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195essential: A mission driven t-shirt business

Father-daughter team take on voter suppression with designs

Saphia Suarez
195essential: A mission driven t-shirt business
Artist Michelle Collado models her t-shirt design. COURTESY PHOTO

195essential’s new Essential Voter collection is the latest in a line of T-shirts with a cause from the new Boston-based company. Founded just last March at the dining room table of father-daughter team Jason and Lena Harris, 195essential pairs T-shirt design with social change. The first line focused on essential workers, the second on LGBTQ+ pride, and now the company has turned to fighting voter suppression.

Jason and Lena Harris COURTESY PHOTO

Jason and Lena Harris COURTESY PHOTO

By donating their revenue to grassroots organizations and creating eye-catching T-shirt designs that customers will want to reach for, the duo hopes to strengthen the shared responsibility and community that has grown in the last few months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and now threats of voter suppression in the upcoming Nov. 3 election.

“As a country, we have a really short collective memory,” says Jason Harris. “Once we get over a crisis, we go back to the very things that created it. So the question is, once a conversation is brought to the surface, how do you keep it there?”

One of the first conversations that arose from COVID-19 is who and what is really essential? As entrepreneurs like Jason Harris were waiting for Gov. Charlie Baker to announce which businesses were deemed essential and could remain open and which would have to close their doors, he began to discuss with his family what “essential” really means. The first thought was essential workers, hence the company’s first line, but as Pride Month approached, and then the presidential election, the company’s definition of “essential” began to expand.

For the Essential Voter collection, 195essential commissioned artists Michelle Collado, Sydney Medina and Fred White to create striking designs that would make voting more fashionable.

Collado’s design depicts a woman of color whose voice is being muzzled with the words “End Voter Suppression” below, and Medina created a silhouette of a black woman with an Afro stamped with the words “Your Vote Matters,” both calling attention to the fact that voter suppression too often targets communities of color. White’s design combines the Black power fist with the 1960s peace sign, within which are listed important dates from the struggle to increase voter access in the United States.

Collado’s design was the winner of a design contest 195essential held in collaboration with Lawrence-based Elevated Thought for a prize of $500. Medina and White were also compensated for their work.

The T-shirts are for sale on 195essential’s website for $34. So far, the Essential Voter collection has raised around $1,000, which matches the $1,000 donation 195essential made to Seed the Vote, a social justice political fund based in the Bay Area focused on turning swing states blue by November.

“When we approach organizations, I give that initial donation of around $1,000, and then we know we need to sell around 40 T-shirts to break even, and if we sell more, we donate the additional proceeds,” says Jason Harris.

The company is run on volunteer time, and Lena and Jason are joined by Dominic Amenta, Emma O’Connor and Eric Olsson, who work on marketing, social media and website design, respectively. Each team member dedicates between 10 and 15 hours a week to their work with 195essential, says Lena Harris.

So far, Jason Harris says, the response has been great.

“I think the reality of retail is size makes a difference,” he said. “A bigger following grows business. It’s a volume game. You don’t make a lot of money doing it but if you sell a few thousand units you start to make money.”

A large part of the company’s marketing efforts are on social media, Lena Harris says.

“We really just want these to go viral, because they’re beautiful, the artists are amazing, and we’ve gotten amazing feedback,” she said. “We started an ambassadorship where we send you the T-shirt and you take a picture in it and give us a quote about why you vote and why it’s important to you.”

As they continue to build relationships with artists, the father-daughter team is looking to other social-change-focused collection ideas.

“We’ve talked about making Ruth Bader Ginsburg shirts,” says Jason Harris. “There’s a lot of women’s issues we haven’t even begun to tackle, and as we grow, we’ll probably find a manufacturer to grow with us so we can increase production and create more collections.”

But no matter what, Jason Harris says, “We’re committed to keeping it a business with a purpose.”

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