When Andy Frye arrived at his local Minneapolis polling place for early voting, he knew he’d worn the wrong shirt. He brushed off the New York Times photographers lurking outside, voted, snuck out the back, and returned as they were packing up, this time wearing a T-shirt of his own design: “Dear 2020,” the black tee declared across his chest, in an all-caps, serifed, white font, “Unite the States of America”—signed, “Love, Us.”
The Times published the photo essay in late September. Frye’s quote, accompanying the photo, says little: “I just couldn’t wait until November. It just felt so far off.” His shirt is more eloquent.
The publicity moved 80-plus of those shirts in two days. Before then, Frye, an independent T-shirt designer, had hesitated to promote them. “Between COVID and the riots and everything happening, I just wasn’t sure where people were at.”
By election day, he probably had “at least a couple hundred walking around the country.” He puts in weekly bulk orders at a Minneapolis screen-printing company, and they’ve shipped out to seven states in the northeast, Midwest, and on the West Coast. Both liberals and conservatives have been heart-eyed about the design online, he says, stickering it with “I Voted” badges and posting pics. Wearing it in public, he hears a lot of “I love that shirt!”
A “love letter,” as Frye calls it, the T-shirt is also a demand addressed to politicians. For the official-looking font, he turned to the Constitution—“Let’s just say it’s a step up from Times New Roman.” It applies to the new administration as much as to the last, although Trump is the one responsible for it.
“It’s not anti-Republican, at all,” Frye tells me. But he did tag Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Instagram. “Sadly, Donald Trump has not made the choice to unite” he explains, “but rather to divide.”
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From Progressive to Bipartisan
Frye became a graphic-tee philosopher amid a career pivot. Pre-pandemic, when live audiences were much more of a thing, he was an actor on contract with the Guthrie Theater. At 37, he’s now getting a degree in graphic design and digital media at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. As a freewheeling creative, he also works in dance (“I would say I’m paid to move fast”) and video (most recently: a project on opioid stigma for a healthcare company, a cardio workout video with Yellow Tree Theatre, and something called Dance TV—“Think John Waters meets Solid Gold/Club MTV,” he says).
Frye also makes colorful, expressionistic paintings on the side, although “not everyone can afford a huge, 10-foot painting,” he notes. “But art? It’s everywhere: on T-shirts, on postcards, on books.” Tees have become Frye’s “more tangible” medium.
With an actor friend based in New York City, he launched an online T-shirt business, the Progressive T-shirt Co., in 2019. The two shared a fashion sense. Frye, a “T-shirt and jeans guy,” prefers screen-printed, nothing flashy, “more of a subtle pocket.” Although he doesn’t typically go for message tees, he’ll break out “Dear 2020” when the news stresses him out. His personal motto for designing shirts happens to suit 6-foot distancing: “Let the tee do the talking.”
And Frye has a lot he wants to talk about. Not all of his shirts shout, “UNITE.” Some shirts boast sly and risqué visual puns: strategically placed cartoon cats and roosters. Another dishes cultural and vaguely political scorn: “You Are No Christian Supporting That Hate.” The latter got a “prickly” reception when Frye wore it to a family function in 2017. The hurt feelings spurred him to make “Dear 2020” in an act of sartorial atonement. The name Progressive T-shirt Co. sounded too partisan for the project, so he’s carrying the line on his personal website instead.
“Some family members, who I know are super Republican, are like, ‘This is a great message, and a great shirt, and we need this,’” he says, of “Dear 2020.”
In our political climate, he’s lucky others think so, too. Frye may have enjoyed an “opened floodgate” of social-media likes, but a big apparel brand recently caught flak for floating a similar concept. The day after the election, the Gap posted a mock-up of a half-red, half-blue hooded sweatshirt. In one zip, the wearer could literally join red and blue. Twitter critics giddily bashed the symbolism as trite and tone-deaf at a time when Pew Research has described Republicans and Democrats as more divided ideologically than at any point in the last 20 years.
So, why has Frye’s shirt, which also yearns for bonhomie, gone relatively unscathed?
Frye has a theory: “The Gap’s message has this vibe of ‘No matter which color wins, together we will move forward.’” After he tagged Biden and Harris on Instagram, some objected, telling Frye he “polarized” his shirt. “This wasn’t made when Reagan was president, when Bush was president, when Obama was president,” he argues. “This was created out of the divides happening in our families and our communities.”
Whereas Biden has used “uniting language,” he continues, Trump has traded in put-downs. With his dissenters, Frye says he found resolution, funnily or sadly enough, in their common desire for resolution.
Also, whereas the Gap faced accusations of corporate opportunism, Frye’s design excavates personal pain. It targets his now-distant family members. It wants to “spark a conversation in a loving way,” he says. The Times made the shirt about voting, but it communicates grief. “Is it naive?” he asks himself. “One-hundred percent. Is it a hopeful message? I hope so. Is it a loving message? It’s trying.”
Heart, Meet Sleeve
The story of “You Are No Christian Supporting That Hate” feels like a scene in a screwball-comedy play about Minnesota—a state dyed blue in major cities, washed red in rural counties.
It starts with Frye, a millennial Minneapolitan, and the mise-en-scène of his industrial-chic apartment as revealed over a Zoom call: I spot an exercise ball (he was a yoga instructor before COVID), a cherry-red couch, a femme mannequin, a healthy ivy, a picture of a hamburger his ex-boyfriend made him. Frye wears a denim short-sleeve (with subtle pocket) and his auburn curls chin-length.
Next, the scene turns to greater Minnesota and the outer suburbs, where many of Frye’s Trump-supporting family members reside. Frye would rather not disclose the issues over which they differ, lest it come across as him shaming them. But at a family gathering a few years ago, he wanted to make an incisive entrance.
It was the month of the Muslim Ban, 2017. Frye was trying to work through consternation at Trump’s Christian voter base. He grew up Catholic, though no longer identifies religiously, and sees Trump’s “bullying tactics” and exclusionary policies as un-Christian. So, he would bear a chest-width announcement: “You Are No Christian Supporting That Hate.”
It wasn’t received well. “I saw people retract,” he says. “I saw that, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to spark anything.’” Three years later, Frye still feels remorse over the relationships lost. “If you’re a Christian who supported Trump, and if I don’t understand it—which part of me doesn’t, at all—I’m not here to shame you,” he says, searchingly. “I feel like [that shirt] needs a pamphlet.”
Frye describes himself as open, as a forgiving person. In a promotional YouTube video for the “Dear 2020” shirt, he uses his acting chops to re-do that entrance. He’s on the phone with his mom, getting ready for Thanksgiving while holiday music chimes in the background. After Mom warns, “No talking politics at the dinner table,” he cheekily picks “Dear 2020” out of his closet.
“If we can’t talk politics with the ones we love and care about most, and talk about these issues and talk about how it’s affecting people, how are our senators supposed to meet at the table?” he asks me.
In-person gatherings with extended family are up in the air due to the coronavirus, but Frye has time. With almost 74 million people voting for Trump, he says his message is “stronger.” His new T-shirt campaign, released a couple weeks ago, simply swaps out “2020” for “2021.”
Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt
These days, Frye is on a roll. On his website, he recently put up a new line of four unity-inspired T-shirts.
He came up with a new design shortly after one of our conversations, which had brooded over the scarcity of common ground in a country of “alternative facts.”
The new T-shirt riffs on 2001: A Space Odyssey, the time-leaping Stanley Kubrick film. In a Futura-esque font similar to the movie poster’s typeface, the shirt declares, “2021: Truth Era.” “Again,” Frye says, “really simple.”
The design came to him during high-intensity cardio yoga. Designs often come to Frye mid-euphoria—ferried by “endorphins to the front of my brain.” Maybe not coincidentally, his designs tend to match the high optimism of Biden’s presidential acceptance speech. “Dear 2021,” in particular, is a Make America United Again refrain. “Beautiful, sweet, simple, and kind of obvious,” Frye says. And has anyone told him it sounds “naive”?
“Not to my face,” he laughs.
But it’s a valid question. As Pew Research pointed out, the country looks awfully thorny right now. Gun sales are way up, and armed citizens circling protesters say they’re watching for the rift of civil war. Many of those protesters, in turn, want to close the rift of systemic racism. The verb “to unite” does not appear to be one-size-fits-all.
Frye knows the difficulty of trying to “break through” to others. He wonders how to reconcile with people whose beliefs predicate a separate reality. “Some people’s truth is that they don’t believe that there’s systemic racism,” he says. “There are people who are like, ‘Oh, Obama caused the crash of 2008.’ And I’m like, ‘He wasn’t even in office then. Where are you hearing this?’”
Likely, those people heard it from an economist favored by the former president. While in office, Trump issued a staggering number of false statements, contradicted experts on the coronavirus, praised QAnon conspiracists, and made unproven claims of voter fraud. Some who ripped into the Gap implied that Trump supporters bear the onus of aisle-reaching. Given the misinformation Trump spread, do they have a point?
“I mean, yes, currently,” Frye says. “But, again, 74 million people voted for this.”
Could some matters be non-negotiable? Is there a time and place for division?
“I’m sure people could argue we’re there right now,” he says. “It’s important to have a firm line, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it.”
All Teed Up
Along with the new T-shirts, Frye has devised a three-step plan for uniting. The graphic designer has social architecture on his mind.
First, he tells me, Americans have to want it. Then they have to get comfortable with discomfort (while maintaining boundaries, he adds—something to practice with his own family). At last, they have to discuss factual truth. His “Dear 2021” shirt could initiate step one. To promote step three, there’s “2021: Truth Era.”
Initially, he thought up “Exit Trump Era, Enter Truth Era”—but that seemed too salt-in-the-wound. “Maybe I just need to make a pamphlet,” he says again, with a laugh.
I think about Frye’s other, more flippant ideas. Released through Progressive T-shirt Co., one of his shirts asked, “Fauci, what’s safer to eat? Takeout, or”—and then it depicted either a cartoon cat or rooster.
These days, the peacenik of crewnecks follows a stern edict: “The temperature is so up here that I just want to make sure not to add to the divide.”
One Progressive T-shirt Co. design jibes enough with his current ethos to make the new lineup. It features the U.S. electoral map, but instead of red and blue states, it’s Day-Glo triangles. “We were all watching the states turn red or blue, but it’s so much more than that,” he says.
“You Are No Christian Supporting That Hate” may resurface one day. “Give me a couple months, and who knows what I’ll be creating.” Until then, he feels more comfortable wearing a shirt that states, “We Are the Divided”—with “Divided” struck through, of course, and replaced with “United.”
“You should just title this ‘Naive Designs,’” he says, again with a self-aware chuckle.
Since I brought up the word “naive,” I start to feel overly cynical. The difference between Frye and other heartbroken Americans, it seems to me, is that Frye wields a deceptively simple artform. If one tee can shut down a relationship, he reasons, shouldn’t another start it back up?