Only in the Midwest can you wear a T-shirt that boasts “I’m an athletic supporter” and actually be considered cool. But Raygun tees have become a Midwest staple after founder and native Iowan Mike Draper set up shop in downtown Des Moines.
“In the beginning, it was just me,” Draper said. The now iconic tees like “Des Moines: Hell Yes” were created at the beginning of the business. “Those kind of started to capture the voice of the company,” he said.
Raygun now has shops in Iowa City, Kansas City and Cedar Rapids, which just opened on April 8. In Des Moines, Raygun has shaped the growth of the East Village.
“They’re real time T-shirts,” Carol Wyckoff, treasurer of the East Village Association and owner of Reclaimed, said. “I think any shop that does a good job advertising and brings the foot traffic is just a benefit to everyone else in the village.”
But Raygun didn’t simply pop up overnight.
Draper had left Iowa to study history at the University of Pennsylvania. As the uncertainty of his future weighed on him, he and a friend decided to start up a T-shirt business on campus during the spring of their senior year. They sold their tees out of a bag for a week, and then printed more and more.
After graduating, he spent his time on the East Coast continuing to sell screen-printed tees. He never considered coming back to Des Moines, but relocated on a whim and opened the first Raygun shop — then called Smash — in 2005.
Draper had never taken a business class in his life, but he’d always loved art and drawing. So he taught himself Photoshop, learned screen-printing and put all he could into his business. He found himself working 60 to 80 hours a week to get the shop started, but he found that he actually enjoyed what he was doing.
“When you’re doing something you actually enjoy, your capacity for work skyrockets,” Draper said.
Now his tees, worn by Midwesterners from Kansas to Ohio, are only increasing in popularity. The messages are those that wearers can resonate with, and that gets people coming back for more.
“People can identify with them, especially if you’re from the Midwest or Iowa or Des Moines.” said Taylor Frame, director of stores and inventory. “There’s a lot of familiarity with what’s on them.”
Raygun’s popularity was not expected, but it looks like it’s here to stay.
“I started with no experience and no real knowledge of the industry, so I’ve never been sure where exactly it is going,” Draper said. “The expansion is fun to be a part of, and I hope it continues.”