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RAYGUN: An Iowa-born, Midwest-centric clothing company that thrives on being clever, quirky and kitschy


By Michael Mackie

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Heather Burnside picks out just the perfect shirt for a local Des Moines police officer.  Heather Burnside picks out just the perfect shirt for a local Des Moines police officer. 

There’s the Midwest … and then there’s the rest of the free world. At least that’s how Mike Draper sees things. He’s the owner of RAYGUN “a printing, design & clothing company owned and operated by extremely attractive Midwesterners.” Draper and his team have made it their goal in life to shamelessly promote and/or satirize just how great things are smack dab in the center of the United States. And they do it via t-shirts, stickers, posters, magnets, glassware … and just about any other surface where they can slap their clever mantras.

Draper -- the benevolent brainchild behind RAYGUN – got his start selling t-shirts on college campuses. He then came home to unleash his wares on Des Moines, Iowa, which, as any good Iowan can tell you, is practically the Mecca of the Midwest. “Our wheelhouse was going to be ‘ultra-positive’ t-shirts about Des Moines,” said Draper. “At the time there were no touristy shirts about Des Moines – except for maybe at the airport.”

In 2005, RAYGUN opened up shop in Des Moines’ burgeoning East Village area to – as the website states – “moderate fanfare”. The store was perched just outside downtown -- a hop, screen-print and jump away from the Hawkeye state’s capitol building. Slowly but surely, groundswell for their slogan-rific shirts gained momentum. Draper likened his upstart emporium to launching a band. “2005 - 2010 were like our demo tape years -- finding our sound and new ideas,” said Draper. “From 2010 on … our sound was more polished and we went on tour. We’re like a cool indie band who works for our audience.” Groupies obviously agreed – as RAYGUN has expanded to Iowa City, Kansas City and most recently Cedar Rapids. Not to mention, their newly expanded flagship store in Des Moines just re-opened in a new location. “The same dumbasses that brought you the old space brought you the new space,” joked Draper.

Iowa has a fervent biking community. RAYGUN picked up on that and ran -- er, biked with it. Iowa has a fervent biking community. RAYGUN picked up on that and ran -- er, biked with it.

Folks who visit RAYGUN typically ask two questions: 1) Where do you get your ideas? From customers? The answer is no. “We get t-shirt ideas from strangers all the time. The problem is – some are really good,” said Draper. “It’s mainly just a group of designers at the store and the staff and managers. We have collaborative software where they can suggest ideas. It’s a group effort.” And 2) Why RAYGUN? “We updated our name in 2009 and we wanted something we could trademark. Uh, and we also wanted a noun,” said Draper. “I always liked ‘RAYGUN’ because it’s vaguely futuristic, yet vintage. And it’s menacing in that it’s destructive -- yet not menacing because it doesn’t exist. It was born from a long list of names.”

RAYGUN’s shirts all have a distinct font and distinctive look – a look that has carried over into the rest of their never-ending merchandise. “You can spy a snarky RAYGUN shirt right away,” said patron Lyra Bristow. “I end up buying something new every time I’m in there because they make me laugh. How can you not love a shop that touts itself as ‘The Greatest Store in the Universe’? My kids love it as much as I do.”

Shopper Lyra Bristow chuckles at just the perfect coffee mug. Shopper Lyra Bristow chuckles at just the perfect coffee mug. "Iowa: 75% Vowels, 100% Awesome"

Who else loves RAYGUN? Presidential candidates. (Natch.) Hillary Clinton made an appearance at RAYGUN in August and the store pulled out all the stops – including an oh-so appropriately welcoming “AMERICA: HILL YES” t-shirt. “That was a milestone,” said Draper. “We thought our stuff was too edgy for political candidates – but we took a leap. She toured the store for 45 minutes.” (Hillary would also be proud to know all of RAYGUN’s shirts are made in U.S. and 90% of their total product is American-made.)

RAYGUN's “America Needs Lesbian Farmers” t-shirt RAYGUN's “America Needs Lesbian Farmers” t-shirt

From the Iowa State Fair to gay marriage to sports obsession, few topics are taboo to mock. “I like that the store can pick apart and take Midwestern humor to a whole different stratosphere,” said local Des Moines radio personality Heather Burnside. “I’d like to think I’m clever, but their stuff is off the charts. I often say, ‘I wish I would have thought of that.’” Because the store prides itself on being tenaciously topical, a shirt that was flying off the shelf two weeks ago may have a short shelf life – or it may not. Take for instance RAYGUN’S new “America Needs Lesbian Farmers” t-shirt – which openly spoofed Rush Limbaugh’s recent commentary. “’America Needs Lesbian Farmers’ will stick around long after the context wears off because it’s funny,” said Draper.

Thinking of taking a pilgrimage to the Midwest? Don’t forget to snag a memento/conversation piece while visiting. Lord knows RAYGUN has you covered. Conveniently enough, they also have your kids, your babies, your ‘fridges, walls and coffee tables covered as well. “Our goal for the store is to a) stay in business and b) bring back old time department stores … a store that entertained and wowed people by their products, ambiance and events,” said Draper. “We want people to walk around, have fun and occasionally buy stuff – because, uh, this isn’t a library.”

Want to see a younger Mike and Michael? Take a look at this video when the RAYGUN Kansas City store opened in 2014. 


RAYGUN: 505 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50309 USA (and 2 more store locations in Kansas City and Cedar Rapids). Online ordering available.

 Insiders' Guide® to Des Moines (Insiders' Guide Series)
and Rand McNally Folded Map: Des Moines and Ames Street Map (Rand Mcmally)

Nearby Fave Places:

Zombie Burger, 300 E. Grand Avenue – Zombies may crave brains, but most Midwesterners crave cow … and lots of it. So if you like your burger alongside a humorous horror theme, this is the place for you. May we suggest their lethal milkshakes or the Undead Elvis Burger … peanut butter, fried bananas, bacon, American cheese and egg. And plan on getting there early for lunch … the place is so popular, the line can extend around the block. Blame the living.  

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Zombie Burger + Drink Lab to your iPhone

Magnolia Wine Kitchen, 1420 Locust – Want to impress your gal pals or have a memorable girl’s night out? This brand new downtown Des Moines restaurant opened in early August and is about as far away from a sports bar as you can get. Lots of subtle small plates, wine offerings and decadent dessert choices for the ladies. But don’t worry, guys – the big boy menu speaks to everyone. 

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Magnolia Wine Kitchen to your iPhone

This article is available to read on the My Fave Places channel on Apple News