Since Nick at Classic Kicks put me onto a video of Eli Bonerz showcasing the X-Large store in 1992 on MTV’S House of Style, I’ve had dusty adidas Campus and Conart on the mind. We have tendency to sidestep a few brands when it comes to street wear retrospect, sending graffiti-inspired brands into some kind of rap-addled nowhere zone that’s neither skate nor street enough for some folk. That’s bollocks of course, because Conart and Third Rail created their own lanes back in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Now, tag and burner covered cotton isn’t necessarily what I’m wearing, but flicking through old issues of ‘The Source’ and ‘Can Control’ I’ve seen ads that had me hastily researching (pre-internet) the world of international money orders to at least lay my hands on a catalogue and stickers.
Third Rail’s expansion into different elements of apparel (I don’t recall hearing the term cut and sew back then) and Conart’s spin on a classically west coast small front logo and graphic explosion across the back with the oval chest lettering belying the graffiti characters mean-mugging on the shirt’s reverse all blew my mind in my early teen years, and while I knew the legendary RISK from reading ‘Spraycan Art’ until the binding broke and was aware that he was a key mind in the Third Rail empire, it wasn’t until I read Slash’s autobiography that I realised that Conart’s Ash Hudson is Slash’s younger brother. It’s odd how some brands don’t quite get the shouts they deserve, but Conart and Third Rail cemented LA’s position as the birthplace of street wear as we know it. I’m sure every brand making gear elsewhere, be it New York, Tokyo or London, would concede the power of west coast labels inspired them to make their own power moves, fused with their local aesthetics, trends, movements and attitude.
These two brands made full use of the merger of style, airbrush custom culture, long legacy of Cholo style letterforms, technical flare and everything else that differentiated LA’s graffiti from other regions. As far as ambassadors for other coasts went, the moment Biggie wore a Conart tee to wield a machine gun, a certain immortality was cemented.
Conart’s current site seems to be down, but the above image of a 1989 ad from ‘URB’ is taken from their Facebook and RISK’s blog upped some old ads last year — this post is well worth your time.
Taken from RISK’s Third Rail post
This December 26, 1994 ‘LA Times’ article captures a certain moment in time (even if it seems to misspell RISK’s real name):
He once took spray-paint cans and made the city of Los Angeles his imagination’s canvas, but Ash Hudson has now turned a third-story Rampart Boulevard loft into a studio where L.A.’s biggest vandalism problem is a business success story.
A former graffiti vandal—or tagger, in the vernacular of the streets—Hudson turned entrepreneur in 1989 by founding a firm called Conart. He has turned it into a clothing distributor that designs graffiti images for T-shirts and caps and boasts of 1994 orders totaling $1 million.
Conart (convict and art) now employs half a dozen paint-can-wielding staff artists and provides free-lance work for others, helping to focus their creative energies into a lucrative business.
“We’re occupying so much of their time that they don’t have time to go out on the street,” said the 22-year-old Hudson, a native of Culver City.
Taggers have been dreaded and hunted in major cities since urban teens began vandalizing buildings, subways and freeways in the late 1970s. The term refers to the vandals’ tags, or personalized signatures, they attach to their handiwork around the city.
But out of this illegal pastime have sprung legitimate graffiti artists, claiming a niche in the contemporary art world as well as in the clothing industry.
Dozens of graffiti clothing companies have started in big cities throughout the country, particularly in Los Angeles and New York and mostly by former taggers, said Robert Christofaro, a graphic designer for In Fashion, a trade magazine in New York City. Many of the companies have found it hard to stay afloat.
“A lot of them can’t manage to stay open . . . it’s a hard marketplace,” Christofaro said.
But for many, graffiti has become an avenue to opportunity. The clothing designs have attracted a large following of young adults who grew up fascinated by the genre.
“All the people that are most successful in the graffiti scene have expanded but held on to their graffiti roots. . . . The whole thing is being innovative,” said Kelly Gravao, another ex-tagger, who now owns Third Rail, an alternative clothing company in Boyle Heights. Third Rail also began by selling graffiti designed T-shirts and caps, but has since expanded its clothing line.
Gravao, 26, was arrested on many occasions and even shot in the leg when he tagged “in the wrong neighborhood,” he said.
Third Rail has grown 300% in sales since it opened in 1990, not long after Conart, Gravao said. He has one retail clothing store, Crazy Life, and is about to open a second in Hollywood. He said his focus has shifted from graffiti to various other clothing designs, targeted at surfers, skateboarders and snowboard enthusiasts.
Conart, he said, is one of the survivors in the graffiti-clothing business, benefiting when many imitators fell by the wayside. Today it sells to 470 accounts at specialty stores across the United States and as far away as Japan, where graffiti designs have become very popular.
“In Japan they’re not doing Japanese letters, they’re doing American letter schemes,” Hudson said.
Conart does half of its business there, where its designs are sold out soon after they are sent out, he said. He has even heard of bootleg Conart T-shirts being sold around Tokyo.
“(Graffiti) has become a big thing now with rap. . . . In one week everything (in stores) is sold out,” said Ken Kitakaze, who has coordinated Conart’s distribution to at least 50 stores throughout Japan for the last four years.
Conart is “the original maker of the graffiti street-style T-shirt,” said Paul Takahashi, a buyer for Extra-Large, whose clothing stores in Hollywood and New York were among the first to carry Conart’s designs. The market was saturated with imitators as soon as Conart’s designs hit stores, he said.
“We carry Conart because we try to keep the more original stuff.”
Irma Zandl, president of Zandl Group, New York marketing-trend consultants, said that recently clothing targeted to young adults has been dull. In the clothing industry the time is right for visually exciting pieces, like the ones graffiti artists design, she said.
The T-shirt designs are colorful and mesmerizing, but at the same time they often touch on social issues—and take a controversial point of view.
One of Conart’s depicts a Ku Klux Klan member holding his infant son, who is also dressed in the white garb of the organization. At the bottom it says: “Future Police Officer.” Another shirt is a caricature of two black men, one holding a gun and the other waving a flag that says: “No Justice No Peace.”
Hudson, an African American whose dreadlocks dangle to his chest, didn’t expect any of this success. Big business snuck up on him and his “conartists,” as he calls them. It snowballed when he began selling graffiti designed T-shirts in front of high schools at age 16.
“(Conart) was a hobby turned business,” he said. “I saw the connection of putting the imagery on clothing.”
Dammit, internet. You’re supposed to keep me updated on everything that happens, yet the launch of Foot Locker’s Europe-only (allegedly) rollout of Nike Huarache LEs wasn’t brought to my attention until they were all over eBay. The Huarache is the shoe that changed everything back in the early 1990s (you don’t see kids embracing modern silhouettes any more on these shores), then had a second wave in the early 2000s at road level again alongside a swathe of monotone Huarache Trainers too. Apparently these Black and Tour Yellow 2012 reissues are just the start of a summer-long rollout. I can’t get down with this shoe when it’s sat on a Free 5.0 sole and while I’d prefer some mesh in that toe box rather than Durabuck type fabric, these are pretty banging.
If supplies had been more plentiful (thank you Tan for the hookup), I think the streets would have been flooded with them once again. Instead it felt like the Foot Locker Limited Edition hangtag days of old. I’d like to think that it was a connoisseur backlash to the Free editions that led to the re-release, but I think ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and Wiz Khalifa are the entities that got these signed off. Still, in an era where every element of sports footwear is previewed, given closer looks and even the opening of a box is broadcast, that a release like these could come and go in relative silence is kind of odd.
Drop 3 of Our Legacy’s Splash collection appears online tomorrow. Serious looks, animal print Cosmo Kramer style shirts and Riri zippered designs with constellations printed on them? As I’ve mentioned before, this brand is untouchable at the moment. Defining the rollover basics at ‘Rollover’? Good move. The Oi Polloi exclusives, contrast armed Great Sweats, tracksuit bottoms that bring a refined edge to the uniform of the unemployed and pretty much everything they make appeals to me without being mired in the beige pixel world that so many other upstart menswear lines are. Tres Bien also still have the best blog of any store, bar maybe the Hundreds.