It’s hard to get polyester yarn to go viral. But it might be even harder to turn an online moment into something with physical value, a memory even. ShirtFaced managed to do both.
The two-man startup generated guerrilla press by putting its silly Ts on the chests of George Kittle and James Harden before selling those shirts to fans, making them feel like they were part of a teambuilding moment. And yes, the ShirtFaced name might still be his most impressive achievement yet.
ShirtFaced started out as a joke. In 2018, co-founder Eric Rehe wanted to make a gag t-shirt for a birthday party using an embarrassing photo, but struggled to order an extremely short run using the biggest custom shirt sites. At the same time, its co-founder John Wolfe was taking a start-up course at Columbia Business School and needed an idea for a final project. Soon, other groups on campus were asking for his help putting mocking shots of their friends on extremely plain white T-shirts.
When one of his teachers got “shirtfaced” and then wore the shirt in question to class, Wolfe and Rehe thought they might be onto something.
As a Baltimore Ravens intern soon after, Wolfe pitched the concept to the pros. One day, while walking around the team’s headquarters, he spotted a stack of Amazon boxes with Lamar Jackson’s name on it. “I assumed there was a very high security thing you had to do to reach these people,” Wolfe said, “But I walked out and I was like, Eh, I guess anyone could just send anything to this establishment, and it will just be thrown in Lamar’s locker.”
Days later, Derrick Henry ran for 195 yards as the Titans stunned the Ravens 14-2, ending Baltimore’s season. Wolfe suddenly had time on his hands. He scoured social media for humiliating, innocuous old photos of stars still in the playoffs and sent jerseys to teammates after Googling training facility addresses. Then he forgot almost everything.
Fast forward to the NFC Championship Game, or rather the postgame press conference, when 49ers tight end George Kittle appeared wearing a shirt emblazoned with a picture of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in his skivvies.
“My friends started yelling at me to go out and watch TV,” Wolfe said. ” I did not know what to do. I was just like, kind of yelling at everyone.
With a few bucks, some intuition, and a roll of duct tape, Wolfe had crafted a viral moment. But now he had to start a business.
He and Rehe stayed up until 5 a.m. trying to respond to every tweet and story about the shirt to say it was a ShirtFaced original. At the same time, they pivoted. Having framed the NFL pleas as a marketing opportunity for a short-lived, fast-moving custom t-shirt site, ShirtFaced instead displayed the Jimmy GTs for $19.99 each, selling for thousands.
Since then, Wolfe has turned more athletes (including Josh Allen) into accomplices, and what ShirtFaced calls its “Viral Tees” category now accounts for a slight majority of its overall sales.
When Wolfe found himself in Los Angeles after this year’s Super Bowl, he printed a handful of shirts and showed up at the Rams’ championship parade, where he started throwing the Ts at the players. Matthew Stafford caught one; Andrew Whitworth wore his during the cheering rally portion of the day.
“A couple guys went to Vegas and one of them DMed me like, Man, we still wear the shirts!said Wolfe.
In March, Wolfe teamed up with 76ers role player Georges Niang to celebrate Joel Embiid’s birthday by printing 25 Embiid shirts from his time at Kansas for each Sixer to wear at the end of practice.
“Joel told me to never let this happen again,” Niang said shortly afterwards.
Rehe and Wolfe started the business, using money from early school sales to buy a domain and go from there. They also keep jobs in fintech and consulting, respectively.
As for the name, it was an improvement over a similar business idea dubbed Screenshirted. “Everyone who saw it was like, Man, it reads like a fucked up screenrecalls Wolfe.
ShirtFaced isn’t alone in the quick print game. BreakingT, Something Inked and, of course, Fanatics understood the need for fast turnarounds in order to capitalize on sporting moments. But ShirtFaced (which isn’t the size of any of those three) went even further, both creating the moment and capturing it in ink printed on garment. Locker rooms have long been hosts to elaborate pranks, but now fans can feel like a part of them too. Along the way, Wolfe goes back and forth between the physical and digital realms.
Take the Rams getaway, for example. Wolfe started online, rendering an image of a shirtless, less than imposing Cooper Kupp from an old interview clip. He wrapped it up on physical T-shirts, snuck into crowds of Figueroa St. fans, and staked the pros for IRL spam. The shirt Whitworth donned was actually the last in Wolfe’s bag after a series of errant lobs.
Wolfe filmed the entire encounter on his phone, generating more than 700,000 views on TikTok. He urged those new fans to visit the site, where they could order their own shirts and maybe start the whole cycle all over again.
“Eric always says, ‘We want to be able to put a moment on a T-shirt as fast as you can put it on Facebook,'” Wolfe explained. “There is so much saturation in the digital world. It’s all about uploading a photo, and we just want to take that and almost bring Snapchat into real life.
Wolfe also believes that the shirt’s radically simple designs (users who create their own on the site can essentially only change the size of the front image) have contributed to ShirtFaced’s success, as more polished designs proliferate elsewhere.
Going forward, the company is leaning more into content, showcasing the angles of camaraderie behind its biggest viral hits. But it also means remaining flexible.
“The most important thing I’ve learned from doing this is, it’s really helpful to try things and knock on doors,” Wolfe said, “and to be open to the fact that when you do That, you might open a totally different door than you hadn’t anticipated, and then it might change what you do.
You can put that on a shirt.