Good money, tough clients: The business of political T-shirts

In regards to political T-shirts, one designer said, “A successful T-shirt has to make you think, but then, crucially, you have to act.”

Yohana Belinda

Yohana Belinda

The Jakarta Post


Seasonal surge: Prama Tirta Leksana prints a political T-shirt at his T-shirt printing company in Jakarta. Prama says that his orders at least triple during election season. (Courtesy of Prama Tirta Leksana) (Archive/Courtesy of Prama Tirta Leksana)

May 5, 2023

JAKARTA – Political parties employ fresh strategies to gain new supporters and voters during each election season. One method is to promote their candidates through the humble T-shirt as a wearable advertising medium. These shirts depict the candidate’s face, campaign promise and election number.

The phenomenon is not new. In the 1980s, British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett established herself as the doyenne of political shirts.

Hamnett met Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and helped the former prime minister promote her antinuclear statement, “58% don’t want Pershing”, by printing it on T-shirts.

The designer said at the time: “A successful T-shirt has to make you think, but then, crucially, you have to act.”

As Indonesia gears up for the 2024 election season, The Jakarta Post talked to a few T-shirt printing companies and designers to see how the election is affecting and might affect their business.

Design concepts

Banyuwangi native Afzainizam Nur Fahmi is a 22-year-old student in the eight semester of his visual communication design program in Malang. He has spent the past two years designing political merchandise with a “streetwear” aesthetic to better relate to younger, more fashion-conscious voters.

His designs have gained widespread attention online, even going viral on TikTok. His latest design had 400,000 views and 40,000 likes, a good sign in the social media era.

Fahmi added that he wanted to change the perception that political party T-shirts had low-quality, unconsidered designs or were meaningless after an election.

He explained that his primary motivation behind the T-shirts he created was to “change the mindset” of the younger generation “a bit”. This year to date, he had already created T-shirts for eight political parties.

Fahmi also said that he tried to put distance between designing the shirts and engaging with the nastier side of politics. “I know there is a lot of news about them, so I try to see the bright side of it and put that in my designs,” he said.

In the beginning, though, he was hesitant to post political content on social media because users could misinterpret it and cause him problems.

“For me, it’s always been about the designs. If we look back at the last few years, streetwear attracts a large audience in Indonesia, and I want my designs to be wearable even after the election is over.”

While Fahmi has been approaching political T-shirts with a streetwear concept, Prama Tirta Leksana, 39, and his wife Windi Yani, 40, has been in the convection business for the last decade.

The couple has noted that more political parties were approaching their election merchandise using full-print 3D models and were using slogans that might appeal to people from different walks of life. Their workshop currently has T-shirts bearing the names of several political parties, including the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the Golkar Party and the Democratic Party.

Young appeal: A model wears a T-shirt designed by visual communication design student Afzainizam Nur Fahmi, who applies the streetwear concept to political merchandise. (Courtesy of Afzainizam Nur Fahmi) (Archive/Courtesy of Afzainizam Nur Fahmi)

“From us, uniting the heart and mind, working together with the people” is the slogan of one political party whose identity Prama has kept anonymous. The couple also agrees that in recent years, several political parties have been using language that makes more sense to the general public.

“I’ve noticed that their slogans are now more [understandable] for the public,” Windi said. “It depends, though. The T-shirt slogans could be from them [the parties], but sometimes they could be from us [convection businesses].”

Merchandise evolution

Dominique Nicky Fahrizal, a researcher in the Politics and Social Change Department at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, said political merchandise had been popular since the first election in 1955.

In 1955 during the phenomenon of several parties merging, Dominique said, the merchandise from different political parties were clearly distinct.

But historically, the colors of each political party were the most prominent aspect of their merchandise, like red for the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), the precursor to the PDI-P that inherited the color, yellow for Golkar and green for the United Development Party (PPP). He added that political identity had become even more cemented since 1998.

“The merchandise has changed over the years, during which some designs became showier to remind people about various political parties,” he said, explaining the evolution of political merchandise in Indonesia.

Dominique said that even their slogans had changed over time. Independence Day was a time when political slogans could be very revolutionary, whereas New Order slogans were typically more refined.

“In the era following reformasi [the reform movement], political party slogans adopted a livelier lexicon and delivery. It’s infuriating, but also memorable and catchy,” he said.

An article published in 2019 in online history magazine Historia also noted that the public preferred slogans that were practical and easy to remember.

Dominique also said that while political merchandise had evolved, the thrill of owning such items had never faded.

“Voter turnout was extremely high in elections during the New Order. After the New Order was established [with] the 1999 election, [campaign merchandise] quickly became integral to every successful campaign,” he said, because people who shared similar political views “felt like they belonged together”.

“In Indonesia, even [company] uniforms are closely related to political activities.”

Dominique also thought that producing a variety of merchandise was an innovative way for political parties to kick off their campaigns.

“A creative campaign can be in the form of merchandise. Otherwise, money politics will take over. This is why the distribution of [household] goods and staple food, known as sembako, occurs concurrently,” he added.

Attracting young voters

Dominique said political T-shirts were related to socioeconomic concerns in Indonesia.

“From what I’ve seen, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to believe they are one cohesive group with a shared identity. This strengthens their bond with other voters, candidates and parties.”

He also noted that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds might share the excitement of buying and wearing political merchandise, even those of higher quality produced by parties that had spent more on them.

However, political merchandise sometimes correlated consumer opinion.

“These days, young people’s influence is growing in political campaigns. Politicians are also experiencing a challenging time in winning over voters,” said Dominique, who had observed this in 2019 as an ambassador of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s campaign volunteers.

Dominique added that winning votes during an election for the House of Representatives (DPR) was even more challenging than elections for the provincial, regional and municipal legislative councils (DPRDs).

“Candidates who propose programs related to spatial planning of a public space or issues that concern young people will have a better chance at winning votes,” he said.

CSIS researchers Arya Fernandes, Edbert Gani Suryahudaya and Noory Okthariza estimate that millennials and members of Generation Z will make up 60 percent of the voting population in the 2024 presidential election.

According to the data, the 2024 elections in Indonesia will usher in a new era marked by the active participation of young voters who are flexible and aware of domestic and international issues, such as public health, environment, labor, democracy and corruption eradication) and energized to revive the country following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, there has been a dramatic shift since the last two elections in how young voters view the national leadership. Voters under 35 in the 2024 election will seek a clean, anticorruption, innovative and crisis-ready leader.

In addition, political parties still needed help in engaging with young people, as The Jakarta Post reported earlier.

According to a CSIS survey, while 63.8 percent of young voters between the ages of 17 and 39 favored democracy, signs pointed to their growing frustration with the current political system. Respondents who believed that democracy made no difference reached more than 18 percent, up from 10 percent in 2018. Trust in democratic institutions was relatively low, with only 56.5 percent of respondents saying they trusted the House, the weakest of the 11 institutions polled.

Whether hawking trendier merchandise will connect with them remains to be seen.

Dominique said political banners or T-shirts were one way to relate to younger Indonesians, but it wasn’t everything. Through talking with younger voters, he had learned that they preferred direct engagement with candidates, either in person or online.

‘Get 50% upfront’

Political T-shirts are good business. Prama and Windi have created over a million T-shirts this year for 11 political parties that had ordered from their business.

Windi said that during campaign season, clients tended to prefer T-shirts over other items, such as flags, mugs and pins, with orders consisting of around 70 percent T-shirts and 20 percent flags. She believed this was because T-shirts were practical in that they provided the information voters needed, including the candidate’s face, their political party and their election number.

But producing political T-shirts is an easy and profitable business only some of the time. Powerful clients with money to spend often end up in a challenging process of getting paid afterward.

The Twitter account of Guardian Of Bekasi (@rgoestama), which focuses on design-related matters, tweeted in Indonesian on Aug. 17, 2022: “This year is the start of the political year. I just want to send this message for T-shirt [printing] companies.

“Don’t take orders for a [political] campaign without 100 percent payment upfront. Minimum 50 percent upfront, and the other 50 percent before delivery.

“Remember this formula if you don’t want to cry along with the candidate who made the order.”

Lumbangaol, who owns a T-shirt printing business, suffered losses of at least Rp 2.4 billion (US$162,400) in 2009 due to many political parties who did not pay for their campaign T-shirts.

According to Lumbangaol, only 30 percent of the 38 clients contesting that year’s election paid for the T-shirts he had produced to fulfill their orders.

Windi revealed that she also had a particular strategy to avoid being taken advantage of or being left unpaid: She demanded all customers to finish paying 50 percent of the total cost of their order before shipping.

“Well, although my clients have always paid for the merchandise they ordered, they never try and trick us by offering a large profit,” she said.

“People need to be more cautious when they first make a deal. If someone offers to collect their [items] before payment, it’s really the business owner’s fault,” Prama added.

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