It’s hard to make threads of polyester go viral. But it might be even harder to turn an online moment into something with physical value, a keepsake even. ShirtFaced has managed to do both.
The two-man startup has generated guerrilla press by getting its silly T’s onto the chests of George Kittle and James Harden before selling those shirts to fans, making them feel like part of a teambuilding moment. And yes, ShirtFaced’s name might still be its most impressive achievement yet.
ShirtFaced started as a joke. In 2018 cofounder Eric Rehe wanted to make a gag T-shirt for a birthday party using an embarrassing photo but found it difficult to order an extremely short print run using the largest custom-shirt sites. At the same time, fellow cofounder John Wolfe was taking a startup class at Columbia Business School and was in need of a final project idea. Soon, other groups on campus were requesting his help to put mocking shots of their friends on extremely simple white T-shirts.
When one of his professors got “shirtfaced,” and then actually wore the shirt in question to class, Wolfe and Rehe figured they might be onto something.
As a Baltimore Ravens intern soon after, Wolfe took the concept to the pros. Walking around team headquarters one day, he spotted a pile of Amazon boxes with Lamar Jackson’s name on them. “I assumed that there was some super high security thing that you’d have to do to reach these people,” Wolfe said, “But I walked out and was like, Huh, I guess anybody could just mail anything to this facility, and it’ll just get dumped at Lamar’s locker.”
Days later, Derrick Henry ran for 195 yards as the Titans stunned the 14-2 Ravens, ending Baltimore’s season. Wolfe suddenly had time on his hands. He scoured social media for old, harmlessly humiliating photos of stars still in the playoffs and sent shirts to their teammates after Googling the training facilities addresses. Then he basically forgot all about it.
Fast forward to the NFC Championship Game, or rather the postgame press conference, when 49ers tight end George Kittle emerged wearing a shirt sporting a photo of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in his skivvies.
“My friends started screaming at me to come out and look at the TV,” Wolfe said. “I didn’t know what to do. I just was like, kind of screaming at everybody.”
With a few bucks, some intuition and a roll of packing tape, Wolfe had manufactured a viral moment. But now he had to build 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 conceived of the NFL entreaties as marketing opportunities for a short-run, quick-turnaround custom T-shirt site, ShirtFaced instead posted the Jimmy G T’s for $19.99 each, selling 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 LA after this year’s Super Bowl, he printed a handful of shirts and showed up to the Rams’ championship parade, where he proceeded to toss the Ts at the players. Matthew Stafford grabbed one; Andrew Whitworth wore his during the pep rally portion of the day.
“A couple of the guys went to Vegas and one of them was DMing me like, Dude, we’re still wearing the shirts!” Wolfe said.
In March, Wolfe teamed up with 76ers role player Georges Niang to celebrate Joel Embiid’s birthday by printing 25 shirts of Embiid from his time at Kansas for every Sixer to wear at the end of practice.
“Joel told me to never let that happen again,” Niang said soon after.
Rehe and Wolfe have bootstrapped the company, using cash from early school sales to buy a domain and going from there. They also maintain fintech and consulting jobs, respectively.
As for the name, it was an improvement on a similar business idea dubbed Screenshirted. “Everybody who saw it was like, Dude, this reads like screen shitted,” Wolfe recalled.
ShirtFaced isn’t alone in the quick printing game. BreakingT, Something Inked, and of course Fanatics have seen the need for fast turnarounds in order to capitalize on moments in sports. But ShirtFaced (which isn’t the size of any of those three) has gone a step further, both creating the moment and capturing it in garment-printed ink. Locker rooms have long played hosts to elaborate pranks, but now fans can feel like a part of them too. Along the way, Wolfe hops back and forth between the physical and digital realms.
Take the Rams escapade, for example. Wolfe started online, rendering an image of a shirtless and less-than-imposing Cooper Kupp from an old interview clip. He encapsulated it on physical T-shirts, weaved through the mob of fans on Figueroa St. and staked out the pros for some IRL spamming. The shirt Whitworth donned was actually the last one in Wolfe’s bag following a series of errant lobs.
Wolfe filmed the whole encounter on his phone, generating over 700,000 views on TikTok as a result. He urged those new fans to visit the site, where they could order shirts of their own, and maybe start the whole cycle anew.
“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’s so much saturation in the digital world. Everything is about putting a picture online, and we want to just take that and almost bring Snapchat into real life.”
Wolfe also thinks the shirts’ radically simple designs (users creating their own on the site can basically only change the front image’s size) has contributed to ShirtFaced’s success, as more polished designs proliferate elsewhere.
Going forward, the company is leaning more into content, playing up the camaraderie angles behind its biggest viral successes. But it’s also staying flexible.
“The biggest thing that I’ve learned from doing this is: It’s really helpful to just try things and knock on doors,” Wolfe said, “and be open to the fact that when you do that, you might open some totally different door that you hadn’t foreseen, and then that might change what you do.”
You can put that on a shirt.