We have all seen images of 70s New York fashion in films like Saturday Night Fever where rocking flared bottom jeans, platform shoes and gold chains looked cool and made up the disco look. But as rock music and punk grew, there was also a trend of making your own t-shirts that took off with the invention and mass production of the iron-on decals. This customization of shirts, and that of the punk rock and outlaw gang movements, showed that do-it-yourself style was possible and better than the store fashion of the day. The tough gangs in the Bronx, and all over New York had specialists among them that knew how to modify jackets, sew and roc-a-block name patches as well as studs, chains, and other ornaments to complete their look. The flamboyancy that existed was present to make teens look dangerous, and it worked. This was not lost on the kids and was quite influential for years to come ( anyone remember Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force's outfits?).
Retro Puma Clyde advertisement
By the early 80s young people were rocking tight Lee jeans with Le Tigre shirts to go with their British Walkers. Sneakers were considered most important and many looks started from the feet up. Starting with for example the color of your Puma Clydes and build up the look to match. T-shirt graphics were limited and it was mostly athletic brands or surf brands that made their way to the east coast via stores like Macy's or VIM. For the most part the b-boy and b-girl aesthetic that existed was simple, clean and affordable. The extravagance took form of small gold chains or leather coats. Park jams and clubs were where you would see young people looking their freshest.
This Jordache ad shows the popular acid washed denim style of the time
Sergio Valente, Jordache, and Calvin Klein were popular brands at the time, and it seemed like the Brooke Shields commercials and other ad propaganda from the time worked. We all wanted to look great and straight out of the TV ads, and quite possibly to avoid the realities of the disparity between the poor, middle, and upper class. No one wanted to be poor and much less look like it, so the collective decision was to dress it up and hide it. Aspiration was at an all time high. We wanted out of the hood if only thru a luxury fantasy. It didn't come easy for many and it was key to take care of your fresh fashion. Jeans went to dry cleaners, b-boys scrubbed their shell toe Adidas with toothbrushes pulled from back pockets, and mothers and grandmothers everywhere were on the alert to dry hang the shirts.
Jaz-O & Jay-Z, Jamaica Coliseum, 1988.
Meanwhile the streets embraced the b-boys aesthetic, but swallowed up those that were not tough enough and alert enough to protect their gear. If you were caught on the wrong block, bumped into the wrong thug, or just had some bad luck you could easily have your jacket or sneakers stolen at knifepoint or gunpoint. Fashion thievery was at an all-time high, and it was by any means that some went out to get it. I believe that most drug dealers that came out of the 80s did it so that they have money to shop and look fresh. The Shirt Kings can surely attest to that.
Dapper Dan in his boutique in Harlem
The other motivation for the freshness and the flamboyancy was to attract the opposite sex of course. Herein lies the push to even more excessiveness and the luxury label hype. Everyone wanted to look like a million bucks and those that made money and led the way were the drug dealers (names like Supreme, 50 Cent, Alpo, and Rich Porter come to mind). They had the means to purchase the brands and to commision designs from Dapper Dan and the Shirt kings as well as the purchasing power to acquire the luxury cars and trick those out too. Us regular folks worked our jobs and saved up for the fashion in order to not be left behind.
Heavy D rocking a Shirt Kings hoodie for the "Money Earning Mount Vernon" video shoot, Mount Vernon, 1989.
The Shirt Kings style of airbrush design became the a fashion statement made popular by the hottest rappers and deejays of the day. It seemed like overnight that their designs were everywhere from Just Ice's record to The Audio Two's popular album to the stages of the Latin Quarters where all the best emcees were performing weekly. As the Shirt Kings business took off their style was copied across the Northeast and they themselves expanded and covered Miami. Pretty soon they had deals with rappers and singers alike to provide the wardrobe designs for tours and music videos. They were in a sense everywhere.
There were many brands and designers that were influenced by the Shirt Kings and it is no wonder that one of the early 'urban' brands was Fubu also out of Jamaica, Queens. Soon brands like Shabazz Brothers, Karl Kani, Sir Benni Miles and others entered the market and mass-produced clothing designs. The era of the customization was dying down, but the impact that the Shirt kings brought to the fashion world is undeniable.
A signed copy of Shirt Kings: Pioneers of Fashion the book is available here, while regular copies are available on Amazon