A few years ago your average T-shirt aficionado (don’t laugh there’s more of them than you think) had limited options when it came to finding that special shirt. They all want something individual, something that displays their allegiances, hints at their intelligence, shows off their cultural knowledge and preferably something that fits. A browse around the high street rarely paid dividends and a visit to vintage clothes shops often proved time-consuming and costly. Then things changed. In the past decade or so technology has allowed a growing number of net-savvy, geek-leaning shirt producers to find and feed a huge constituency of punters that want clever, pop culture reference clothing.
These companies follow a similar business pattern of creating tees with apparent exclusivity (usually limited print runs) based around cult films, musicians or wider, but always cool, cultural references. The best ones are well designed and tap into the geeks desire to show their individuality by displaying what they’re into across their chest. Social networks allow T firms to reach and interact with their audience and a simple-to-use website and efficient delivery mean that some of the most visible companies can be run with minimal staffing or running costs and can bench test designs and gauge customer demand with just a few cleverly designed tweets or Facebook updates, promoting their wares directly into the central core of the geek universe.
The success of ASOS (an acronym of As Seen On Screen, don’t forget) is the most prominent example of how this market works and can grow to massive proportions but the best of the breed work on a smaller and much more accessible scale. Here’s a few.
Probably the biggest global player, Threadless invites the general public to submit their own designs then print and sell the best of them. Designs are hugely varied and usually lean toward the humorous. Financial rewards for successful Threadless designers can be surprisingly high.
Last Exit offer tees featuring logos from films. These can be logos actually seen in films (such as the Weyland-Yutnani corporation from the Alien films) or invented designs for mentioned but never seen organisations like Genco Olive Oil (The Godfather) or Duke & Duke (Trading Places). Founded just 4 years ago, their well designed and manufactured shirts have been adopted by everyone from film and TV stars to Playboy models and they’ve recently been asked to create promo material for a new major studio release.
Like Last Exit To Nowhere, Dark Bunny takes films as a starting point but rather than featuring fictional logos their intricate, often distressed-looking designs extend the concept further. Designs take the form of fake ads, flyers and business cards for fictional film businesses. You get wonderfully intricate in-jokey flyers for Marty McFly’s band from Back to the Future, Patrick (American Psycho) Bateman’s business card and adverts for True Grit’s Cogburn’s Whisky, all ingeniously packaged in VHS cassette boxes. Everything is the creation of one-man-band whizz kid Alex Chenery and his newly-founded living room enterprise was rewarded in 2010 when Twitter plugs from super-fan Simon Pegg caused his profile to rocket.
Something for the cooler customer, Casual Connoisseur bring Manc swagger to their designs. References to the baggy bands, football and gangsters abound and everything has a cool Factory Records meets Banksy feel to it. Sorted.
The celebrity’s favourite, Worn Free reprint designs once worn by music icons. Shirts featuring ultra-obscure references to the likes of Radio Clyde and Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors are rendered cool because they were once splashed across the chests of Frank Zappa, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain. Their Cassius Clay reproductions are particularly cool and all tees come with a natty little backstage pass. Worn Free tees have been adopted by virtually every modern movie and music star in the US - Jennifer Aniston, Robert Downey JR, Gary Oldman, Robert Plant and many, many others have all been snapped wearing their wares.
Out Of Print take a slightly more cerebral slant on pop culture by offering shirts featuring designs from book jackets. Classic covers from Steinbeck, Kerouac and Orwell will have envious heads turning in the students union as well as at the Hay Literary Festival.
Predominantly a bookshop for graphic designers, Magma has a stock of tees that appeal to the design literate. There are post-modern references to fonts and impenetrably wilful images by arty types like David Shrigley. They go down well in yer trendy London circles.
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