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Out-of-the-Closet Entrepreneurship Suits This Humorist to a T : Statement: The Don't Panic company's slogans promote pride, unity and activism, but they're not popular with everyone.

August 25, 1994|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The slogan on Skyler Thomas' chest says it all: "I Can't Even Think Straight."

Since early 1990, when he conceived a line of T-shirts with such in-your-face commentary as "Nobody Knows I'm Gay," "What a Difference a Gay Makes" and "Closets Are for Clothes," the 30-year-old humorist has been out of breath.

In four years, the Culver City company he calls Don't Panic has evolved into a thriving $2.5-million business that includes a wholesale operation, a mail-order catalogue ((800) 45-PANIC), six retail stores (West Hollywood, New York, Miami Beach, San Francisco, Provincetown, Pa., and the Soho district of London), as well as distribution through Coach House Gifts in the Laguna Hills Mall and Mall of Orange and G-Mart in Laguna Beach. Although many gay men and lesbians quickly embraced Thomas' ideology and began wearing his Ts as a symbol of unity and pride, others--straight and gay--balked at the blatant messages.

"They are certainly on the borderline of being obnoxious," Thomas concedes. "Even some gay people aren't sure if they like them."

Some of those critics argue that advertising one's sexual orientation in a world riddled with gay bashing is dangerous. Thomas agrees that "people have to be wise about what they wear and where they wear it," but he also says his clothing can help defuse gay stereotypes.

"There are a certain number of people out there who are just homophobic by default," he says. "They've never had to decide how to deal with homosexuals because they haven't had anybody who was outwardly gay in their life. When those people see someone wearing one of my shirts, a lot of them just laugh (at the messages) and see that the person wearing it is not necessarily a freak. And in that moment the barriers are dissipated."

Still, Thomas says it was never his intention to become a voice in the gay rights movement. More entrepreneur than activist, he hit upon the idea of doing T-shirts purely as a money-making scheme.

"I came up with some gay themes because the L.A. Gay Pride Festival was coming up, and I thought I might get a booth," he recalls. After persuading a friend to loan him $6,000 for equipment, which he installed in the spare bedroom of his West Hollywood apartment, Thomas went to work.

"I printed up 75 T-shirts, thinking that was either going to be too many or not enough."

He was back at his used printing press the same morning. "When I got home, I went through my closet and printed everything that was clean," Thomas says.

By weekend's end, he had sold 500 shirts and had recouped most of his investment. "It was really wild. People were going into stores asking if they had the 'Nobody Knows I'm Gay' shirts, and by the end of the festival the whole country knew about them."

Liza Minnelli was an early fan. Working on a difficult show in New York, the frazzled entertainer asked Thomas to print her a T-shirt that read "Don't Panic."

Thomas ultimately took those words as his company name.

*

Within weeks of the gay pride festivities, stores with large gay followings began phoning in their orders.

"Skyler revolutionized the whole T-shirt thing," says Dennis Dashing, a buyer for Drake's on Melrose Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. "He put comedy behind them."

Thomas also managed to get some of his unisex shirts into such chain stores as Merry-Go-Round and Macy's Herald Square in New York. In fact, those and other similar stores account for 40% of the company's retail orders.

As the business has grown, so has its product mix. A glass Christmas tree ornament with an AIDS awareness ribbon dangling inside is a bestseller; a portion of the proceeds from its sales (nearly $200,000 to date) goes to Americans for AIDS Research (AmFAR). Other Don't Panic items include everything from OUTch! watches and "Bad Hair Day" baseball caps to coffee mugs, key chains, wallets, tote bags, beach towels, jewelry, temporary tattoos and metal AIDS awareness ribbons.

But 80% of the sales still come from Ts.

"For a generation of gay people who grew up with no outlets and no one to talk to about their gayness, the shirts have become a kind of identity thing," says Thomas, who has moved out of his apartment and into a rental house in West Hollywood. "They're a symbol of being part of something bigger than ourselves. They tell us it's OK to be gay. And that feels good."

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