Fit to a 'T'

by David Perry

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 7, 2016

When a T-shirt sells for $400,000, it is safe to say the design itself is firmly subsumed into accepted fashion. But whether of alligator skin or solid gold, Ts were once downright improper.

The Daily Street's "Icons of Style: T-Shirts" (Mitchell Beazley, $15.02) traces their origin to sailor's garb circa 1898, but the garments were considered so inappropriate by genteel society that not until the perfect pecs of Marlon Brando in 1951's "A Streetcar Named Desire" did the short-sleeved, thin-fabric, "buttonless" shirt reach acceptability.

But when something becomes so thoroughly part of the equation, it is natural to want to yank it out. EDGE found three designers doing just that.

Ludwig Van

It's not mainstream when you feature Audrey Hepburn with a ball gag. That's what Mike Dytri is going for.

"I've been conscious of my own style ever since I was a teenager into the hip-hop/breakdance scene," says the mastermind of Los Angeles-based Ludwig Van. "Later this would be called 'street wear.'"

Which has always thumbed its nose at convention, and with a name inspired by "A Clockwork Orange," one of the most dystopian films on record, so much the better. But Dytri puts substance to the company's "anti" vibe; unlike a mass-produced T, Ludvig Van shirts feature a custom shape and spec with a rear shoulder yoke allowing an anatomical fit. But throw on an authoritarian "Listen To Beethoven" slogan and, well, there's no rule you have to make everybody else comfortable.

And yes, this Mike Dytri is the same who starred in 1992's "The Living End," one of the first New Queer Cinema films.

Swish Embassy

"Whenever I would go into boutiques looking for a fun T-shirt, I would inevitably find the sort of designs that would hit you over the head with sexual innuendo," recalls Dean Malka of Swish Embassy. "They were great for wearing to bars, but it a little too crude for mixed company."

Thus, Swish Embassy is for men, by men, thinking about men -- but keeps it above the table by hiding M4M fabulousness in plain sight, like Ts emblazoned with characters from "He-Man and the Master of the Universe" and "She-Ra: Princess of Power," arguably the gayest cartoons in history (He-Man's best friends were named Ram Man and Fisto. Not kidding). It is subversive, but you have to be something of a "gay geek" to get the references.

And Malka is not above targeting a few sacred gay cows. "One of our most popular designs is the Masc4Masc T-shirt," says Malka. "It was inspired by what gays write on hookup apps. Our shirt is an ironic commentary, as it profiles a big fat unicorn as the main artwork."

Irrix Screen

Wear a creation by the wunderkind known as Irrix Screen and you have a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. This is a certainty, as he hand-paints each shirt as a standalone work.

"I never sketch out anything," he says, "it just comes from the mind. The Universe makes no mistakes, so there are no mistakes in art. I continue to paint until it becomes a part of me. And at that point, I would say that this shirt already has a home without knowing where the owner is."

From his cozy corner shop in New York's trendy South Street Seaport, Irrix Screen harkens back to the hard-edged art scene of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. His blocky, vaguely eerie designs descend from East Village sensibility before the boutiques moved in.

Using black ink and strokes both bold and wispy, the artist tells EDGE, "My inspiration is pretty much everything around me, from just doing art, people appreciating what they see and the people around them vibing together. It's a unity of society that plays off the art."

Not sure which design to get? Just ask the man himself -- Irrix Screen is his own best personal shopper, and regularly sizes up customers to find the right piece. It is all part of his drive to make sure the right shirt gets to the right owner.

David Perry is a freelance travel and news journalist. In addition to EDGE, his work has appeared on ChinaTopix, Thrillist, and in Next Magazine and Steele Luxury Travel among others. Follow him on Twitter at @GhastEald.

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