Why Are T-Shirts Covered in So Much Stuff?
The streetwear staple has gone maximalist.
John Mayer in an Online Ceramics hoodie, which we know is not technically a t-shirt, but life is not perfect, okay??? Photograph by Steve Jennings for Getty Images.
Streetwear has always been loud. And in 2017, it seemed to get even louder. The brand Some Ware, a project of frequent Kanye West collaborator Cali Thornhill Dewitt and multidisciplinary artist Brendan Fowler, produces long-sleeved tees emblazoned with logos and heavy graphics. A recently released T-shirt from No Vacancy Inn, a nebulous brand that trades in both parties and clothes, features huge overlapping prints and sold out swiftly, popping up on resale sites almost immediately. Online Ceramics, a label started by two Deadhead art students, makes tie-dye tees featuring graphics that are enormous, intricate, and delightfully off-kilter. Even the prolific rapper Kendrick Lamar appeared to have adopt a similar look for his latest tour merch. This simultaneous wave of brashly designed T-shirts isn’t accidental, so where did all this design maximalism come from?
After a small-scale burst of unrestrained logos in the 2010s, led by the likes of Hood By Air and Been Trill, men’s casual wear seemed to retreat into a veil of minimalism and unbranded goods. Long-time staples A.P.C. and Acne Studios, alongside newcomers like Everlane and Aimé Leon Dore, found a new audience as former hypebeasts traded printed T-shirts for a more grown-up look. In 2017 though, the days of visual restraint appear to be over, and maximalist design has even trickled up into the highest of high fashion: from Gucci sneakers to Balenciaga scarves to Raf Simon T-shirts. The look of excessiveness and maximal logos has been adopted by today’s upscale designers, and is now synonymous with expensive taste.
Leveraging chaotic and collage-like visuals in graphic design and art is nothing new, although it certainly has newfound visibility via the modern graphic T-shirt. The look has always been a part of the underground and avante-garde, whether it’s Raymond Pettibon-designed punk flyers from the 1980s, or the Dada art movement of the early-to-mid century. Dadaist artists used of nonsensical images and text to push back against Aestheticism and the bourgeois culture of the times. (In a way, so did Pettibon’s work and those after him.) Both the punk and Dada movements challenged the accepted definitions of art and rock music and rejected what they saw as excess in mainstream with anti-establishment messaging and a D.I.Y. work ethic. That undercurrent of rebellion remained throughout ‘80s punk rock, ‘90s grunge—just look to Nirvana’s merch during the heyday of MTV—and can still be found today in the 21st century artists who gravitate towards this noisy look and feel.
The trippy and outlandish graphic style has infiltrated the world of contemporary streetwear and merchandise thanks in part to designers like Jeremy Dean and fast-rising brands like Brain Dead and Online Ceramics. Dean, who has been putting out bootleg T-shirts in this vein since 2012, has seen his style find a larger audience with new clients like John Mayer and the revered graffiti mag 12ozProphet. This bump in popularity landed him a profile in GQ Style and coverage across a number of popular streetwear-centric blogs. “I was heavily influenced by design that I considered to be thoughtful and chaotic,” says Dean, who cites the works of Jeff Nelson (cofounder of storied D.C. punk label Dischord Records) and the English artist Jamie Reid (architect of the Sex Pistols' graphic identity) as early influences.
Online Ceramics has experienced a similar rise in profile this year as the company quickly became the T-shirt brand of choice for free spirits and fashion editors alike. “We definitely had zero connection to streetwear and fashion. It kind of chose us,” says Alix Ross, one half of the two-man operation. Ross and his partner Elijah Funk met in art school, far removed the world of linesheets and street style. The duo are fans of boisterous art and that influence can be seen in the their designs: “A single, small print just doesn’t evoke as much attention,” says Funk. “We like how [the prints] look large and crazy.”
On the other side of things, Brain Dead has been quintessentially streetwear from the start. The brand was quickly embraced by enthusiasts and counts industry heavy hitters like Dover Street Market and Hypebeast as stockists. Designers Kyle Ng and Ed Davis have spoken about their affinity for punk rock and fine art, and the duo has also released a zine full of lo-fi graphics that evokes an earlier, analog world. All of these designers and brands do the kind of work that influences the influencer.
On a bigger stage, everything from the recent Comme des Garçons and Walter Van Beirendonck collection to the Virgil Abloh-designed merch for rapper Kid Cudi all seem to ooze a very Dadaist-punk vibe. More mass streetwear brands like Undercover, Enfants Riches Déprimés, and Perks And Mini are also providing a fresh take on the art style. (It’s worth mentioning that some brands like Undercover have been working in this style for years.) This month at Art Basel Miami, industry veteran and former Supreme creative director Angelo Baque opened a pop-up that brought together titans of the graphic T-shirt, and even included a include a “collage design class” led by Heron Preston. The event’s official T-shirt, which features a hodgepodge of logos, is perhaps the best exemplification of this trend.
A quick search of the #streetwear hashtag also returns countless up-and-coming brands who all appear to be channeling this maximalist graphic style, an obvious influence on what they see on streetwear’s main stage. If Kanye West and Demna Gvasalia injected the imagery of heavy metal into the larger fashion zeitgeist last year, then this new class of designers have ushered in this new wave of disordered style. The look has reverberated across streetwear and fashion in a similar manner, except now menacing fonts and gothic imagery have been replaced by psychedelic visuals and an overload of graphic prints.
While it’s worth noting an overabundance of logos and wild graphics isn’t limited to streetwear and fashion, it’s hard to deny the undercurrent of lavish design that is currently running wild in the market. “The logo as graphic statement has crept from the chest to the back, and down the sleeves. Every inch is now covered in a semiotic mess of messaging and signs,” says Richard Turley, the acclaimed creative director known for producing attention-grabbing work at ad agencies and magazines alike. The contemporary graphic T-shirt has become a shortcut to position yourself inside the demographic of your choosing. It’s no longer an understated nod to subculture, but a noisy and brash display of cachet and clout. In some ways, it feels eerily Trumpian; articulate and well-thought-out design seems to matter less than in a landscape where the loudest T-shirt commands the most attention. “We’re living in an age where bootleggers hold more cultural capital than the brands and institutions they've ripped off,” says Turley.
As we head into 2018, no one really owns anything anymore. Streetwear-at-large has always played with a loose definition of “inspiration.” Trends in fine art, graphic design, music, and pop culture are tweaked in Photoshop and then strategically screen printed on beefy Gildan T-shirts. If designer fashion is a reflection of what is happening in culture, then the graphic tee is the medium for subcultures. As the status of the T-shirt has risen in fashion, everyone seems to be wondering when its reign will come to an end. If anything, this wave of maximal ideas has shown us that designers and brands still have more tricks up their sleeves. This hedonistic frenzy of logos and prints and chaos is far more enthralling than graphic trends of streetwear past, so as long as streetwear’s vision of maximalism continues to look this cool, keep the T-shirts coming.