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Controversy is gold for T-shirt makers

"My `Undisclosed Medical Condition' Didn't Get Me Out of Jail."

"Don't Hassle the Hoff."

"I was drunk & bald way before Britney."

Those are just a few slogans found in the increasingly popular novelty T-shirt industry that parodies politics, pop culture and everything else imaginable.

With the new developments surrounding Paris Hilton's imprisonment, release and tear-filled re-imprisonment, T-shirt makers expect a sales spike.

CafePress.com -- an online clothing company founded in 1999 that claims to offer more than 32 million shirt designs -- sells thousands of celebrity-themed T-shirts created by "shopkeepers," regular people who sell their own designs through the website.

"We as a company don't come up with the designs for the shirts," says Marc Cowlin, CafePress' public relations manager. "These are people pretty much anywhere in the world expressing their ideas."

Shopkeepers, who add a fee to the site's set price for each design, constantly monitor the news and post fresh designs within hours of a breaking story, Cowlin says.

For instance, when Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter in February 2006, hundreds of related designs were on the site the next day.

Typically, when something like the Hilton or Cheney situation isn't happening, general humor and political themes are the company's top sellers, Cowlin says.

This T-shirt craze isn't just online; shoppers can buy -- and design -- their own.

"People from all across the country come here," says Jerome Plotkin, owner of Gravity Clothing on Washington Avenue in South Beach, Fla., where shirts sell from $35 to $50 apiece.

He says people of all ages buy his store's satirical T-shirts or design their own on one of Gravity's computers, putting anything from rhinestones to photographs on a shirt.

"In the last three years, you've seen so many celebrities wearing these funny, one-liner T-shirts," he said. "Everyone wants to wear what the celebs are wearing."

In fact, Plotkin says rapper Trina, a regular at the shop, recently bought a custom shirt that said "Free Paris" and included a picture of the jailed star.

But it's not all celebrity driven. BustedTees.com, which is affiliated with the campus comedy Web site Collegehumor.com, has designed more than 100 original T-shirts since it opened more than two years ago, says retail director David Cho.

"If something seems relevant to our demographic then we'll make a T-shirt about it," Cho says. "I don't think there's any tried-and-true formula."

A BustedTees shirt depicting a pinata and the words "I'd Hit That" is shown in the film "Knocked Up," making it their best seller, Cho says. He also said a presidential campaign shirt for TV stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is among the most popular.

"Obviously you can see there's an interest in our community with pop culture," Cowlin says. "The public is the best barometer of what's popular."

Akeila Richards, a vacationer to South Beach from Baltimore, says she owns several joke T-shirts.

"They're funny and they give other people a laugh," she says, as she perused through Gravity Clothing's selection. "It's a way to express myself without anyone taking it personally."

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