In Defense of That $300 “New York Times” T-Shirt
Sacai designed a very expensive shirt to fight fake news. But to dismiss it merely as “elitist” is a mistake.
Photograph courtesy of Sacai.
Last week, the Japanese label Sacai released the New York Times t-shirts from its Fall 2018 men’s collection, featuring text from the newspaper’s “Truth Is” campaign printed on a t-shirt ($300) and a hoodie ($420). In a press release, the brand stated that designer “Chitose Abe explored the notion of truth, perception and the primacy of authenticity” in the collection, and that “the collaboration is part of a licensing agreement between Sacai and The New York Times Company.”
The Washington Examiner called it “the most ambitious, if not the most ridiculous, crossover of all time” (why it is “ambitious” to print words on a shirt is left unclear). Mediaite wrote, in the most cringeworthy lede of all time, “Are you a fashion bro who also wants to fight back against the Trump administration’s steady erosion of truth? Say no more fam, the New York Times has got you.” Even our friends at Vice.com mocked the shirt: “The New York Times Invites You to Fight Fake News with This $300 T-Shirt.”
As usual, everyone is wrong, and I am right. Just kidding! But a few things: first of all, many a streetwear or t-shirt head will tell you there is a huge difference between a “licensing agreement” and a collaboration, though Sacai seems to have used these words interchangeably in the press release. In a collaboration, such as the Louis Vuitton x Supreme collection, both brands are involved in the product’s vision and execution; it is a creative venture and partnership that, ideally, pushes both parties to explore and invent. Supreme needed Louis Vuitton’s caché to make a $57,000 trunk, Louis Vuitton needed Supreme’s streetwear credibility to make a t-shirt “rare.”
A licensing agreement, on the other hand, is more strictly a business contract: one entity agrees, under particular terms, and for a specified amount of money, to allow another business to use its image or brand name or trademark. The New York Times, in other words, did not “collab” with Sacai, because for all intents and purposes, the newspaper made no creative contribution to the clothing. Their work was already done by the time Sacai hit them up. Notably, you cannot buy the t-shirt on the New York Times webstore; it does not arrive, like a New Yorker tote bag does, with your subscription. (While we’re on the subject of media merchandise quality, I would like to add that the New Yorker tote bag is flimsy; maybe they should collab with Mansur Gavriel.) In other words: the New York Times shouldn’t get flack for, as a Gizmodo reporter put it on Twitter, “trying to break the journalists-are-elitist-stereotype” and failing.
But neither should Sacai. The collection in which this appeared—last January, at Paris Men’s Fashion Week—gives the shirt slightly more context, though curiously, those who reported on the shirt failed to look at the brand’s history or how the shirt was covered on the runway. Sacai, which is designed by Japanese tailoring marvel Chitose Abe and shows in Paris, is about the marriage of unexpected fabrics and silhouettes, and the element of elegant surprise. Perhaps your mind is drifting here to metaphor—is a newspaper slogan on a Japanese fashion designer’s t-shirt supposed to be a marriage of unexpected “fabrics”?—but it doesn’t quite work that way. Abe’s designs are much more about community and conversation and curiosity: if you look at a Sacai garment in real life, you become delighted trying to figure out how what first appears to be a wool sweater is actually (also) a delicate silk dress. If you are wearing a Sacai garment, people will unfailingly ask you about it. As Sarah Mower wrote in her review of the collection for Vogue.com, “Chitose Abe is not a political or statement-making designer by any stretch of the imagination…. Ultimately, though, she used her moment with the press to speak up for cross-cultural harmony, and you sensed why she was making a point of it now. Abe also put a T-shirt and fleece hoodie on the runway printed with the New York Times’s ‘Truth . . .’ slogan.”
But more importantly, as I wrote on the realm of spiritual suffering and social media platform Twitter, “Imagine thinking that the fashion industry is trying to ‘break the journalists-are-elitist stereotype.’” The fashion industry loves a political stance, but the institution of la mode is much more powerful as a mirror rather than as an agent of change. In fact, this is fashion’s superpower in this era: the industry’s figures may have been vehemently anti-Trump, but the reigning aesthetic leading up to the election was Vetements’s yuge—sorry, huge—proportions and Gucci’s excess. When the Paris runway imagines us telling the world we are worried about fake news, it sees a $300 t-shirt. It takes the elitist reputation the media industry can’t shake, and sends it right back to us as a harsh glare. Fashion shows us what we desire, and reveals that that is often at odds with what we want.