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Life Is Better: How one optimistic apparel brand thrived in the pandemic

Revenue at Boston-based Life Is Good has doubled since 2019, and they sidestepped supply chain woes, too.

Life Is Good president Tom Hassell (left) and CEO and co-founder Bert Jacobs (right) have their weekly touch-base meeting.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

In the early days of COVID-19, Life is Good faced the threat of bankruptcy — a possible end to the Boston business made famous by its colorful, feel-good tees.

The prudent financial decision, analysts said, would have been to lay off a chunk of staff and swallow the losses from warm-weather inventory that would never make it to store shelves. Retailers were closed and production halted by the need for “social distancing.” But the thought of closing was crushing for a company that brothers John and Bert Jacobs started in 1994, with just $78 to their name.

“Even hearing the word bankruptcy in strategic meetings made my heart stop,” now-chief executive Bert Jacobs said from the company’s Fort Point office.

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So, instead, Life is Good played offense: They created more shirts, not less. They hired staff by the dozens.

Two years later, it’s clear the bold move worked. Annual revenue doubled between 2019 and 2021, reaching $150 million, and online sales increased by 75 percent. Employee headcount has nearly doubled since 2018, to 276. Bankruptcy is but a faint memory.

“We were saved — believe it or not — by optimism,” Jacobs said.

Smart business, too. Life is Good’s pandemic-era success can be attributed to logistical finagling that allowed the company to sidestep woes that befell others, including the supply chain disruption and labor issues. While the stock market tumbled and businesses grasped for federal aid, Life is Good turned positivity into capital and cash.

In the early days of COVID, Life Is Good began create apparel graphics on a quicker turnaround, sometimes under a week. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Here’s how.

It began with the kind of apparel the business put on the market. Life is Good has traditionally profited off comfortable tees (also tanks, hoodies, and hats) decorated with a stick figure named “Jake” and upbeat themes, like music and hiking. During the initial lockdown, consumers wanted clothing that met the moment or at least, distracted from the doom and gloom.

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The team began to design lighthearted COVID-era graphics on a quicker turnaround — sometimes under a week — and “sales were explosive,” said president Tom Hassell. Bored Americans gobbled up tees emblazoned with “quarantinis” (a play on “martini”) and another parodying the canceled 2020 baseball season as “the longest rain delay in history.” They honored “superheroes in scrubs” and encouraged folks to “wash your paws” next to a golden cartoon puppy. One simply said, “Science: It’s like magic, but real.”

Armed with stimulus checks and savings from the pandemic spring, consumers were eager to spend. Many purchased record amounts online and then in person when brick-and-mortar business around the country reopened. Comfort was in vogue, too, and T-shirt sales increased 47 percent between March and May 2020, according to Adobe Analytics.

The influx of orders revived Life is Good, and Jacobs found solace in the unity the shirts provided in the dark times. It reminded him of the sentiments after 9/11 and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

“There was an energy and temperament where the country felt like we were in this together,” he said.

Also beneficial: A shift to local production that helped Life Is Good avoid the Great Supply Chain Disruption.

Just three years ago, the company used overseas manufactures to print shirts, which were then shipped to and distributed in the United States. Now, staffers order massive amounts of blank inventory to Life is Good’s expanded facilities in Hudson, N.H., and Lawrence. (Three million pieces of blank apparel stock the warehouses today, up from 500,000 in 2019, Hassell said.) Employees print designs on the blank clothes, deliver them to nearby fulfillment centers, and send them out, either directly to consumers or to 50 independently owned Life is Good retailers nationwide.

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That’s less chaotic and expensive than coordinating with factories in faraway countries and waiting for finished orders to arrive, Hassell said. Several similar apparel businesses, by contrast, still supply completed goods from South Asia, where countries are burdened by factory lockdowns and shipping delays at crowded ports.

“Our way, we avoid most of the supply chain issues and control our own destiny,” Hassell said.

Altogether, the strategy has proven fruitful for Life is Good. The company has continued producing more designs than ever before — around 250 each month, up from 100 in the pre-pandemic days. Sales have slowed from the 2020 boom but remained high, as customers gravitate towards cheerful messages amid a drumbeat of dismal news: the Russia-Ukraine war, the growing presence of gun violence, and — for many — the threat to abortion rights. (Shirts that say “Wag On,” “United We Stand With Ukraine,” and “Everything Will Be Alright” have sold particularly well this year.)

Entries from the Life Is Good T-shirt Art Contest are displayed on this wall, in the company's Fort Point office. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Still, today, the threat of a recession looms over the economy, and households are battered by the high costs of necessities like food and gas.

The cost of doing business has climbed for Jacobs and Hassell, too. Cotton prices — the lifeblood behind Life is Good products — top $1 per pound, well above the usual rate of $0.60 to $0.80. The company eats much of the rise in costs, rather than raising prices for its apparel. That cuts into profits.

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Still, the pair at the helm of Life is Good is confident in the product: a quality shirt that should make you smile. And they’ve survived financial ruin once before.

“The reality is that the idea that optimism is powerful is timeless,” Jacobs said, “through good times and bad.”


Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.