Why you should care
Because personal style can be political.
Picture this: You’re strolling down the street, and a sturdy man in a black T-shirt walks toward you — muscles bulging, a stern look on his likely bearded face. Then you spot the message emblazoned across his chest in bold font: “All Rifles Matter.”
It’s the work of brothers Tyler and Daniel Merritt, co-founders of Nine Line Apparel, a veteran-oriented lifestyle brand. Hawking a range of military-inspired clothing and accessories, the fast-growing, Savannah, Georgia-based startup promotes what it calls “unapologetic, relentless patriotism” through provocative slogans and edgy designs. If other American companies avoid politics for fear of alienating consumers, 33-year-old Tyler believes it’s all the better for Nine Line: “They leave out a demographic that wants to have their voices heard.”
That’s why the company has doubled down on keystone conservative values such as brazen flag-waving, the sanctity of firearms and respect for military service. The company is reaching out to what the Merritts believe are underrepresented Americans — the proverbial “silent majority” — while also exercising its right to express quintessentially American, if increasingly controversial, themes. And while part of Nine Line’s stated mission is to “inspire unity” at a time when “politics and dissent divide our country,” only the unabashedly patriotic applies here.
Exhibit A: The company’s top-selling product declares, “Stomp My Flag, I’ll Stomp Your Ass.” Other designs — such as a portrait of Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis imagined as Shepard Fairey’s famous “Hope” poster, only with the caption: “Kill ’Em All” — are a jab at the politically liberal. In the age of Colin Kaepernick and nonstop criticism of the commander in chief, the company offers a platform for those who disagree with the mounting wave of naysayers. “I see it heading in a direction where there has to be some type of counterbalance to that,” says Daniel, 36. “I want the mainstream to be proud of our country.”
The company’s figures show that its strategy is working: Founded in 2012, Nine Line posted nearly $20 million in sales in 2016 and now fills hundreds of orders each day to all 50 states, shipped from a new 60,000-square-foot warehouse space. It was also named by Inc. magazine as one of the 100 fastest-growing U.S. companies in the last two years. In December, Nine Line partnered with gun manufacturer Sig Sauer, which makes the U.S. Army’s standard sidearm, to produce branded clothing.
Tolerance is not an option when it comes to displays of disrespect, and Nine Line pulls few punches against those it perceives as disloyal.
Bearded, well-built and mannerly, with a hint of cowboy charm, the Merritts mostly fit the profile of military veterans. Both served numerous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tyler as a helicopter pilot and mission commander, and Daniel as a military police officer. But other parts of their biography aren’t so boilerplate: Tyler, for example, holds a graduate degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University. Both hail from an affluent Connecticut suburb, where a close family friend was the legendary conservative thinker William Buckley Jr. and their parents were skilled professionals — dad in advertising, mom in addiction counseling. That well-heeled upbringing, the Merritts say, bred an appreciation for nuance and maintaining perspective.
But tolerance is not an option when it comes to displays of disrespect, and Nine Line pulls few punches against those it perceives as disloyal. For instance, when GQ named Kaepernick its “Citizen of the Year” in November, the company shot back with a limited-run T-shirt featuring the slogan: “Not My Citizen of the Year.” The American flag is particularly sacred, and its desecration earns particular scorn. “We drape that over our friends’ caskets for a reason: Because they fought and died to protect all of your rights,” Tyler says, “which include being an asshole.”
Little wonder where Nine Line’s passion and purpose come from. But it also plays out against what some believe is a fundamental misunderstanding of veterans. Peter Hoffman, a retired Army colonel who met the Merritts during their military service, believes many servicemen and servicewomen — especially those who’ve been through combat — are shrouded by a “mystique” that makes it difficult for civilians to relate. “Somebody that hasn’t done that has a hard time understanding what they did, or what that service means,” says Hoffman, the director of government relations and community engagement at Georgia Southern University, formerly Armstrong State University.
That’s why supporting veterans is at the core of Nine Line’s mission. Named after a military distress signal, the company decided in 2013 to raise funds for a comrade who had lost three limbs in Afghanistan. Since then, it has funneled profits toward the Nine Line Foundation, which aids wounded soldiers and their families. Burgeoning community leaders, the Merritts employ more than 150 veterans and, through a variety of charitable activities, have firmly established Nine Line as a reputable give-back organization. “Tyler and Daniel walk the walk, and talk the talk,” says Brandt Herndon of the Savannah Economic Development Authority.
But with its provocative take on patriotism, Nine Line seems destined for a glass ceiling. After all, Herndon points out, not everyone can pull off a T-shirt urging passers-by to “Share a Round With ISIS” (borrowing Coca-Cola’s theme). Tyler says the company’s popularity in states such as Connecticut, California and Colorado — home to a relatively small number of veterans and other military families — is proof their message resonates beyond the obvious crowd. The question, though, is whether that message actually succeeds in inspiring broader unity, rather than fueling further division. There’s also a cognitive dissonance between the company’s political views and its social responsibility: In the wake of last month’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Nine Line has offered a limited run of “Parkland Strong” T-shirts, with proceeds going to those affected by the tragedy.
In the end, Daniel says, we don’t all have to get along. “But,” he adds, “I still think there should be that core value instilled in every American: that we live in a great place, we’re very fortunate, and this country does a lot of good things for a lot of other countries.” Whether you agree, frankly, probably doesn’t matter.