‘Streetwear’ vendors and the rise of the graphic tee
Allie Tollaksen | Tuesday, November 18, 2014
This sentence, plastered on a crewneck sweatshirt, is the first thing I saw upon logging into Facebook today. A product of Rad, an online “urban fashion” retailer, the shirt I saw was just one of many graphic tops I see on a regular basis from online-only vendors taking on the street wear trend.
It wasn’t long ago when I would pine over the pun-saturated, contemporary or retro-themed graphic tees from stores like Delia’s (RIP). I shudder when thinking back to my pre- and early-teen closet, full of colorful dinosaurs and David and Goliath cartoons printed onto pre-worn, short-sleeve shirts.
Then I was essentially told to burn those t-shirts. Graphic tees went out with the rest of the secondhand, years-late, hipster-inspired kids’ apparel of the mid-2000s. And so I gave away my “Chilling with my gnomies” lawn gnome shirt and all the other threadbare tees I’d collected and didn’t look back.
Now, a new generation of funny and ironic graphic tees have taken over my newsfeed this time instead of my closet. But instead of Care Bears or lawn gnomes that served as the pint-sized counterpart to the trucker-hat-toting, ironic-tee-wearing mid-2000s hipster, the graphic tee business has attempted to tackle street wear.
But there is just as much to complain about with this new wave of graphic tees that has hit 2014 so hard.
The first is that they’re cheap and easy to make, and horribly overpriced. If you think it’s difficult to throw Kanye lyrics over a painting, you’re sadly mistaken. There is no doubt that these companies are capitalizing on buzzwords and memes, then charging $40 so you can have your favorite “Where the Wild Things Are” quote printed on a sweatshirt.
They’re also pretty hideous. These dime-a-dozen online brands feature terrible typefaces and uninspired phrases (one shirt I found says “Just eff it”) that were churned out with what appears to be next to no thought. It seems as though these designers simply ripped the most popular tweets from the web and songs from Spotify, then placed them over tried and tired images stolen from Tumblr.
The worst, in my opinion, is that they appropriate music, artists and cultures with reckless abandon to no real effect. Rad, for example, features Kendrick Lamar lyrics plastered over classic art and hand-drawn tigers wearing headdresses. Whether or not you’re a fan of tigers or Kendrick Lamar, many of these vendors’ shirts are drenched in ironic racism and cultural appropriation.
One could certainly argue that this rising trend isn’t necessarily ironic. Perhaps the young owners of these shirts sincerely love both the classic paintings and hip-hop. Maybe it’s just an innocent but poorly-executed attempt at postmodernism. I’ve heard these arguments before and am willing to concede that they may be the case, but it’s hard to ask who is laughing and who is laughed at when you see the models wearing these shirts that call Mondays “basic” amidst two Facebook posts.
The truth is that this trend is just too easy. It’s the Internet vomiting on a shirt and calling it “urban” fashion. It’s a new wave of dubiously inappropriate, certainly unoriginal and pretty unfunny statements on t-shirts and faceless vendors cashing in on art and lyrics. It’s everything wrong with Urban Outfitters gone viral. It’s boring and lazy and we can do better.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.