Author Archives: J.B. Jones
“Imagine a Mickey [Mouse] wearing Air Jordans, leaning on a Moët bottle crowned with a dukey rope chain around his neck, dripping in gold and saying your favorite songs hook.”
This was the beginning. This is the future. This is classic hip-hop style.
Welcome to the world of Shirt King Phade, one-third of the unrivaled founding fathers’ of cartoon and graffiti inspired airbrushed clothing, The Shirt Kings. Legendary for the their one of a kind, of-the-moment wearable works of art that adorned t-shirts, jeans, jackets -whatever you could think of – on the backs of everyone from LL Cool J, to Salt-n-Pepa, to Theo Huxtable in the early 80’s, the Shirt Kings crew laid THE foundation for the street inspired urban revolution we now call ‘hip-hop fashion.’
Phade, aka Edwin Sacasa, the brain behind The Shirt Kings, was born in Brooklyn. He recently gave me the backdrop for one of the most poignant movements in recent American style…
“Brooklyn is a creative place. I feel honored to have been born in Brooklyn. We moved to the Bronx when I was eight years old. It wasn’t really a creative place, but hip-hop was created in the Bronx, and graffiti was heavy in the Bronx. So, I guess I took the energy from Brooklyn into Bronx; the surroundings influenced everything that I did. Bronx was called burning Bronx. But out of the ashes, ideas were sparked.”
The first sparks appeared on NY’s trains. Phade tagged his first train in 1977. His brother eventually moved on to girls and partying, but Phade was a child of art. He attended the New York High School of Art and Design, a “who’s who of the graffiti world.” And although Phade was one of the members of the earliest graf crews back in the day, he had a different agenda for his future. After high school, he enrolled at Savannah College of Art and Design to pave a new path for his future.
After college, Phade returned to the Bronx. The Bronx was still burning, but now the flames had engulfed the world he had known, too.
“Crack cocaine [had become] an epidemic. Those who were strong became weak. Those role models [I] looked up to were being destroyed mentally, morally and physically.
Phade’s weapon? Art.
One of Phade’s old friends from his tagging days, George (Sound 7) Velázquez, taught him how to airbrush and Phade decided to apply his tagging trade onto shirts via his new airbrushing skills. Bombing without destroying – now he was creating.
In 1984, Phade hit the streets of the Bronx and Harlem with his wares. The first slogans: “Money Making New Yorker” and “Crackbusters,” – probably one of the first anti-drug campaigns launched via urban culture.
“The shirt designs were so hot and relevant that the dealers themselves bought them. Stability began to roll in. The demand was high.”
Phade needed a crew. First up: Rafael “Kasheme” Avery of South Side, Jamaica, Queens. With Kasheme’s arrival came the spark of success via an introduction into the world of music.
“I ended up teaching Kasheme how to airbrush. He knew Jam Master Jay and took me to his house and he bought like five shirts! That was when I knew that this could really work, cuz in 1985, RUN-D.M.C. was the pinnacle of rap!!
Kasheme & Phade soon recruited Clyde “Nike” Harewood, an old high school mate of Phade’s, known for his astounding cartoon abilities, and The Shirt Kings were born.
In June of 1986, The Shirt Kings opened shop on Jamaica Ave at the Coliseum in Queens.
“The first couple of days, we were twiddling our thumbs, and I just said, ‘Trust me! It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna take one person to see this and its gonna explode!'”
It did. “Jam Master Jay wore his shirt to the first Def Jam office at 27 Elizabeth St. Run was like, ‘I need one of those!’
“We created a street buzz and everyone just came down [to the store].”
Everyone who was anyone in the new world of hip-hop in NY, Flava Flav, Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J, a Young Jay-Z and Queen Latifah, Bell Biv DeVoe, were showing up at Jamaica Ave to own a piece of Shirt King art.
“Soon it was a place where people could see their favorite rapper. The music became the backdrop, and the shirts reflected what everyone dreamt about: fast cars, money, designer wear and cartoons.
“Once LL Cool J wore his shirt, wow! He was on the cover of like ten different magazines. That took us into a whole other stratosphere.”
One of LL Cool J’s magazine covers was for Rolling Stone. The Shirt Kings were officially part of hip-hop history and hip-hop future.
It’s twenty years later, and Shirt King Phade has moved to LA to reclaim his right to the hip-hop fashion throne. I caught up with him to talk about his new t-shirt line, store, charity work, his documentary and soon to published photo memoir.
J.B.Jones: It seems the Bronx was a huge part of why, or how, the Shirt Kings’ concept came about…
Phade: I just integrated my surroundings, everything I was exposed to as a young black man growing up in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Everything that I saw was put on the shirt, you know. My plight was put on the shirt. My heart was put on the shirt. The graffiti.
J.B.Jones: Hip-hop clothing is now a multimillion-dollar industry. You are one of the founding fathers of the whole movement, how does that feel?
Phade: At the time, you don’t know you’re being a pioneer. You’re just doing what you’re doing, and enjoying yourself.
J.B.Jones: What’s your take on the state of today’s hip-hop fashion empire?
Phade: I’m impressed, but it’s got no originality. That’s the only thing that has died out. Everyone is copying each other. We’re in a time when, I guess, the idea tank is just done.
J.B.Jones: Tell me about your inspirations while growing up, or even today. Has the media – books, music, film – played a significant role in inspiring you to achieve your goals?
Phade: I draw a lot of my inspiration from life’s lessons and personal experiences. Every phase of my life has been governed by media influence, whether it is music, a book or a movie. As a young man growing up in New York City the pulse of the city is often dictated by some sort of media outlet.
Many martial art movies and blaxploitation movies such as Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter The Dragon, ’13th Prince,”Cooley High,’ and the cult classic ‘Cornbread Earl and Me’ were part of the street educational process.
Poetic musical presentations of life by The Last Poets’, ‘Hustlers Convention,’ directed us to live a life of hustle with some hope at the end if we survived the perils of the street!
Books like Claude Brown’s ‘Manchild In The Promised Land,’ Charles A Shafer’s ‘Cabrini Green,’ ‘Down These Mean Streets’ by Piri Thomas enlightened me to the fact that there is a unified struggle throughout the inner cities of America.
The comedy of Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx helped us laugh at life’s situations.
All these mediums offered a life style and presented choices. Most offered solutions by either physical endurance, or sheer street smarts, or comedic relief.
J.B.Jones: What about other artists – did anyone have a great influence on your development as an artist?
Phade: I remember my mother bought me this Peter Max towel and I used to stare at it – for years! The psychedelic colors in that towel! When I started getting into graffiti, I was like, ‘Wow, it’s kind of like the same thing!’
J.B.Jones: What about LA – has being here influenced you in a way similar to NY?
Phade: LA is just making me think different. It has taken my thoughts to a different level. I’ve envisioned doing the Shirt King thing all over again, you know, starting out in the hood, but its already been done. When I go to the galleries here, the guys there are like, ‘You’re a pioneer!’
J.B.Jones: How has your art progressed since you were a twenty-something airbrushing tees for the hip-hop elite?
Phade: It’s still evolving. There are things that I want to do and I just haven’t been able to do them yet. I really want to be an artist and I haven’t – [the shirts] is the stuff that is marketing. [Being an artist] is what I always wanted to do, all my life. But I always get drawn into a different direction because of what people perceive me as.
J.B.Jones: Does this mean you are going take a different direction with the new Shirt King Phade t-shirt line?
Phade: It can start [the same as before] and then it can expand. But I will give the people what they want first. And when I can get to a comfortable level, then I can set my mind to it.
J.B.Jones: You have so many projects going on, one of which is the opening of the Shirt King Phade store. When we first met you had mentioned offering classes to kids interested in learning the art of airbrushing. Is reaching out to the youth an important concept to you?
Yes! It’s one of my goals. That’s the main thing -if you’re not giving back, what’s the purpose? I think that’s why some artists rise and then fall, It becomes all about me me me! You know? Once you become a conduit, it comes through you and then you just pass it out.
As the interview closed, I couldn’t help but think of that quote that seems to be plastered all over everyone’s myspace these days, by Mahatma Ghandi’s…”Be the change you want to see in the world.” Albeit overused, it rings true here. Phade encompasses what I think we all strive to be: a stronghold in the face of adversity, maybe even more than a stronghold, however, he is a fighter in the face of adversity. He came out on top – he came out a legend, in fact. Maybe Myspace isn’t so irrelevant after all…
J.B.Jones: Last one: What is your advice to the next generation?
Phade: Follow your dream. Listen to your parents! Just be creative. Take it to new heights, and do something that’s going to awe somebody.
After the interview, Phade sent me an email, just to say thanks. Written at the bottom, I found a quote I had seen from him a couple times: “Never give up, just get legit.”
What’d I say – a stronghold? A fighter? A legend? Let’s add inspirational to the list.
Find Phade @ www.myspace.com/shirtkingphade. Tell him you read it all here.
André Breton once described Frida Kahlo’s art as “a ribbon around a bomb.” It is a term that alludes to a sensibility of beauty connecting, restraining, maybe enhancing, something that destroys – finding beauty where it wasn’t seen before.
Take an over-worn, tossed aside, raggedy shirt from an LA County inmate, breathe a second life into it via a distress method as if it had been in the path of a bomb, and you have entered the world of Raquel Allegra, an LA based design wonder, spinning a world of cobwebbed beauty from worn-out tees, forgotten leather and the belts from your grandfather’s closet.
The Kahlo connection? She served as a muse for Raquel’s Fall 2009 collection that showed on the Gen Art runway this past March. Raquel references Kahlo’s truthful spirit, a “raw, gritty way of being – in touch with the masculine and feminine and everything in between…sting, but humble.” The line showed it.
Severe black wide brim hats, dark drapy “tuxedo” tees and dresses in off-trend lengths. Hand crafted cream-like leather shorts and fitted dresses layered with her signature shredded tees in muted tones that harbored feelings of love lost, strength from within, and a world to conquer. It was a whirlwind of freshness/elegance/minimalism. Of ease/edginess/softness and an exciting interplay of the feminine and masculine.
Much like a Kahlo piece, you could not take your eyes off it, ” a ribbon around a bomb.” Beauty on the verge of explosion.
I sat down with Allegra two days after her runway show at her West Hollywood home/office/inspiration wonderland to talk cold mornings in LA, The Beatles and the great “is fashion art?” debate.
J.B.Jones: The runway show was stunning, and so sincere, which I think is a hard emotion to capture in fashion. There was a real sense that the person who created it is very connected to who she is – very strong, very personal. And you created such a cohesive vision that I think the audience really got sucked in. I felt there was a deep desire to want to know this person, to be a part of her world and wear these clothes. What’s your take on who the Raquel Allegra woman is?
Raquel Allegra: Thank you! I don’t think the line is so overtly feminine; it’s not about overt sexuality. It’s a woman that understands herself on a deeper level. A woman that doesn’t have to necessarily show everything to get approval or love herself. She definitely has an open mind…because what I have created is new.
J.B.Jones: Did you have a favorite piece from this line?
Raquel Allegra: My favorite piece is called the tuxedo, really long in back and shorter in front; it’s such a strange cropped length. You can wear it front-ways or back-ways, and it’s that way with most of my pieces – they are reversible. We wanted it to have a very contemporary feel, and not look like anything that is on the runway now. I think too much of one thing is usually not interesting.
Raquel steps to the rack next to her and pulls out a smoky grey/black/almost mahogany colored dress. The colors are so deep, so smoky that they almost look as if they were dipped in ash. The shoulders are merely threads, cobwebbed and aged in appearance – the effect causes the entire piece to swoop towards the center in a waterfall-like effect.
J.B.Jones: Agreed. But it is doubtful that I would complain if I had every piece from the show in my closet.
I know you were a shop girl at Barney’s for a long while and that’s really how the whole concept for the line began…
Raquel Allegra: One thing really lead to another. I had developed this weaving technique that created a ruching effect; and it was this shirt that I was wearing to Barney’s that caused a stir. It is almost the exact opposite of what I do now. It was about taking fabric, cutting it and “reconstructing” it. Now, I take fabric and “deconstruct.”
The distress that Raquel applies to her t-shirts is all done by hand. I examine another piece from the rack, notice that where it has been distressed it is starting to snag, huge new holes emerging as if they were planned upon.
J.B.Jones: How did you make that shift from reconstruction to deconstruction?
Raquel Allegra: Every turn in my design has been inspired by one specific person and their request – I never set out to do fashion design! I hated how competitive it was. I figured the industry was just not for me. Some people have a concept for a line; my line was never about that. It was about me, and somebody else, and something that they wanted that I could create. So these very specific requests led to experimentation. It was about playing with the fabric and spending time getting to know it. That brought me to here.
Someone had requested a really ripped up t-shirt. I charged like $200 bucks for it, and she was like, “I’m not paying that.” But thank God she asked for it, because it was the inspiration for my doing it! Even though she didn’t end up buying them, all her friends did.
J.B.Jones: The line and its growth seem to have just come naturally and so easily. Like it was meant to be – it would come to you, not you to it?
Raquel Allegra: I’m not someone that plots things; my whole life is just one long string of happy accidents! I think at an early age, my heart was broken around creative expression. It kind of shut me off to the possibility of dreams. It’s really sad…but I didn’t think there was anything other than retail for me in my life. Fashion was always something I loved to do, but I thought I was going to be a shop girl forever. I never pictured my life. I never pictured the big things people dream about. At the same time there was this little part of me that was like: there is something great out there for you. You just don’t know how you’re going to get there. I feel really lucky to have found design, and especially in the way that I did – it was so organic and natural.
A couple of years ago I was trying to make some pieces for a designer competition, and it was on a Sunday morning, I woke up really early and knew I wanted to create one more piece. It was kind of cold outside and I was still in my little nightie, and I went and put my Beatles record on, and I went to my sewing machine and started sewing. The combination of the things in that moment: the cold, The Beatles, the earliness of the morning – totally shot me back to when I was a really little girl, when I would get up really early in the morning, and I would be in my little nightie, and I would go play dress up and listen to the Beatles. I want to maintain that spirit. I had totally, in a very organic way, found my way back to the most innocent time in my life.
J.B.Jones: The perfect example of coming full circle. It just seems so right that you should be here now, doing what you do. Even publicity seemed to come at the right time for you…this is my lead-in to your use of reclaimed LA County jail t-shirts! You received so much press at the time your first line came out for using these shirts – and you still use them today. How did this ever come about?
Raquel Allegra: I really needed t-shirts! It was totally out of necessity! There is something controversial about [the jail shirts] and I like that, too – it’s a very interesting part of the process. But, for me, what is more interesting, actually, is going through the t-shirts and noticing the little difference from one to the next, and knowing someone did that… it is interesting that I get to encounter these people in a certain way. It’s an intimate thing for me. But I don’t know that the rest of the world gets it because it is a finished product by the time they buy it, and they don’t have that experience with it.
Raquel pulls out a pair of leather trousers. Cut right below the knee, it’s a length that’s completely fresh and new. The side seams of the piece are hand-stitched, almost a child-like whipstitch. The skin of the leather is silk-like, but a past life is present; Raquel comments, “it had a life in the wild and it shows it. There is so much life to clothes.”
J.B.Jones: I’ve read you believe every garment has a soul…
Raquel Allegra: I do! I know this line has a purpose…I can’t name what all of that purpose is, but it has definitely been transformative for me. It certainly helps me to have a bigger sense of myself in the world and what’s possible. Which is really precious.
J.B.Jones: I know you are currently working on a cut & sew line. Are you worried that you might lose that sense of intimacy with the garments as they move towards a more mass-produced offering? Are you comfortable with the possibility losing that connection with the clothing?
Raquel Allegra: I think that going to the next thing is ok. I don’t think that we have to struggle our whole lives. This [line], at this point, is a lot of work. And a lot of struggle. And I love it! And I love the people that I’m working with, but I think there is something bigger that can happen from this and I think that it will make every person/every part more fulfilled.
This collection is all happening in this room. And when we step away from this collection, and do something that is more mass produced, I want to keep that spirit. The cut & sew collection is in the works with Tony Graham [of A Common Thread & Rozae Nichols fame]. People have propositioned me for partnerships before and I’ve hemmed and hawed; but Tony is great! He is in love with the collection and I think it is his dream come true as much as it is my dream come true. We’re really going to work on creating a whole lifestyle brand. From shoes, to bags, to belts, to jewelry. Really building a strong collection, but taking the right time to do all of that and not rushing. What’s cool is that this is creating a livelihood for other people – it is amazing! It’s a lot of pressure when I really think about it – but how cool is that?!
Raquel shows me a belt from the line. It is what she refers to as an “old man” belt. She has been collecting them, and now they have found a use: she cuts the ends to make them smaller and reattaches the buckles with a tiny string of leather, carefully knotted and wrapped. They are worn-in just enough. Just enough to make you want to throw all your new belts away.
J.B.Jones: I love that you use what you have, or found, or collected. Is the recycling aspect of that an important concept for you?
Raquel Allegra: Absolutely. Even when we’re doing more in the new partnership, I really want to keep the possibility of doing a recycled line. I just feel like it is ridiculous to not use what’s here – there is so much, and so much good stuff, too!
J.B.Jones: You really put so much time, care and thought into EVERY aspect of the line. The handiwork and detail involved is pretty incredible, almost like sculpting. And the pieces are so dramatic. Do you think that fashion is a form of art?
Raquel Allegra: I do. I totally do. I think this [line] is wearable art. I know designers that don’t like to consider themselves artists. And clothing that is often viewed as art is sometimes pooh-poohed because it is seen as more conceptual than wearable. Like Gareth Pugh, whom I think is absolutely incredible, but I don’t see people wearing it down the street. Although, I am sure I could find something to wear it to!
J.B.Jones: I’d like to close with a bit of advice from you…What would you say to someone who wants to follow in your path?
Raquel Allegra: I don’t believe you have to be anything but what you are. Be kind to people, and do what you believe in. I don’t believe in competition. I don’t believe in being mean. I believe in helping other people. I certainly couldn’t be here without other people helping me. What it really comes down to is your heart. Follow the light bulb in your head that says this is where you belong. This is what makes you happy
Visit raquelallegra.com for more information.