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Wearable Mass Disruption

If youíve been shopping at the Harvest Co-op in Central Square, maybe stocking your hand-held grocery basket with dusty boxes of Organic Spelt Flakes or peering down the narrow, cramped aisles to see if the rumors that progressive avatar Howard Zinn purchases his healthy grub at the community-owned store are true, you mightíve noticed a small collection of black T-shirts beside a counter of natural lipsticks. Itís hard to miss: the centerpiece of the in-store display is a headless tailorís mannequin wearing a baby-doll tee bearing the stark declaration FEAR IS THE ENEMY above a portentous, green-pupiled eyeball. Created by a Brighton-based clothing company called Reason8: Wearable Mass Disruption, the shirts also proclaim more leftist sympathies, albeit with a bit more subtlety. Designs include DISSENT IS PATRIOTIC underneath an American flag, and SILENCE IS COMPLICITY, in delicate cursive lettering beneath an empty square. One shirt, in a twist on the high-profile "Got Milk?" campaign, reads GOT DEMOCRACY?

"There are a lot of companies making political shirts where itís obviously a political shirt," says Reason8 creative director David Rosen. "We disguise our message behind fashion." A slim, eloquent fellow who casually alludes to characters as disparate as André Breton, William Burroughs, and Ralph Kramden in the course of a two-hour conversation, the South African native is sitting in his Brighton apartment, a first-floor pad that serves as Reason8ís command center and design studio, on the last Sunday evening of 2003. Posted on the wall above his computer is a piece of paper that warns, "Karl Rove ... Beware. R8." Across the room on a table is a bumper sticker that boasts, MY ANARCHIST CHILD BEAT UP YOUR INBRED REPUBLICAN CHILD. Thereís a dry-erase board with sketches of prospective promotional posters ó bearing slogans like VOTE REPUGNICAN and ITíS YOUR WORLD, CHANGE IT! ó which Reason8 plans to plaster all over Boston, guerrilla-marketing style, during the Democratic Convention.

Rosen has a long history of subverting the political mainstream through fashion. The 43-year-old became politically active in South Africa under the apartheid system. While in art school, he joined a Joy DivisionĖinspired post-punk band of medical students called the Cortizones. Although Rosen had no formal fashion-design education, he started making clothes for the group, essentially channeling the post-punk movement into a dour, frayed aesthetic. "I ripped existing clothes into pieces, dyed everything black, and safety-pinned them back together again." A financial backer saw his work and offered to pay him. Rosen had already happily renounced a traditional career. "My father used to say to me, ĎWhat are you going to be when you grow up?í" he recalls. "Iíd be like, ĎAh, nothing.í Eventually I said to him when I was about 15, ĎI think what I want to do is be locked in a white room and come up with ideas.í" So he started making politically contentious T-shirts emblazoned with objects like luminous hand grenades and little white men plunging off diving boards into empty swimming pools. Eventually, Rosen designed a shirt that read LETíS SHARE. The security police assumed he was a communist. "Anything with my logo they confiscated."

Decades later, after 10 years working in the New York fashion industry, Rosen and activist friends Michael Kanter (who owns Cambridge Naturals) and "another agitator" Paul Peckham "were very frustrated" about the war in Iraq. So they started thinking about what they could "contribute, instead of just bitching and whining." Drawing on Rosenís past, they decided to make T-shirts, mostly to sell at demonstrations. "We began when the war broke out by doing these extremely loud, very aggressive T-shirts," Rosen says. "When youíre at a demonstration and youíre amongst a whole bunch of people, to make a very loud statement is fine because you have safety in numbers. You can say, ĎFuck Bush.í" But once the bombing of Iraq ceased, Reason8ís style had to change. "Now youíre looking at a product where people might be going into a coffee shop with their brother-in-law or going to a movie with whoever and suddenly now, they donít want to be screaming their opinion, especially when itís deemed unpatriotic."

Although the ultimate goal of Reason8 would be "to unseat the idiot," Rosen doesnít think heís going to change the world by dressing kids. "We believe that if we make politics hip, more people will be attracted to it." Ideally, he hopes that making politics hipper will "energize the young people to get them politically motivated and active and get them out to vote." In addition to Harvest Co-op, Reason8ís wares are available at the Garment District, Million Year Picnic, and Hubba Hubba, as well as more than 25 stores nationwide. But Karl Rove should beware. As Rosen warns, "Weíre coming to the store in a neighborhood near you."

For more information, visit www.reason8.net .

Issue Date: January 9 - 15, 2004
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