chooses to believe his own message.

“There’s going to be optimism in the world, and there’s going to be pessimism,” he said. “Our attitude is that these things will come and go, but in the long run, you won’t even see that other stuff in the rearview window.”