Here’s a bit of news that slipped past the beat reporters at City Hall: Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin gave casual Fridays an official proclamation.
In June, the mayor declared the end of each week, through the end of her term (Dec. 30, for those keeping track) as Fresno Friday T-shirt Day, celebrated by wearing a T-shirt “that symbolizes pride in the City of Fresno, its citizens, its institutions, its history and culture.”
T-shirts are a serious point of pride for the mayor.
She owns at least a dozen Fresno-theme shirts, not counting the ones that got too old and had to be weeded out. There’s the long-sleeved “Fresbro” shirt she wears when temperatures permit and a white tee with cursive script that reads “Peace, Love, Fresno.” Her favorite is bright green with the words “Raisin Hell in Fresno” printed across the chest.
She loves the agricultural pun.
That shirt is vintage, circa 1986, and came from the old Penny Candy novelty shop. It was a birthday gift and exactly what she wanted.
Swearengin has been known to give shirts out as gifts herself, especially to high-profile Californians who stop through the city. It’s rumored the Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon wears a Fresno T-shirt out jogging around the capital. She partnered with Community Medical Centers to give 300 “Can’t Stop Fresno” T-shirts to guests at this year’s State of the City address.
It is her way of “re-presenting” Fresno, she says, with emphasis on the RE.
“For so long in Fresno, we’ve struggled with our self-esteem,” she says.
Several years ago, she started noticing businesses, especially those downtown, branding themselves and their merchandise as proudly Fresnan.
“It was a glimmer of hope,” she says.
Steve Skibbie noticed the same thing when he bought his first Fresno-theme T-shirt from Fresno Brewing Co. four years ago. He was working at the now-defunct downtown cafe/bar at the time and bought the shirt with his tip money. His collection of Fresno shirts is now almost up to two dozen. Some are simple graphic tees, such as a black shirt that reads “I love downtown” with a giant red heart. Others are swag from downtown events like the Fresno Urban Run or the Fulton Street groundbreaking, or from local businesses.
Skibbie wasn’t a T-shirt guy, still isn’t, but he likes supporting and representing his city, his neighborhood and the downtown lifestyle, he says.
“They were all promoting things that had never really been promoted.”
Of course, Skibbie and the mayor aren’t the only ones big on Fresno gear. The Fresno Gizzlies team store saw its highest grossing year by branding its merchandise as uniquely Fresno.
“Anything that says Fresno on it, people snatch that up,” says Kirk James, who owns the store Root in downtown Fresno with his wife, Cassey.
The store has become a go-to spot for Fresno-theme graphic tees. Its shelves are stocked with shirts that read “The Future is Fresno” (a take on the ’70s feminist slogan) and proclaim its wearer as a member of the Downtown Drinking Team. Mostly the store does limited-run collaborations from its own print shop in back and promotes them heavily on Instagram and other social media. They only printed six of their most recent shirt, which has Fresno written across the chest in old English script.
“It’s trying to get people to jump and get down here,” he says.
The store’s best-seller was designed by artist/typographer (and photo book author) Tony Stamolis. It’s features a wild-maned unicorn underneath the word Fresno. The shirt was actually a template from the 1970s, designed to be customized, Stamolis says. He changed the color of the unicorn (to brown) and the rainbow (he made it earth-toned) to better represent the Valley.
While most of his T-shirts have been released in limited runs, never to be seen again once they sell out, he’s getting ready to do a second run of the unicorn shirts. The demand is that high.
He’s surprised by the reaction to the shirts, especially from younger crowd who seem amazed to see something branded as Fresno that is actually cool.
“No one does cool things about Fresno,” he says.
Or, if they did, they were hard to find.
Stamolis is himself a collector of Fresno stuff: T-shirts, yes, but also coffee mugs and ash trays, anything that has a Fresno tie. He lived in New York for 20-plus years and anytime he visited his hometown, he would scour the city looking for Fresno gear. The Fresno airport, SBI Skateshop and Sugar Hill all had some good stuff, he says.
Even now, with places such as Tioga Sequoia, the Grizzlies team shop and Root, finding this stuff can be difficult, he says. He recently found some Fresno socks at Active Ride Shop in the Fig Garden Village that were created for the store’s grand opening.
“I flipped out and bought the last five pair,” he says.
For Stamolis this is about branding Fresno and fostering civic pride.
Those are the very things key to “sustained optimism for Fresno’s future” – words taken from the mayor’s official proclamation.
And so, each Friday the mayor puts on a different Fresno T-shirt. If there’s an important meeting, the shirt might get hidden beneath her suit jacket, but it’s still there. She takes photos with her staff posing in their tees in front of the water fountain at City Hall. There’s even a hashtag for people to join and follow; #FresnoFridayTshirtDay. It’s not required for the job, Swearengin says. Those who don’t join in aren’t shunned or anything. They do get some playful ribbing from co-workers.
“I’ll say this,” she says. “They are not invited to the party.”