T-shirts, buttons, satin tour jackets and car window decals made the cut. Coffee mugs are iffy. But tank tops are a definite no.

Stephanie Vardavas is reeling off a list of official souvenirs for Nelson Mandela's U. S. tour. As director of licensing for ProServ, the Washington-based sports management firm selected to market the tour's memorabilia, she has been inundated with requests from manufacturers who want to put Mandela's face on their products.

"I have sort of a borderline taste question about coffee mugs. But if there's a way to do it with the logo in such a way that it's relatively nice and not tchotchke-looking, then I think we should do it because people like them," she says.

A guy from South Korea wants to do umbrellas. Vardavas is willing to look at a sample. The company that did last year's "Batman" coin already has the go-ahead for a silver commemorative with the official tour logo. Tank tops got a thumbs down -- not dignified enough for someone of Mandela's stature.

"The first thing, to me, was taste. The whole tone of this tour is very close to reverential," she says. "I think he's the closest thing to a saint walking the earth today with the possible exception of Mother Teresa -- and we don't represent her."

Heroes are ProServ's bread and butter. Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, John McEnroe and Georgetown's John Thompson are all under contract with the firm, which manages their careers and negotiates endorsements and licensing agreements. Mandela is the company's first political superstar.

Two weeks ago, ProServ signed an 18-month contract with Democracy for South Africa, a nonprofit arm of the African National Congress established for the tour. Tennis player Arthur Ashe, a ProServ client and co-founder of Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, had suggested the company might be able to help with merchandising.

"The ANC representatives could see the proliferation of Nelson Mandela paraphernalia in this country," says Cecelie Counts Blakey, associate coordinator for Mandela's national tour. "It was the ANC's concern and recognition that they were not getting any of the proceeds -- and that some of the designs were rather crude -- that led them to talk to their lawyers about ways that they could get an official image. ... It was clear that we needed some help."

ProServ's challenge: to come up with an official logo for the tour, put together a merchandising program and have the products in the stores in time for Mandela's arrival here.

"Over here we have commerce and over here we have politics," says Vardavas. "Commerce wants to do everything and politics is very concerned about image and taste -- the political correctness of whatever the thing is. My job is to translate between them, help them communicate with one another and eventually use commerce to raise some money for politics."

It's not always a smooth translation, according to Robert Stone, vice president for International Management Group, which represented Pope John Paul II during his 1982 world tour. And whether Mandela's face on a T-shirt will enhance or damage his political reputation is subject to the whims of public opinion.

"The consumer is so fickle. People could look at a T-shirt and say, 'That's great,' or say, 'It's disgusting.' It's a hard call," says Stone. "Most cause-related things are very touchy.

"The pope was a whole different ballgame. The pope was fun. After his parade, that was it -- it was over. You're dealing with heavy politics here."

ProServ is focusing on the heroic side of Mandela. "It's hard for me to imagine people responding to him by saying that what he is about is political," says Vardavas. "It transcends politics.

"When I heard about this, my licenser's heart went pitter-patter. I became extremely excited and started focusing on the property. Calling Nelson Mandela a property -- I hope you don't think that cheapens him. He's more than a property, obviously, but he is also a property."

The tour's official logo, designed by ProServ Art Director John Herne, features a high-contrast photograph of Mandela's face superimposed over the ANC flag and silhouettes of marchers with the words, "Mandela, 1990, USA Visit." The design, as well as all the secondary artwork, was approved by Lindiwe Mabuza, chief ANC representative to the United States. Buttons and stickers will say "The Struggle Is My Life," Mandela's signature quote, and "Sanctions Until Democracy," an ANC slogan. The official logo was then offered to licensees, who could then submit products incorporating the design for ANC approval. In exchange for use of the logo, the manufacturers pay a royalty to DSA.

Official white and black T-shirts with the logo will retail for approximately $15, sweatshirts for $28. The most expensive item is the satin tour jacket, selling for under $50. The silver commemorative coins will sell for $30, embroidered caps for $12, posters of Mandela for $10, car window decals for $3 and buttons for $2.

The products will sell in the licensee's normal retail outlets: T-shirt shops, gift shops and department stores. ProServ has also established a toll-free number (800-ProServ) for telephone sales.

Who gets the money? Especially in this case, people want to know how much money will actually end up going to the cause. Mandela himself will receive no money; the funds raised will be used to pay for the tour.

A T-shirt, for example, that retails for $15 sells for a wholesale price of about $8. Democracy for South Africa will receive a royalty of approximately 10 percent of the wholesale price of licensed products -- an 80-cent royalty. The other $7.20 goes to the licensee for the cost of the T-shirt itself, printing, distribution, overhead and profit.

"In this case, I really would like to believe that most of the motivation comes from goodwill rather than lucre," says Vardavas. "We're going to sell a certain amount of everything, but it's not as if any of my licensees are going to retire on the proceeds from this tour."

ProServ's fee will be paid from the DSA royalties. The company declined to name a figure but said it is well under half of its normal fee.

How much the DSA will receive in royalties depends on the huge amount of unauthorized merchandise already on the street. Since Mandela is a public figure, his image can be used without ANC approval. Some local vendors have approached ProServ and have received approval to sell their designs and will pay royalties. Others will sell unauthorized designs and pocket the entire amount.

"What you have to be careful about with Mandela is bootlegging. With something like Bart Simpson, the bootlegging is outselling the legitimate stuff. In that case, consumers don't care," says Stone, of International Management Group.

"As far as Mandela is concerned, people are buying it because it represents a cause," he says. "The licensees and ProServ are going to have to spend money advertising the fact that the proceeds are going to the cause. It's not going to be easy."

Tour coordinator Blakey calls it "one giant experiment. Vendors can now offer the official T-shirt along with the 29 other {unauthorized} Nelson Mandela T-shirts they have."

The national licensees are already encountering resistance from some of their retail accounts. "They're saying, 'There's a guy out in front of my store with Mandela T-shirts already and he's selling them for $5,' " says Vardavas. "There's no way to know how many people are out there who got the bright idea three weeks ago to sell their own Mandela T-shirt."

Take Betty, a street vendor who bought a dozen Mandela shirts for $36 from a back-yard supplier ("I don't think he even has a print shop") and is selling them for $6 each at her kiosk on K Street. She didn't know there was an "official" version, and, in any case, $15 is too much for her customers.

"That's the kind of price that makes people print up their own," she says. "The price is out of the marketplace. People are willing to pay no more than $10 for a T-shirt -- even if it's for a good cause."

Rick T. says he's been selling Mandela T-shirts since February. "There's no official shirt," he says flatly. Besides, even if there is, "there's no way for the small businessman to sell the shirt. They only sell to the big stores."

Although the official and secondary logos have common-law copyright protection, it will be virtually impossible to police unauthorized use of the official design or any other image of Mandela. "This movement isn't about kicking people off parking lots who happen to be selling homemade products," says Vardavas.

Besides, she says, this is the American way.

"T-shirts and coffee mugs and caps and buttons are really an American thing. I don't think that in most countries people respond to a major upheaval by running to their garages and pulling out silk-screens and printing a T-shirt about it.

"I don't think that in Minsk, they were running around in T-shirts saying, 'I survived Chernobyl.' But you know that within 48 hours there were people with glow-in-the-dark Three Mile Island T-shirts."