Designer bemused by tag’s French insult

SEATTLE – Clothes can make a statement, but urban-bag designer Tom Bihn is learning it’s all about the label.

A care tag that included French language insults against the president – some assume George W. Bush – mysteriously made its way onto hundreds of Bihn’s laptop bags and backpacks, drawing national media attention and sparking Internet chatter.

Now Bihn’s self-titled company has taken a message that began as an inside joke among employees and rolled out a line of “French Label” T-shirts with the enlarged label silkscreened onto the front.

The insulting label was discovered by a Seattle customer who deciphered his bag’s bilingual washing instructions. The label included the French text: “Nous sommes desoles que notre president soit un idiot. Nous n’avons pas vote pour lui.” Translated into English the tag reads: “We are sorry that our president is an idiot. We didn’t vote for him.” The man took a photo of the label and posted it on his Web log.

“I’m going with the idea that it’s a joke about me, the president of the company,” Bihn said Thursday, but “clearly when you use the word idiot’ and president’ in the same sentence people jump to other conclusions.”

Bihn, 43, said he knew nothing of the tag until calls and e-mails started coming in from people around the country asking for “the bag with the label.”

Bihn figures about 2,000 labels were printed and hundreds had been sewn into his bags in the past five to six months.

About 500 labels remain since the tag’s message was discovered, and Bihn continues to use them, as well as give them to customers wanting just the label.

Bihn laughed as he recalls a recent call from a man in Washington, D.C., who ordered one for a friend in France.

“The caller I.D. said the Department of Justice,’” Bihn said.

Bihn said he has gotten some complaints, but most people who call him say the labels are funny.

Mary Davis made a lunchtime purchase Thursday at Bihn’s store near Seattle’s Pioneer Square area. She’d heard the story and was buying a spruce-colored utility tote – controversial tag included – for a friend who was taking a job in Maine.

“I thought it was a scream,” said Davis, an employee with King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

Bihn employs 10 people and operates the Seattle store and a factory outlet in Port Angeles, where he lives and where many of his products are made. About one-third of the bags are produced in Minnesota and Montana.

So far no one has taken responsibility and nobody’s been fired.

Besides, sales have doubled with the tag’s popularity, so Bihn isn’t worried about whose idea it was or for whom the message is intended.

“We’re not really looking real hard because it’s been really good for business. If somebody admits to doing it we’ll give ‘em a raise,” he said.

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