He was wearing a Lady Bird T-shirt and large, circular, wire-rimmed glasses. His hair was floppy in a forthright display of nonchalance. He was relatively soft-spoken with a compelling reserve that reassured a listener of his capability. Though he is an Econ major in Ivy and he’ll be working for a market research firm next year, his modesty isn’t false as much as it is curated. He asked that I not share his name, but it’s also totally okay if you recognize him. The important thing here is the air of mystery.
This person is one of four founders of the amorphous and somewhat mystifying brand behind the latest in popular Princeton gear, Michael Scott Fitzgerald. The brand has had one major project: designing and disseminating the “Princetagonia” sweatshirts that have become common enough to be referenced and recognized but not, of course, ubiquitous. What kind of branding would that be? The sweatshirts are gray crewnecks, with a large graphic on the chest containing the word “Princetagonia” (a takeoff on the popular brand Patagonia) written in white against a black, orange, and blue silhouette of Princeton buildings. It is strikingly similar to the Patagonia logo, which has the same colors and font, but with mountains in the background. During a discussion of symbols in my writing seminar, a classmate referred to the sweatshirt, which they were wearing, as “a semiotic wonder.”
The sweatshirts were the culmination of a plan hatched on Thanksgiving of last year, when he and three others decided to do a project in their second semester. “We were sketching stuff out, talking about Princeton through a sartorial lens,” he said. From the outset, “We wanted the project to be something funny. Maybe the word is wholesome.” And what better material than a subtle pun that plays on Princeton’s elitism, a pun for those in the know? “Everyone here is in Princeton. We wanted to make a meta-joke. Use self-aware humor. Self-referential humor. We were kind of saying, we all know we wear the same brands, let’s at least laugh at ourselves.” Same thing with the name of the brand, a combination of the names Michael Scott (of The Office) and F. Scott Fitzgerald: it conveys the chilliest, most self-deprecating intellectual elitism. “We wanted to make fun of all that without being facetious. This was something people would get,” he said.
He, himself, drafted the graphic on a trip to Portland (I smiled at that). Then, in January, the group ordered the first hundred sweatshirts, which mostly went to “friends and family” of the founders. Then, realizing the demand, they ordered four hundred more. “But we were pretty clear on making it just five hundred, total. We didn’t make more after that. That was the quirky part about it.” Part of the reason was because of the logistics: “500 sweaters is 20-30 boxes. There was so much going on: moving this many sweaters, we just kind of got caught up in trying to get this done.” There was also the branding question. “Working for USG, I’ve seen a lot of gear go to waste, and I think that has a negative impact on the gear itself. That’s inherently part of fashion. You represent yourself through what you wear. You send a message to other people. You can’t do that if everyone’s wearing it.”
The money to buy the sweatshirts was their own, pooled, plus a loan from his parents. One of the first things he told me was that, while they didn’t lose any money from this project, they didn’t make any either. He told me also that it had never been their intention to make money with it. I was not initially particularly convinced by this. Perhaps that is unfair, but econ major, market research, and the fact that he and his cofounders all separately have “future entrepreneurial goals” made me raise my eyebrows. I asked three different times about his claim. Three times he assured that they had truly not intended to make any money. He explained, “We wanted to design something and get gritty moving these boxes. We wanted a medium to create. Sometimes here I think people just get stuck in the theory of it, especially in all these econ classes I’ve taken. Hopefully we were pushing the standard of what a student enterprise should be. We wanted the chance to create, the chance to own a product. But no,” he insists. “We were not trying to make money.”
How do you not make any money if you sell 500 sweatshirts for $30 each? (There are no tags on the sweatshirt, but for reference, the cheaper sweatshirts on Custom Ink are below $20 each.) “We didn’t pay thirty per unit,” he acknowledges. “But we also bought bags. We also got stickers. All that cost money. We also got a table cover for when we were giving them out.” He continued, “We wanted it to be more experience.” In the end, I think I believe him, especially because I had not considered the possibility that he was maintaining a modern entrepreneur’s mentality: you’re not a real startup if you make any money at first.
The experience the brand wants to give its customers is part of its long-term goals: “Now if we do something, there’s some traction with the name. It’s kind of like a Kickstarter.” Part of the brand’s credibility comes from the shopping experience it took pains to create; some comes from its customer service (“We resized a bunch of people,” he told me). Most of the credibility, though, comes from the pseudo-anonymity of the founders and the mystery surrounding the brand. “Our names don’t matter,” he told me confidently. “It’s probably best for the group not speak too much about the brand. People don’t need to see us. People don’t really have to know us. We want to be very low key. We are just thankful that we have a platform.”
This obscurity is doing most of the work in its coolness. That’s the traction that it has now. It’s amorphous and it was not created with any particular end-goal. But Michael Scott Fitzgerald certainly has established a cachet with these sweatshirts. There’s an ethos of trendiness that comes as much from the reticence, the fact that these sweatshirts just seemed to materialize, as if from the sweatshirts themselves. This evasive attitude is what that Instagram caption, “If you know you know,” incarnates. The brand is comical and, in his words “quirky,” but it is also, like my subject, curatorial, seeking recognition without giving too much away.
“There are so many things that I regret,” he said at one point. Then he rescinded that. “Not regret. But there are a lot of learning experiences that we can take from.” One of those was a meeting the group had with Dean Rose Ellen Dunn, Associate Dean for Academic Administration and ODUS. “Apparently you’re not allowed to sell things using the listservs. Which we learned the hard way,” he said. I asked if any of his learning experience had anything to do with copyright law. He said no, “In the end of the day, 500 is a super small number.” (Actually, there is no de minimus exception in copyright law. The question is whether the item is likely to cause confusion in the minds of consumers about the source or sponsorship of the goods or services offered under the parties’ marks. There are tests that are used to determine what might cause confusion; all of them, at bottom, employ common sense. Suffice to say that a copyright lawyer would probably have advised against this. But this is all in parentheses.)
He and his co-founders haven’t spoken much about the future yet. Some of the founders are graduating in June, and no new projects are currently in the works. “But,” he said, “We’re going to keep going with it. We’re just a group of goobers trying to make something different. We want to keep doing that.” I liked “Goobers.”