Tag Archives: kobe

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.

AVAR

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Eric Avar has designed some crazy shoes and I remain a fan of his more outlandish creations, even if they’re impossible to wear with jeans. Seeing Foamposites, Flight 95s or original Frees being retroed is either a testament to the fact they’re still ahead of their time, an admission of defeat — that something that insane won’t be made again – or a pointless endeavour, because they were the antithesis of backward glances when it came to design. I still don’t know. What I do know is that Avar thinks differently (working with Tinker Hatfield, he co-created a lot of ACG classics and the mighty Flight Huarache). This whole shoe thing is played out, but I’ll always investigate anything that Eric Avar has created. After the initial excitement over the low-cut fourth Kobe design (I still count it as the sixth Kobe shoe, because the Huarache 2K4 and 2K5 are part of the story — taking adidas into consideration, it was probably the eleventh Kobe shoe), I always felt that shock of the new was dulled a little by variations on a theme for the next four chapters. It’s nice to see that the low-cut has been ditched in favor of a polarising high version for the Kobe 9 Elite. I guarantee that when this gets a trim down next year, the Flyknit fans are going to come flocking. This shoe has the scope to be great — good luck trying to pull them off with shorts though.

This has been on another site, but the list of limitations and lack of share icons means that it’s better off here. It’s a quick chat with Eric Avar about the new shoe and if you’re expecting nerdery and insight, you aren’t going to get it. Phoners for specific shoes result in advertorial-style content, but there’s some hints at what makes him tick creatively. Somewhere, I’ve got a 90 minute chat with him about past triumphs that would be more relevant to this blog, but the holidays aren’t a place for interview transcription, so you’re getting this instead:

Eric, what shoes were on the table during initial meetings for the Kobe 9? Football boots played a part during the fourth shoe, so what was a cross category muse for this one?

A lot of initial talks we had were about how we had established the low as a proposition and how that referenced football boots. When we started the conversation around the 9 he really wanted a hi-top that would play like a low top. Even when we started the conversations for the low top back in the day we had to clarify just how low — three-quarters or a true low? So we almost had the same conversation again about the high. Would it be a high three-quarters or a high top? Kobe was like, “HIGH”. So he referenced a wrestling boot and more specifically, a boxing boot. He immediately referenced Manny Pacquiao and Manny’s boxing boots and shoes and he liked the essence of being provocative that way and he liked the mentality and spirit of Pacquiao so that played a role too. From a performance standpoint he just wanted a hi-top that would play like a low top with the range of motion we established with a perceptive fit or feel around its angle.

It’s odd to think that half a decade ago Kobe was asking for a low top that acted like a hi-top and now it’s the other way around.

Yeah!

How demanding is Kobe as a partner in design? We know he’s a player that loves control and the last four Kobes had that shape, the cut, the outrigger — there was very much a Kobe formula. Does he know what he wants from the start?

Yes. He does — he knows what he wants, but there’s always healthy conversation back and forth. He challenges myself and the entire Kobe team and I think we also challenge him in terms of what performance insights we may have and what performance technologies we have. We challenge one another but yes — Kobe is very articulate and very creative and he knows exactly what he is looking for and where he wants to go with his product.

Have you noticed that confidence and understanding increase over the years?

He has always had a good level of understanding and he has always been creative but I think through the years we’ve become more familiar with one another and the entire team. That gives us a deeper level of conversation which just leads to more potential of what we can do and where we can take the product. We’ve learned where we can take things.

Did you have a role in the creation of Flyknit originally — did it pass through the Innovation Kitchen and the ‘Zoo’?

We’ve been evolving the Flyknit technology in one way or another for probably about 12 years. There’s been so many people that have played a role directly or indirectly to get it to the point where it is today. I was in that mix, but it’s hard to say exactly what role.

As far as Flyknit engineering, does it have to be toughened up to be on the court as opposed to use as a running shoe?

That’s one of the unique things about Flyknit — its flexibility as a design and manufacturing tool. You can really push the boundaries in a number of directions to answer a number of performance problems. In basketball we knew we needed to push the boundaries in security because of the propulsive forces and lateral movements in the game. There were a number of ways to do that in both the fibres that we used and the stitches we used to create that constraint you would need above the running product.

On the running front, speaking to Sean McDowell this summer he said that he feels like George Lucas in that he wants to go back and change what he created in the past to improve it — with Flywire, Lunarlon and Flyknit around now, do you ever feel the same about earlier Kobe models or are you always looking forward?

That’s a good question. I think everything has a time and a place. With the type of technologies we had back then, we were pushing the limits and the innovations we have now are appropriate now. One of things about design in general and not specifically footwear is that technology is evolving so fast and there’s just so much room for improving in general when it comes to creativity and performance. You can look back through history and I think that’s always the case. A lot of times I’m asked what my favourite project has been and I steal a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright — he always said it’s the next one. I really believe that. In hindsight there’s always something you could do better and there’s always something to improve upon but as we go forward, the insight and data makes it an exciting time in general for footwear design.

I always associate my favourite designs from you, going back to Penny, Jason Kidd and Payton with the Zoom Air era of Nike design. Is that the perfect technology for you in that it’s great cushioning but it never gets in the way of a design? It’s rarely a focal feature.

It becomes the design — yes. That’s a good observation. I think Zoom is a very appropriate technology for basketball — it’s good cushioning and good responsive cushioning allows you to get lower to the ground. I think some of the Lunarlon foams we’ve been working on are very similar. For me, it’s a good tool — I’m a big believer in natural motion and product that works on one to one with the body and we’ve been using Zoom to provide that cushioning as part of that harmony.

How does natural motion operate in the Kobe 9?

We’re using the drop-in midsole with the Lunarlon foam and that midsole is, by its nature, very lightweight, compliant and flexible. We’ve used an outsole that’s also a little more pliable. There’s an aspect of the whole product that’s form-fitting and dynamic to the foot, so yeah, it’s in there definitely. The collar being dynamic also allows for a more perceptive fit.

With Kobe’s build and mode of play are there things you can do with him that you couldn’t do with a player like LeBron?

There are definitely differences between the style of play and body type of players but today’s players in general are just so athletic and explosive. It’s almost like playing a video game where you have your different attributes and strengths of a character — one might be different to another but that’s just how athletes are. Fundamentally, you’re trying to solve the same key problems, but you might zoom in on a key attribute of a player and amplify that a little bit where it’s appropriate for them and in line with their needs.

Did Kobe’s injuries make development of this shoe lengthier? Personally, I never expected him to even come back at this point but I just put that down to him being a freak of nature. Was wear testing more rigorous?

It was actually a pretty normal process. With Kobe, in terms of him trying out prototypes, like you said, he’s a freak of nature — everything he does is calculated to the highest degree for the most positive outcome. He approached his injury that way, from the rehab to the training and it was in sync with the prototypes of the product we were working on and it actually wasn’t that different.

Were you shocked when he wanted to add scars to the back of the shoe?

Nothing with Kobe shocks me! I had just met with him shortly after surgery and I have a picture on my phone of a picture he showed me of his surgery and his injury and we were talking about that and I mentioned that it was kind of a cool visual and he was like, “Oh yeah! Let’s put stitches on the shoe!” That’s the classic hero’s journey — rising back to the success. We just immediately stumbled across that and felt it from an inspiration and visual standpoint.

I know form often follows function but these shoes always have such a strong narrative — I mean, the Black Mamba concept has become a performance part of the shoe, but when does the plot become part of the process of design?

I think each shoe is a little different — there might be more insight or inspiration from style or form. On some, it’s a little earlier in the process and on others it comes a little later. I personally think that good design is when style and function are seamless — almost naturally flowing into one another like, “Okay, here’s the performance and now we’re going to layer in the style.” It’s when they’re fluid and one almost creates the other we get some of the most compelling products and that’s when I personally think that good design happens.

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Issue 14 of Proper is pretty shoe-centric and the magazine remains one of the few menswear magazines with a sense of humour (the workplace stories are particularly amusing) — crucially, the team know their stuff and the evolution in terms of presentation has been tremendous, with a visual language in place over the last three editions to match the irreverence. Chatting to BWGH about the Jimmy Savile incident (when lookbooks go wrong) and trawling through Lindy Darrell’s spectacular haul of Nike SMUs are some of the highlights from this one. Still one of the best publications out there.

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BULLETPROOF SHOELACES

Apologies for the picture quality here — I just developed an Instagram addiction far later than everybody else, which means gratuitous shots of things I’ve spotted lately to pad out blog posts. Eventually my iPhone will get lost or stolen and I’ll be back to the cataract image resolution of the BlackBerry. Consider this a phase. The image above is something I’d been meaning to up here before — it’s the eccentric window display of a large store that sells cheap tat in Bedford Town centre. I see it every day, but it gets odder and odder – who puts airsoft replica Kalashnikovs, cheap dolls, fake flowers and hookah pipes together? There’s a school of retail that extolls the notion of singling out one thing and doing it well — I prefer the slightly more haphazard bric-a-brac approach.

That male doll appears to be dressed like a gang member too, with that top buttoned mini Pendleton, khakis, beanie and headband. There aren’t too many one-stop spots for houseplant seeds and a convincing looking Glock copy — this is one of them. What also caught my attention was these Kevlar branded lace tips on the new Nike Elite range — Kevlar laces are nothing new and while that branding’s hardly necessary, there’s something oddly appealing about that attention-to-detail. Bulletproof shoelaces are the future.

Films you’ve been placing into the “recent” category are officially old. I never realised that ‘Shallow Grave’ is 18 years old. The film’s old enough to legally buy a copy of itself. Arriving at a time when British films were of ‘Splitting Heirs’ with Eric Idle standard, you’ve got to give it to Danny Boyle for bringing a blend of populism and quality control back home. That’s not to say there weren’t fantastic British movies around at that time (that’s a whole ‘nother entry), but Boyle pushed things forward. As Ewan McGregor’s face on a film poster becomes a harbinger of twee or dull (though ‘Knight and Day’, ‘This Means War’, ‘Larry Crowne’ and posters for anything starring either or both Jennifer Aniston or a post ‘300’ Gerard Butler are the most significant never-watch-pledge reverse-marketing campaigns of recent years), he probably needs to man up and apologise to Danny.

Criterion’s edition of ‘Shallow Grave’ drops in June and the cover art brings back hammer time, looking like a Wickes catalogue money shot to the uninitiated and something more sinister to anyone that’s seen the film. Criterion are also putting the excellent white person problems comedy-drama ‘The Last Days of Disco’ (14 years old) onto Blu-ray in July, with my favourite Chloë Sevigny (between this and ‘American Psycho, during 1998 and 1999, she covered the decade prior pretty well) performance ever and a smart use of 1980s New York that doesn’t try too hard to place period detail by chucking brands and body poppers all over the place. I’d be surprised if Danny Boyle didn’t take a few notes for the song and dance ending of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Matt Keeslar’s character’s speech about why disco can never be killed is cinematic gold.



I really sold people who read this blog short with that one. On the Chloë Sevigny topic, ‘Gummo’ is 15 years old and I still can’t get enough of the whole Mark Gonzales chair wrestling scene. It’s probably an indictment of much that followed that ‘Gummo’ is still a truly odd experience. The chocolate bar from the bath still unsettles me more than any amount of gore and mayhem. The prospect of James Franco as a RiFF RAFF style character in ‘Spring Breakers’ alongside Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens is very appealing too. The Entertainment Tonight preview of it promises “real” and more “real” plus loads of beautiful girls in bikinis, but perhaps it’s set to truly confound folk by being relatively conventional. The 1997 ‘New York’ magazine profile of Harmony from 1997, painting him as some enemy of morality is interesting — plus it has Nan Goldin on photography duties.