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Put a Shirt On!

Wearing Sobriety on Your Sleeves—A screen printing boutique shows sobriety can be both creative and fashionable.

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By Meg Williams

07/02/14

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If there ever were proof the stigma of addiction is lifting and the demographic of recovery changing, it would have to be this. Known as the No Matter What Club (NMWC), a Brooklyn-based screen printing boutique has created a brand around recovery.

Offering shirts and dresses with slogans such as “Do it Sober,” a play on the ubiquitous Nike slogan; designs such as a detailed portrait entitled “Grandpa Swag,” of what one assumes to be a crotchety old-timer; and just the simple yet telling word “Sober,” this company lets sobes display their commitment to recovery through hip apparel. And with the growing number of young people in recovery, such as the designers and printers at the No Matter What Club, there is definitely a demand for these products. But, hey, there’s no reason older sobes can’t look cool too. Really, the appeal is wider than just the young and clean, but it certainly adds visibility to this new and evolving scene.

Popularized by artists such as Andy Warhol, screen printing is a very popular process these days as it allows smaller boutique studios to print unique designs in often limited release. By transferring ink through a fine mesh onto a desired surface - anything from apparel to plastic to balloons - screen-printers can create single or multi-layered designs with sharp edges and a wonderful amount of detail. As Meg Eldredge, the head designer of NMWC, explains, “While it seems simple enough, mastering the art of screen printing can take a lifetime. It is a challenging and beautiful craft.”

Eldredge says she feels really good about wearing her sobriety “on her sleeve.” She says sporting sobriety-related apparel even helps her stay accountable. Just imagine someone drinking a beer while wearing a shirt that says, “Do it Sober.” For the same reason that hanging out with other sober people helps you stay away from the first dose, this accountability comes as a secret benefit to those in recovery. Also, with the growing awareness of the symptoms of addiction, people might become more curious about the idea of getting clean and sober once they see someone wearing something like a star-studded baseball tee with “Do it Sober” printed across the chest in big block lettering. It’s not super subtle, but that’s the beauty of it. These tees don’t try to be. Why should they?

The awareness and acceptance of those in recovery is growing. Instead of looking down on someone who has had addiction in their past, much of the public respects the fact that such a person has had to overcome a major and harrowing struggle. And whether it’s for a loved one or themselves, people these days will often actively seek out information about recovery. Wearing sobriety related apparel could make you a walking advertisement for the fact that you can get sober and still, you know, be cool. It’s a way to combat the idea that once one gets sober he or she will never ever in a million years have a minute of fun again.  

With her parent company SAPO, Eldredge was printing streetwear for markets she didn’t necessarily identify with any longer, as their graphics often attached to themes of her "past life."

She explains that before starting the No Matter What Club a lot of her work felt forced and inauthentic. But by bringing a “designer’s eye,” to clothing specifically produced for the recovery community, Eldredge could once again begin identifying with her target demographic. Because she is her target demographic.

After college, Eldredge began working in screen printing and loved it. After two years working with a commercial screen printing shop, she began contracting her own clients in this growing industry. Currently, the No Matter What Club employs a number of freelance designers and printers, most of whom have attended design schools in New York City.

In past decades, even the idea of wearing something with the word “sober” in public might have been a little too much to handle for most people in recovery, but people’s perceptions are changing. Take, for example, the election of Boston’s Marty Walsh – a politician who openly acknowledged his 12-step membership during his campaign once it came to light during interviews – or the many other sober celebrities such as Russell Brand, Kelly Osborne, Eminem, Kat Von D, Robert Downey Jr., and Bradley Cooper.

As treatment and support for addicts and alcoholics grows, more people know someone who is sober or clean. Like many stigmatized social constructs, personal experience is the best deterrent of prejudice. Certain designs, such as the one that bears the brand’s name, would only really be understood by people who had been involved with recovery at some point in their lives. It’s like a secret handshake of sorts.

Brands like the No Matter What Club’s signal a key demographic change within the recovery community. More young people than ever are getting (and staying) sober. In the past, there was a certain resistance to the idea that young people could really have already “hit bottom.” With the popularization of recreational drug use and the current prescription pill epidemic, it makes sense that people’s bottom might be accelerated.

I got sober at 22 years old and will celebrate three years next month. Non-sober people have told me, on occasion, that I am too young to really know I’m an alcoholic addict. But as soon as I tell them a little bit about where drug and alcohol use got me, they quickly change their minds. And, personally, finding young sober friends in Brooklyn has been a huge help to my recovery. Not only do I have sober people to hang out with at concerts, parties, and even the occasional bar, but these young people have provided me with great, as corny as it sounds, role models.

I know tons of sober folks who are artists, musicians, writers, the like, who defy the stereotypes that pair creativity with drug and alcohol use. Visibility through hip products, such as the No Matter What Club’s, is a huge step toward rejecting the assumption that one’s art must suffer because of abstinence of drugs and alcohol. Although people’s artistic productivity has been known to suffer when they first get sober, many discover a new artistic voice that has more depth and a renewed ability to build self-discipline and structure when they’re not distracted by getting and doing drugs.   

Like any brand these days, the No Matter What Club has a definite social media presence. Free or low-cost access to promotion, distribution, and advertising has helped many independent companies grow, and boutique screen printing shops like the No Matter What Club are no exception. Their main platform for the sale of their products is the popular direct online marketplace Etsy. This website allows users to sell directly to customers without employing middleman distributors. This keeps the prices low, the profit margins relatively high, and the products unique. Check out the No Matter What Club’s page.

NMWC has also begun a campaign called “Motivational Mondays” on their Facebook page. The all-around message of their brand is positivity, after all, so posting the kind of inspirational quotes that people love to share on Facebook, particularly recovery-based ones, fits right in. They can remind people that although getting sober can be difficult, recovery can be fun, peaceful, happy, and exciting. The No Matter What Club Facebook page, along with their Instagram (NMWCClothing), also helps them feature pictures of customers wearing the apparel and notifies people of their IRL sales efforts such as setting up in Union Square on the weekends.

The No Matter What Club allows sober people to celebrate the fact of their recovery. For some, it's no longer a thing to hide - it's not something to be kept secret "no matter what." With the lessening of the social stigma, people may become more open about being sober or clean. When society is no longer consumed with shame, maybe more people will get help for their addictions. A staggering number these days still don't. Though visibility as a sober or clean person is definitely a personal choice, and one not everyone has to agree with, for those who want to wear it loud, this is their chance.

Meg Williams is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about Boston's Mayor Marty Walsh and author Jessica Lamb Shapiro.

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