Think T’s

Four new designers that will knock your shirt off

Everyone knows the perfect T-shirt when they see it. And these days it’s easy to find.

You stole it from your boyfriend, who stole it back. At summer camp all your new friends autographed it (while you were wearing it). You bribed your best friend into trading with you after gym class. It’s from the very first show of the band that you’ve known about like way before they were popular. Someone offered you 200 bucks for it in Manhattan even though you bought it at Goodwill.

Some say T-shirts originated during World War I, when U.S. Naval soldiers sweated in wool jackets while British swabs stripped down to their lightweight cotton undershirts. By the 1920s, “T-shirt” became an official term in the American English Dictionary, but it wasn’t all that until James Dean wore his with cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve. The introduction of screen-printing in the late 1960s made T-shirts a marketing tool and a vehicle for pushing political and social issues.

These days, from high-end commissioned shirts by famous artists, to repurposed hand-me-downs, it seems that everyone (and their brother) is taking a crack at T-shirt design. And why not? Wearing “J’Adore Dior” is so much louder than saying it.

The new websites that allow us to vote on potential print designs and submit our own blur the line between consumer and producer—much to our benefit. And by our, I mean we the poor yet fashion conscious.
Ah, the timeless T-shirt: wet it, cut out its collar, heed its advice. Let it shrink around your chest and endear you with all the qualities Brooks Brothers can’t seem to figure out.
After hours of debate, SOMA style experts have uncovered four T-shirt designers who will change the business. May they light in you a burning for fabric paint and the printing press.

Edgy & Distorted, GRN Apple Tree
Luis Antonio starts with a concept or song lyric when designing T-shirts for LA brand GRN Apple Tree. “As a good designer, you must embrace everything around you,” he says.
His standout crewneck, Snap Shot, features a black and white portrait that is fragmented into six different v-shapes descending in size and image. Lamp V-Neck alters the perspective with a twisted, ceiling view and a faded femme fatale graphic in the lower left corner. Distortion and cool visuals remove GRN shirts from the solid-color-block-letter crowd.
“We love to look outside the box, instead of rehashing what is already in the current market place,” Antonio says. The GRN Apple Tree team has recently collaborated with RIDE snowboards and will soon launch a women’s line.

The Fairy Tale Brit, Emily Golden
Urban Outfitters recently commissioned Emily Golden, 24-year-old British illustrator, to design a sheer v-neck T-shirt for their Artist Series. “I have always loved the process of applying illustrations to 3D objects… clothing was always an area that I wanted to experiment with.” she says.
The shirt seems inspired by an old folktale or imaginary childhood friends. It features a slender, longhaired girl wearing pearls and sprouting from a lily. It is easy to spot Golden’s inspirations, including Kay Nielsen, illustrator for Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Her most macabre work smacks of Edward Gorey. Many of her muted-color illustrations have Victorian or Edwardian settings made for peculiar children’s stories. “I am focusing on my children’s book career at the moment so no plans to do any more T-shirts in the near future. But I always keep my ears open for possible design projects,” she says.

Aggressive Dino Doodles, SEIBEI
“I’m a big believer in just throwing crap at the wall until something sticks,” David Murray says. His T-shirt, Sandwich Dinosaur—most likely sketched on a bar napkin just before closing time—is one of those accidental hits. It’s a portrait of a miffed dinosaur speaking its mind (“Make me a sandwich.”) and comes in four different two-tone color combinations.
Murray’s shirt-making hobby—originally intended just to make his friends laugh—snowballed into professional screen printing and designing for his brand, SEIBEI. Even with a degree in Japanese literature and a dedication to his craft, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His cartoon-like designs of mummies and one-eyed monsters make it hard to keep a poker face.
Where do Murray’s “crazy ideas” fit into the T-shirt world? “Maybe it’s kind of like [when] I was in high school—I’m the weird funny kid who’s just popular enough to hang out with some of the popular kids, but not popular enough for one of them to go to prom with me,” he says.

Highbrow, 410 BC
410 BC, the year democracy was restored in Athens, is also the name of an artist collective turned business out of New York. They started screen-printing out of a college dorm room for fun, wearing their own hand-drawn designs around campus. “We never expected a business to grow out of it, but we’re definitely glad it did,” says Victoria Lucas, one of the many brains behind the brand.
The shirts stay true to the company’s roots in academia and that socially responsible college mindset. “We’re very picky about which designs we use and we always spend a few months on a design before it goes to print,” she says.
One that made the cut, Cogito Ergo Sum, or Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” features a large, centered yellow-dot with two offset brains. The phrase, in English and Latin, is printed in lowercase. “We treat every T-shirt as a canvas. Essentially we’re just making art and placing it on a shirt instead of something else,” says Lucas. I-Fell Tower, a blurred black and white of the Eiffel Tower at night, looks like a print you would see hanging on a studio wall in SoHo.
These guys don’t cut corners. Their faith in the long-term marketability of their product may be responsible for its high quality. Every shirt is advertised 100-percent organic, handmade in the U.S., and sweatshop free. With each line, they also create one or two designs to benefit a nonprofit organization.
“Fads will always come and go, but T-shirts and their relevance in pop-culture will stay,” Lucas says.

TEXT BY Andrea Francis


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