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T-SHIRT KINGS

Knowledge god Mr. Brendan Dunne of Sole Collector put me onto a little project that appeared on Nike Harajuku’s blog at the end of last month. Nike Basketball seem to have teamed with Shirt Kings (presumably PHADE is involved?) for a set of t-shirts. Having worked with Supreme and Stüssy a while back, the Nike project is an interesting evolution that legitimises their work after years of homaging Nike classics like the Air Force II in their art, and including an artist called NIKE in the team. The uninitiated might be baffled at the cartoonish graffiti art, but it’s important to reiterate the importance of their work in hip-hop fashion and streetwear in general. I conducted a very brief interview with PHADE for Stüssy in 2014 that’s reprinted below:

Taking a graphic identity from trains to torsos, this is a little story that needs to be told.

Anybody that ever appreciated a hand style or graffiti iconography on a t-shirt, probably owes the Shirt Kings a little something. Before Shirt Kings, there was graffiti on vests and jackets, but this was one of the earliest examples of a successful company, despite being a labor-intensive production line rather than mass-produced gear. There’s a soul to each flashy, eccentric one of one that can’t be commercially reproduced.

The forefather of the hip-hop brands (arguably the real street wear companies) that would boom in the 1990s — whether it was PNB Nation, Phat Farm, Too Black Guys, Triple 5 Soul, Cross Colors or FUBU — was a spot in Jamaica Queens’ Colosseum Mall run by Edwin “PHADE” Sacasa, Rafael “KASHEME” Avery and Clyde “NIKE” Harewood. PHADE had been putting in work on trains with legends like KASE 2 after a move from Brooklyn to the Bronx in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until he took his skills to cotton in 1984 that he realised graffiti on apparel could be a lucrative endeavour, “Seeing the reaction to my graffiti pictures in school gave me the confidence to know I had something.” The move from spray can to airbrush wasn’t too severe a transition, “It was the same just a little bit more detailed.

The Shirt Kings name coined in 1986, with the company making power moves in 1988. Flicking through the pages of Sacasa and KET’s book, ‘Shirt Kings: Pioneers of Hip Hop Fashion‘ (Dokument Press, 2013), it becomes apparent that this trio was onto something significant. Their custom creations became a status symbol for every key New York rapper of the late 1980s as well as a rolling cast of hustlers, cool kids and Queens characters. Heavy D, Nas, Jay-Z and LL Cool J felt its influence. Even if their work on cotton rarely crossed the water or went all state, a global audience was exposed to the Shirt Kings’ art on Audio Two’s ‘What More Can I Say?‘, Biz Markie’s ‘Pickin’ Boogers‘ and the Transformers piece on the ‘Red Alert Goes Berzerk‘ sleeve. The crew even managed to get their work onto Bill Cosby’s back.

In terms of style, each New York borough brought its own aesthetic — PHADE noticed those differences, “The styles were different — each borough was unique in style and fashion. Brooklyn was an athletic, tough look, Bronx was a more rugged Timberland hood style and Queens was a kind of combination of Bronx ruggedness and Brooklyn flash style.” That variation in looks from neighbourhood to neighbourhood created its own set of creative challenges, twinned with the sheer speed that trends moved at — Champion, Coca-Cola gear, Air Force IIs, MCM and Gucci all had their moment as status symbols and each artist needed to be versed in that imagery, “The work was evenly dispersed. A customer may have a preference in artist because of relationship, but otherwise we trained to be one. Art never goes out of style. Luckily we were all graduates of The High School Of Art and Design in Manhattan, NY — all capable of working in any field in graphics.

Like getting a tattoo, Shirt Kings customers would get an initial consultation, “The customer played a big part in the process — we just were vehicles used to bring their vision to life.” In terms of cost, that work didn’t come cheap, “A shirt was around 50 dollars, we provided the garments unless the customer had a special item of clothing they wanted painting.” The work wasn’t a one-wear affair either, “The shirts were washable and kept their color if heat set hot and hand washed in cold water.

Another pioneer of New York street style from the same era, legendary Harlem tailor Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day played a key role in Shirt Kings’ success when PHADE took the brand to another iconic indoor marketplace, “Dapper Dan is my mentor. When I had expanded to The Mart 125 across from The World Famous Apollo Theater, he came and said, ‘We need to work together — come on down to my spot.’ I asked him how much rent and he replied, ‘No worries.’ He took me all up and down the East Coast selling clothes.

Dan’s exaggerated amplifications of luxury logos and prints are present in some of the company’s images. With their brand represented heavily during a golden age for street culture and music, PHADE, KASHEME and NIKE would become celebrities, with an escalating client base that led to two-week waits for product. From cars to gooned-out Roger Rabbits and diminutive psycho Chucky as a b-boy with a bucket hat and pager, some commissions were odder than others — PHADE had his limits, “I don’t do demonic stuff or negative images, just fun and culture.

Jamaica, Queens was no stranger to dancehall’s flamboyant fashions either — rudeboy customers had some wild requests, “They seemed to be big on the pants as well as the jackets. They expressly wanted explicit art on their clothes with rhinestones and rips and glitter.

If you’re wondering about how the Cosby connection came about, Shawn Carter plays his part, alongside Theo Huxtable, “We were invited to a party and Jay-Z was showcasing with Jaz-O, I saw Malcolm (Jamal-Warner) downstairs, I had the picture book that I carried everywhere we went — I gave it to one of our young interns and he approached Malcolm. We all came over and took pictures and next thing we were at Malcolm’s house in Brooklyn ordering shirts.

Shirt Kings would spawn imitators, but PHADE doesn’t see it as a negative, “I wouldn’t call them imitations. It was youth in a culture using their gift to cause other creators to start thinking about making their own way in this culture.” While KASHEME passed away, both PHADE and NIKE are still painting and airbrushing. PHADE has put his energies into working with non-profit groups to teach youngsters to create their own artwork and develop their own skill set and sense of empowerment.

Despite breaking it down it in more local terms, Sacasa acknowledges that the business’s legacy is colossal, “Shirt Kings design creations were pivotal to the foundation of the science in branding between hip hop artists and a designer who was an aerosol artist in the NYC subway days teaching kids how to do legal art on a t-shirt.