The process begins here, in the mind of a designer like Jerry Hernandez, who is using American Apparel’s basic 50-50 style tee to begin his own clothing line. To Hernandez, it makes sense to start this venture in LA’s ready-to-wear mecca, the same place where about 1,050 other fashion designers do business, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.
Hernandez is fumbling with his Bluetooth headset as he pulls off the Azusa exit of the 60 freeway.
“I wasn’t setting out to be a designer by any means,” Hernandez says, turning on a residential street to gather his thoughts while talking on the phone. “I liked the idea of playing around with making fun of pop [culture], using the shirt to get the ideas in my head on something.”
A t-shirt is one of the most basic clothing items a person can own. It has become the gateway for up-and-coming designers to break into the industry. Designer Katharine Hamnett originated the slogan tee in 1980s Britain, which some would argue is the predecessor of the designer tee.
“I wanted to put a really large message on T-shirts that could be read from 20 or 30 feet away,” she told The Guardian newspaper in 2009. “Slogans work on so many different levels; they’re almost subliminal. They’re also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They’re tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself.”
Hamnett was photographed wearing a slogan tee proclaiming “58% Don’t Want Pershing” with Margaret Thatcher in 1984 that launched slogan tees everywhere. The shirt was a statement to the British prime minister that Britons didn’t want US Pershing missiles to be based in the UK at the end of the Cold War. More recently, style icon Sarah Jessica Parker donned one of Hamnett’s designs that said “Stay Alive in 85″ in “Sex and the City: The Movie.” The more a tee is in the public eye, the better it is for a designer.
This suits the 24-year-old Hernandez, who is from Montebello, Calif. He grew up reading books about the factory era and Andy Warhol. He knows how the publicity side of the fashion industry works and he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to take the popular route of photographing t-shirt-clad celebrities to make a name for himself and is looking for other methods to build his brand name. His is probably the same struggle most designers have when they are starting out. But just two years ago, Hernandez watched Henry Holland launch his first clothing line at London Fashion Week. It was collection based on Hamnett-like slogan tees. Soon after, knockoffs of the British designer’s bright-colored oversized tops popped up around the world.
Young and edgy, Henry Holland built on the principles of Hamnett’s slogan model and splayed his first t-shirts with racy lines like “I’ve got more than a handful, Naomi Campbell” and “Give us a blow, Daisy Low” and ultimately built himself a clothing empire praised by British Vogue as “proof that London doesn’t take itself too seriously and that fashion is fun, after all.”
This method of branding is akin to that which marketers have used for decades. But experts say few people consciously think about that and the more affordable the t-shirt, the better.
“The marketers see the t-shirt as a potential walking billboard or premium that people will wear and that can communicate brand information,” said Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. “So, they might like to make [the t-shirt] as affordable as possible as another path for communication.”
“It’s a fashion statement. The t-shirt is very transparent,” said t-shirt blogger Coty Gonzales. “It tells the people around you what kind of person you are.”
Hernandez also saw how RVCA, a surfer brand based in Costa Mesa, Calif., made a name for itself by showcasing artists’ work on t-shirts. The brand used the shirt to publicize the artist collective, not just make a fashion statement, and that is the model Hernandez is hoping to adopt. Soon Hernandez tried on the trend that made big brands like House of Holland and RVCA popular. He understood that printing on t-shirts is the premier method for branding.
When fashion megalith Christian Dior had financial trouble, the brand looked to t-shirts for a solution. They emblazoned “J’adore Dior” on them to reach out to a younger clientele and sold the shirts for $200. The t-shirt is the affordable alternative for someone who wants to tout a brand.
“People find that the brand expressions are succinct in communicating [their ideas] versus a self-prepared slogan or self-prepared picture [placed on t-shirt],” Cornwell said. “There’s a lot that around as well but brand names do a lot of that work very efficiently.”
“That’s a way to explicitly tell someone you adhere to the brand. That you adhere to that lifestyle. It’s a much more affordable,” FIDM fashion expert Christina Johnson said.
“A woman who couldn’t afford the shoes or purse could afford the t-shirt and that’s a way to align herself with the brand. I don’t think most people realize that or care to think about that. Most people are more interested in using the designer’s world view and using that lifestyle as their own. They don’t really think about the real nitty gritty that they are paying to be an advertisement.”
But Hernandez says he isn’t in the business to make money. Nor does he want celebutantes like Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian to be spotted in his gear just to make it popular.
“It was the canvas more than trying to create something cool,” he said.
His Butterboy collection is inspired by Andy Warhol, who called himself a “butterboy,” who is someone in between being a momma’s boy and a man. Around the same time Warhol wrote those words, Elle magazine announced that the t-shirt would become a basic item of clothing “that will never go out of fashion because it’s already beyond fashion” simply because it’s a basic item of clothing.
“I never thought I’d get involved with clothing ever, it just kind of happened,” Hernandez said. “It’s because I see what a t-shirt could do.”
The Butterboy prints are based on pop art comic book bursts that transpose key words with a graphic of the word “POP.” One tee reads “I can’t believe it’s not POP,” another “I think therefore I POP” and “The POP must go on.” It costs him about $1.75 to $2 to produce the shirt and he plans to sell them for upwards of $20 beginning when he launches the Butterboy Web site. But he has to order 10,000 shirts, which is the minimum sample quantity he gets from his manufacturer. Lucky for him, his father is backing his business endeavor.
Hernandez steps out of his car into a cool afternoon breeze. He then walks into The Coffee Bean on Santa Monica Boulevard and Beverly Glen gripping a large black portfolio filled with photos and sketches.
He sits at a table outside the coffee shop, scanning an open table inside the coffee shop. He’s wearing a low-cut black and white tank top and a light denim button-down shirt over it, dark skinny jeans and patent leather tuxedo shoes. He accessorizes his outfit with a thick gold bracelet. He would have worn one of his signature Butterboy tees, but decided to preserve it for a night out rather than work.
He says he wants his t-shirts to be more than a walking billboard. With 10 screens prints in his line, he thinks “it’s the best way to promote [the artist collective] and for me this line is the face of the brand we’re creating.”
Now sitting in the warmth of the coffee shop, Hernandez plays with his BlackBerry while he greets Jenn Brigham, the graphic designer he hired to build Butterboy.com.
Hernandez scatters small prints from the t-shirt photo shoot on the table as if he were dealing cards. Black and white images of a male and female model cover the table. Hernandez sifts through his portfolio to show her his old sketches of the site’s opening page: his logo, which is loosely derived from Andy Warhol’s face.
Then Brigham pulls out her versions of the opening page mockups and sets them on the table. Hernandez lets out a small gasp and says, “I love this,” tapping parts of the page where the models are. He lifts the print, hugs it to his chest and leans back on the chair.
“It looks like legit…oh my gosh,” he sighs. Setting it back on the table, Brigham shows him the changes she plans to make and he nods.
“I can’t stop looking at it,” he says.
The face of one of his friends who is a model and dancer is enlarged on most of the page. A tuft of blonde hair sticks out under the male model’s tilted police hat. In gold cursive letters, the hat reads “Butterboy.” Next to the enlarged head stands a full-length girl wearing an extra large t-shirt as a dress with black thigh-high boots. The shirt reads “Will Work for POP,” a play on what looks like a “working girl,” Hernandez admits.
“They’re the face of the brand, they embody the brand,” he says as he smiles.
He says he hopes his brand will turn into an artistic collaboration, much like RVCA’s artist network.
“If you’re an artist, I think a lot of the times they create so many pieces that if you’re able to put it on a t-shirt, more people can see it,” he says. “It’ll be a platform to showcase what people can do.”