In The Beginning...
In the early spring of 2004, Mike Draper (RAYGUN founder and owner) was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. It had been 4 years since he left Van Meter, Iowa and was getting ready to graduate with a degree in history then continue his education in Europe. Destined for greatness!
Then he got rejected for the fellowship that was going to pay for that continuing education:
But there was a silver lining from "The Committee":
With those "wishes" for a "rewarding career" in hand, Mike started selling "Not Penn State" t-shirts on campus, because, when you have the rest of your life free (60-ish years by back-of-the-envelope calculations in 2004), why not start selling goods on the street?!
After graduation, Mike took his t-shirt show on the road, selling t-shirts on streets or college campuses out east. By December of that year (pictured below with friends in Union Square), Mike learned an important lesson: selling stuff outside in the winter sucks.
So by January 2005, Mike (above, on the left, making topless bucket hats great again) was looking to take his retail operation indoors, but also start doing his own screen printing and have a niche market to grow inside.
Then it hit him: "Why not move back to my parents' house in Iowa, learn how to screen print from a high school buddy whose dad has a shop, and then open a store that specializes in ultra positive slogans about Des Moines?"
With no business experience, no design experience, no retail experience, and no outside funding, investors were not lined up around the corner!
But after a summer of learning how to screen print, Mike not only moved out of his parents' house (again), but opened RAYGUN (then called SMASH) in the fall of 2005 at East 4th and Locust in Des Moines. There it is:
All 1,350 square feet of pure retail and printing! For the first two years, until 2007, Mike was the only employee. If you shopped at RAYGUN back then, Mike designed your shirt, printed your shirt, sold you your shirt, and unclogged the toilet if you used too much toilet paper in the bathroom. A 4-color, 1-station screen press was the company's primary fixed asset:
To say that it was hard to see the company still being in business over 10 years later would be the understatement of the last 10 years! Growth was loonnnngggg, the days were long, and good golly, money was constantly tight. In the spring of 2006, it was hard to see the company being in business at the end of 2006! The company's total cash-on-hand was under $3,000. That isn't with a loan or line of credit, that was the last $3,000 the company, and Mike had (bonuses were going to be small that year!):
But showing up every day, working, and thanking the god-of-skinny-punks that people shop here will slowly pay dividends. 2006 turned out to be the valley before a steady incline.
In 2007, the first employees were hired. In 2008, RAYGUN expanded into the space next door. Back then, 2,800 square feet seemed like a gol-dang castle:
In 2009, the whole company was up to 10 employees before it split into 2-sides: the retail and printing on one side (which we renamed from SMASH to RAYGUN that year), and the custom printing on the other side. That custom printing side, 8/7 CENTRAL, is still around, just across the street from our Des Moines location.
With a total staff of 3.5 people and a new name, RAYGUN started marching forward. We opened our Iowa City store in 2010, almost ran out of money again in 2011, wrote a book in 2012, opened our Kansas City store in 2014, and almost ran out of money again that spring:
By then, we were becoming desensitized to the feeling of near-cash-collapse, so we decided to take on our largest project by faaaaaaar: a 10,000 square foot headquarters in a brand new building at the corner of East 5th and Grand in Des Moines! Here we are at the groundbreaking, which the Des Moines Register captioned, "Hipsters with shovels" (and they call us snarky):
Over a year of work paid off in 2015 when we moved into what is still our current headquarters in Des Moines. Store, design studio, screen printing shop, and sub-leases tenants inside the space like Mars Cafe, Thelma's Treats, and Domestica. It is an awesome space to work in each day:
Since 2015, we have continued to plug along steadily. We expanded our production to include a wood working shop (code named Gary) south of downtown Des Moines and we opened our second biggest store in Cedar Rapids in 2016:
From 2016 to 2018, we worked to increase our production capacity (taking over more space next to Gary, code-name: Li'l Gary) and finally did something we had talked about for years: unionized.
With the help of UE, we became an independent local -- UE 8515. This union includes everyone who is not a manager at the company. So printers, designers, floor staff, everyone, can collectively work on a contract with work terms.
As we watched the yawning expanse between rich and poor, the decline of unions, we finally realized that, like our shirt says, We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For. If not us, then who? We want the store to project positive vibes outwardly and inwardly.
And after 2 years of inward vibes, it was time to get back on the outward train:
Chicago! Our biggest market by a few million folks opened in June of 2019 followed in 2020 by our first global pandemic (ugghhh) and our first store in Omaha's beautiful Old Market! A store that was years in the making arrives, taking us across the Missouri river!
It has been a wild ride that we hope continues into other cities, products, and projects. Though we have learned a deep appreciation for the communities we are in: none of this would be possible without the customers who shop here and support us.
Having been immersed in product and production for over a decade, we've developed a deep respect for the people who make things. It goes from thread to fabric to dyed fabric to sewn shirts in southern California, then to Des Moines for printing. Our paper printing is handled by union labor on the north side of Des Moines, our glassware is made in the USA then printed in West Des Moines. You can learn more about the products on our Union Printed page.
This is a lot more than just a t-shirt shop to us, and what people buy is a lot more than just t-shirts. Everyone who works here calls the Midwest home, and we have not only been lucky enough to host a WIIIIIIIDE variety of people in our stores (seriously, check out this sampling), we have been able to give back to organizations we support.
But, most of all, we think that RAYGUN is something our home region can be proud of.
Ethically Made, Designed, & Printed
"Ethically made" gets used a lot, but what does it mean to us?
It means we make sure workers and our communities are taken into account at every step of the process. We are a unionized shop that often works with other unionized shops. We are a member of the Fair Labor Association, source our products from many domestic suppliers, and our international suppliers are certified sweatshop-free.
WE ARE A UNIONIZED SHOP & STORE Ethics starts with your first interactions with us: all of our non-managerial staff -- from floor staff to production, from designers to part-timers -- are unionized as UE Independent Local 8515. There are quite a few unionized print shops in the country, but we are, believe it or not, the largest unionized clothing chain in America. Our contract process gives workers a collective voice, but also a set of rules and guarantees that they can depend on. We offer sick leave and paid-time-off for all employees (full-time and part-time), and we work to build a system that provides guidance, assistance, and opportunity for people to grow within the company.
SCREEN PRINTING . RAYGUN . DSMAll of the screen printing is down in-house, by us. Our production has grown a lot since starting in a pole barn in rural south Dallas County, Iowa. But we still handle it all ourselves.
SWEATSHOP-FREE DOMESTIC CUT & SEW . LA
Some of our shirts are made sweatshop-free in downtown Los Angeles. The cotton is grown in he USA, making these shirts 100% USA-Made.
SWEATSHOP-FREE FOREIGN CUT & SEW
Not all of our shirts are cut and sewn domestically. But not all foreign manufacturing is the same: blends that are foreign-made are cut and sewn sweatshop-free in facilities that meet certain working-conditions criteria and in countries where garment workers make above-average income.
BIKE JERSEY CUT & SEW . VOLER . CAOur line of Bike Jerseys our 100% made in America by Voler, an awesome company in San Luis Obispo, California. We design, they sublimated onto fabric, cut and sew, then ship to us in Iowa.
The bulk of our shirts are contracted out to other factories, but we have a small in-house cut-and-sew department that makes items like Pillows and Headbands. As well, these guys handle any the reconstruction or alteration of any vintage items we sell in our stores.
No retail company is complete without a bad-ass table saw and CNC Router! Items like our Tables, Wooden Magnets, or Wooden Coasters are designed, printed, and made in our own wood working shop (shop code name: Gary) around the corner from our Des Moines store. Gary is also where we construct or modify the displays that will go in our stores. And where we unwind by smelling freshly cut cedar boards.
Speaking of our Tables, many of the steel bottoms are welded in a secret location in central Ankeny, Iowa. The name and identity of our chief welder is a closely guarded secret, though he did once DJ a party at the store and is rumored to be working as the drummer of a Midwestern super-group called The Life Partners. Other welding for our store is handled by Ackelson Metals in Des Moines.
Our Pint Glasses and Mugs are not only made in the USA, they are screen printed by our good friends at Pyrographics in West Des Moines. One of godfathers of Central Iowa's artsy-maker community, Pryo is an amazing company that we are always happy to work with.
Almost all of our paper products, like Postcards, Posters, or Notebooks, are made using Wisconsin paper, and then printed by Union Labor at Garner Printing in Des Moines. Some paper is sourced from different locations, some of the printing is done in-house using water-based silk screen ink, but a vast majority comes out of Garner's facility on the north side. With digital presses alongside presses dating back to the early 20th Century, it is also a really cool place to tour.
Our Stickers and Die-Cut Stickers are made just up the street by Sinclair Graphics. Anthony Sinclair is a good buddy of ours who we have worked with since the day he started his own company.
LIP BALM . ECOLIPS . CEDAR RAPIDS
Our lip balm, The Greatest Lip Balm In The Universe, only attained that statue by using extremely attractive, organic-certified bees-wax. Every batch of lip balm comes to us from EcoLips in Cedar Rapids. Go bees!
Every year, we dedicate our time and 15-30% of our net profits (or 1-3% of our gross sales) to outside organizations. Public education, equality, personal freedom, and a clean environment are issues we care strongly about. We owe our success to the communities we are a part of, and so we use RAYGUN to give back in a number of ways: percentage of sales from particular products, monthly donations, contributions, price reductions, in-store events, or sponsorships.
"BUT DON'T YOU GUYS JUST DO THIS FOR TAX BENEFITS?!?"
Sometimes when we release a shirt to raise money for an organization, we get the "you just do this for taxes!" folks on social media. Our answer: not really. A majority of what we donate (product and our time) we don't get tax benefits on. The monetary donations are tax deductions only for 501C-3's, but we donate to where there is need, not for taxes. So we have donated to non-tax-exempt organizations as well as tax-exempt. What's more, we volunteer our time outside of work to organizations we believe in. Whether it is helping out at schools or serving on non-profit boards, giving back is not our attempt to "pink-wash" the company, it is an attempt to truly strengthen and enrich the communities we're in. If we were just doing this for tax benefits, we'd probably pick some less controversial organizations to support sometimes!
The following list gives you an idea of who we regularly work with.
Since RAYGUN opened in 2005, we have had a strong connection with the public schools. The fall of that first year, we hosted a high school photo show with Des Moines' Central Campus to raise money for their arts program. Whether through products, money, or volunteer time, we lend our support to the schools in and around Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Kansas City. In addition to working directly with schools, we also work with supplemental organizations like The Network for Public Education, Iowans for Public Education, and ArtForce Iowa. A strong public education system is not only the heart of strong communities, but a thriving country.
One of the very first organizations we printed shirts for in 2005 was OneIowa, and so we were stoked 4 years later, when Iowa's Supreme court legalized Marriage Equality. Society has come a long way, but there is still plenty of work to be done. OneIowa is working on transgender issues, and Iowa Safe Schools is working to make sure environments kids learn in are free of bullying and bigotry. More generally, we have given to national and local ACLU chapters for over a decade.
For the last several years, we have stood up for women's access to healthcare in the Midwest. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and Planned Parenthood Great Plains are two phenomenal organizations. To date, using products and events, we have helped raise over $50k for these organizations.
Water: we even published the book on it! In an effort to clean up Iowa's polluted water, we have worked to raise awareness through product's like Jennifer Wilson's book, Water, but also donate to the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Law & Policy Project, which uses its lawyers to fight for environmental causes throughout the Midwest.
There are so many other organizations we support on smaller ways! Part of what makes RAYGUN fun to be a part of is the ability to give something to other organizations helping the communities that we owe so much to! If you have an idea for a partnership or event, please reach out to us: firstname.lastname@example.org