P.E.I. Dirt Shirts cause dust-up

For four years the Charlottetown waterfront has been the scene of a fight — in the stores and the courts — to get tourists into a shirt the colour of P.E.I. dirt, and there's no sign of a resolution yet.

Stage set for another battle for tourist market

For four years, the Charlottetown waterfrontwas the scene of a fight— in the stores and the courts— to get tourists into a shirt the colour of P.E.I. dirt, and there's no sign of a resolution yet.

It started with the P.E.I. Dirt Shirt company, founded by Mike Wheeler in 1997. Wheeler was still a university student when he began dying T-shirts with 100 per cent P.E.I. dirt and taking advantage of the tourist market. Wheeler has just started making the T-shirts for this summer season.
Wheeler adds a cup of real P.E.I. dirt to each batch. ((CBC))

"I still enjoy throwing white shirts in the dirt," said Wheeler.

The company grew, and now employs 15 students and has four stores,and the success has been noticed.

Both the Island Beach Company and Coastal Culture offered to buy him out. When Wheeler turned them down, both companies started selling their own clay-coloured shirts, at a lower price and using chemicals, not soil, for the dye.

The new shirts made the Charlottetown waterfront a dirt shirt battleground, with all three stores pushing their own version of the rust-coloured tops. Wheeler accuses his competition of causing confusion in the marketplace, and says he regularly get calls and letters about it.

"We were vacationing and visiting family in P.E.I. two weeks ago," says one letter.

"We sent my uncle and mother on dirt shirt errand; much to my son's disappointment, she purchased a fake. Now that we have left the Island, I want to know if I can mail order one to make up for this error."

Customer confusion

Wheeler filed lawsuits against both companies for selling what he says are knock-off shirts and creating confusion in the marketplace. The legal battle has been going on now for more than four years and has cost him more than $80,000.

"A brand name is trust and it's definitely affected the trust of the name," said Wheeler.

"People used to see that colour and believe it was a P.E.I. Dirt Shirt that was dyed with dirt. Now there is confusion."

Consumers have three dirt shirts to choose from, but only one dyed with dirt.

Island Beach Company owner Charlie Clerk doesn't see it that way.

"There is no confusion in the mind of us, our staff. There's no confusion in the minds of our customers," says Clerk.

"There is resentment, and rightly so perhaps. Mike feels the heat from competition and he doesn't like it."

Clerk admits the clay-coloured shirts are Wheeler's idea, but argues that doesn't mean he gets to have a monopoly. His company saw an opportunity, and stepped into the marketplace.

Wheeler argues that the other companies are not being clear that their shirts aren't coloured with dirt, and that's a source of confusion.

As the three companies prepare for another year of fighting for tourist dollars, there is no sign of a resolution in the courts. There is no future court date set, andall sidesare accusingthe others of delaying the proceedings.