A New Way to FLRT

by Mac Smith

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 25, 2013

"You say you're a sweetheart, but do you have a sweet heart?"

Corey Wesley received this piece of love advice from his mother and it stuck. The personal mantra has also become symbolic of the six-year transformation of his Harlem-based T-shirt company.

What started in 2007 as Flirtatious T, an independent business of colorful T-shirts with sexy and attention grabbing printed sayings, has in the past year evolved into Urban FLRT, a more sophisticated, fashion forward line of tees with dye sublimated graphics culled from his other great passions: music, art and the city.

Wesley wanted his line to draw more from the vast cultural loves of his life versus Flirtatious T's more aggressive approach as well as refresh the definition of "urban" to steer away from past negative connotations. Urban FLRT, which stands for both "Freely Living Real & True" and "Fashion & Lifestyle that is Rewarding & Timeless," is now soulful and sweet in both style and statement - each design an eye-catching signature piece.

From Culture to Couture

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Wesley confesses relocating to Harlem in 2007 increased his pool of influences. "There's such a culture here. It's now a destination," says Wesley. He should know. The designer/entrepreneur is part of the new fabric of Harlem and has been referred to as, "'The New Face of Urban," a "Modern Day Urbanite" and the "Urban FLRT who understands pop culture."

Many of his favorite graphics used in Urban FLRT represent the culture of Harlem from Afros to oversized headphones and also include other New York City landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge. It's a cultural stew of influences with heavy leanings towards retro symbols he grew up with (cassette tapes, boom boxes, etc.) that he now interjects into the modern pop culture vocabulary.

Inspiration strikes Urban FLRT beyond the streets, though, with some of the best sources coming from conversations in public spaces. "Just a word I'll hear someone say will make me visualize a T-shirt design," says Wesley. The African Queen T-shirt sprung from a lively discussion when a friend was riffing about an African queen. Wesley felt roused to put into a single image all the cultural ways an African queen is reflected and referenced. And just like that, a style was born.

Other noteworthy designs include "The Voice," which draws direct influence from the NBC singing show and more specifically from past judge Christina Aguilera. The graphic displays her grand diva personality: all mane, melisma and mic.

"Rhythm and Blues" is another chanteuse- inspired design, this time with an R&B torch singer comprised of symbols that come together in her image. The catalyst for this design was Tamar Braxton, whom Wesley admits he'd love to be the next celeb to wear FLRT. Whoopi Goldberg, Kendra Wilkinson and Bree Scullark have already been spotted in his designs.

Wesley has also poured his heart into Urban FLRT's construction process. Once his initial sketch is crafted, a sample is produced in the US using a distinct dye sublimation process. "The dye is embedded in the fabric so the graphic goes all the way through the cotton," says Wesley. "It's a process that results in richer colors that won't fade."

This is also why tees are only available in white and crewneck. Each piece is personally inspected and when it finally meets his approval, the samples are presented to buyers or used for e-commerce. The samples are just samples, though. There is no inventory laying around. In fact, each shirt is made to order - astonishing with an approachable price point under $40.

A Growing Business Model

Urban FLRT's T-shirt line is just one aspect of Wesley's creative endeavors and his larger business model, BlackOutEndeavors, which embodies his identification as an African American, a gay entrepreneur and his strong business sense. With that in mind the brand also has a lifestyle blog, UrbanLand Media, which posts about "pop culture, fashion, sex and dating - the very things that would make someone a well-rounded urbanite," says Wesley. BlackOutEndeavors also gives back to the community with a portion of profits from Urban FLRT donated to AIDS and LGBT oriented charities.

The past year was one of growth for Urban FLRT, including Better Business Bureau accreditation and participation in the annual Harlem Art Walking Tour, where Wesley was able to connect more deeply with customers and other local artists and entrepreneurs.

The momentum is increasing as wholesale accounts will catapult the availability of Urban FLRT in boutiques nationwide as well as participation in a collaborative trunk show in Philadelphia on Mar. 23. Wesley also hopes to expand beyond T-shirts, setting his sites on underwear design.

It seems as if being a sweetheart is paying off personally and professionally for Corey Wesley. Good thing he listened to momma.

Mac Smith Mac Smith is a New York City based fashion writer who has never met a cat, coat or cake he didn't love. Follow him on Instagram at @macsmith1218 and Twitter at @itcantallbedior.