T-Shirt Manifesto

Threadless tells the story of how an idealistic vision became a design revoluion

Threadless is not just a t-shirt company that produces inspired graphic work, and it’s not just an internet upstart that championed “crowdsourcing” and social networking. In the words of co-founder Jake Nickell, Threadless “is a living breathing community of people that can’t be told what to do.” In Threadless: Ten Years of T-Shirts from the World’s Most Inspiring Online Design Community, Nickell chronicles the scrappy start-up’s rise over the past 10 years and makes a pretty good case that the company is something of a (t-shirt) revolution.

Nickell is joined by a cast of new media experts, designers, and fans who collectively recount the company’s deal: users are encouraged to upload designs and visitors vote on which t-shirt will go into production. Guest essayist Seth Godin writes that Threadless is, “a company that hires the unhireable, codes the uncodable [and] markets the unmarketable,” and Jeff Howe notes, “The genius of Threadless is that they put the community on a pedestal and then stepped into the background.” The mini-essays illustrate a company that democratizes art, and are the highlight of the book’s written content.

Text is dwarfed by the technicolour t-shirt designs and I found myself recognizing a lot of the prints as I pored over the pages, like this graphic of a badass Scooby-doo fanfic drawing of Velma with a shotgun and a bloodthirsty Scooby. Threadless’s designs have become pervasive over the past decade, and my sentiments on ubiquity were shared by those interviewed. Barnaby Bocock from New Zealand, speaking of his design “Nuts” said, “I think the ultimate compliment is seeing how much it has been ripped off. It was especially surreal when I found fakes being sold in Bangkok.”

Nickell’s strength as a businessman is sharing the spotlight. And although he’s writing about the company he started, the charismatic and critical engagement of other thinkers and artists are what put his success into a broader context and make it shine. As Nickell says: “Threadless is a community of people first, a t-shirt store second.” He gets away with wide-eyed utopian statements because the book is just as much an inspiring testament to sticking to your principles as proving that innovation can be more than empty business jargon. Threadless isn’t so much a coffee-table book as it is a colourful manifesto.

further reading // Threadless: Ten Years of T-Shirts from the World’s Most Inspiring Online Design Community by Jake Nickell and Jeffrey Kalmikoff // Henry N. Abrams // 2010

book report // Cayley James
images // Brianne Burnell

I’ve Got Somethin’ To Say!

Jerri Blank is a fashion plate extraordinaire

“I was a user, loser and a boozer…” And so begins Strangers With Candy, the raunchy, satirical post-modern twist on after school specials. It’s like if Degrassi took place in The Twilight Zone; an anywhere-USA alternate universe where issues like teen pregnancy are dealt with in health class by students being given a real baby to care for for a week.

Inspired by a very real PSA from the ’60s called “The Trip Back,” creators Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, and Amy Sedaris crafted a brightly-hued psycho sitcom universe around the bawdy, incorrigible Jerri Blank. The show follows Jerri, who is just another 46 year old, ex-junkie whore trying to get through high school.

Let me explain.

Blank was a teenage runaway and is picking up right where she left off: Grade 9. The brilliance of the show is that everyone treats her like another high-school student despite the crows feet and love handles. The rest of the cast includes her revisionist history teacher Mr. Noblet (Stephen Colbert), her flaky-hack of an art teacher Mr. Jellineck (Paul Dinello), her megalomaniac principal Onyx Blackman (Gregory Holliman), her evil stepmother, her brutish half-brother, and the revolving denizens of Flatpoint High.

Flatpoint is like a twisted fun-house version of Archie Comics’ Riverdale. The highschool is cartoonishly bright with immersive set dressing that can only ber appreciated through multiple viewings. Every classroom is dressed to the nines with “student work,” hand-drawn club posters and the omnipresent image of Principal Blackman.

It’s Jerri’s closet, however, that steals the show. For those who know Sedaris as Carrie Bradshaw’s publisher on Sex in the City, or from her recent career turn into hospitality and crafting, it’s a little jarring to see the petite blonde who is usually decked out in vintage party-dresses transform into her junkie ex-con alter ego with such ease. With a seemingly endless supply of synthetic knits, turtlenecks, mom jeans, garish animal prints, spandex, rhinestones, and leather in all its possible iterations, veteran costumer Vicki Farrell crafted thrift shop nightmares for Jerri to wreak havoc in episode after episode. She even created sagging “bosoms” out of sweet potatoes for Sedaris to wear under a swim suit in one scene. Sedaris mentions in the DVD commentary that she [Vicki] was “always putting little things on me…she hid little animals and things that the audience couldn’t see. But it was so important for her,” and its this detailed work that makes Jerri’s world that much more grounded despite her ineptitude as a human being.

Squirrel print blouses, unseemly camel-toes, and occasional cult robes aside, Sedaris also wore a custom fat-suit she had made in real life (any fan of her brother’s work has likely heard the story). Her wigs add the final punch in Jerri’s ex-con chic, as they evolve over the three seasons to eventually “defy gravity” in the third, as noted by Colbert in the DVD commentary.

Strangers With Candy sometimes feels like it could be a companion piece to John Waters’s work; it’s brash, it’s campy, and it’s hilarious. But at the show’s heart, it’s about someone trying to do the right thing—just in the worst way possible.

text //Cayley James

Today’s Forecast – Hot!

It’s 1989 and it is hot. Spike Lee’s third feature film is a terracotta-hued, slice of life character piece, set on the hottest day of the year—and the heat is getting to just about everyone. With a score that tips its hat to Porgy and Bess, and a camera that wanders languidly up and down a Bed-Stuy Brooklyn block, Do the Right Thing chronicles a day in the life of a cast of characters that reaches Altman levels of eccentricity. From brownstone stoops to the pizza parlour, bodegas and the streets themselves, a story evolves out of questions of race, rights, and expression. What does it take for a man to take a stand? How does a misunderstanding at a neighbourhood pizzeria end in a riot?

Exasperated with typical Hollywood depictions of race relations, Lee sought to fill the void with a more honest rendering. Inspired by the tragic events of the Howard Beach Incident in 1986 and the rise of Afrocentric activism in hip-hop, Lee hit the zeitgeist with his brash sense of humour, interspersing violence with empathy.

From the moment Rosie Perez dances her heart out to “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy (a song that swims through the film like one that you can’t get out of your head) during the title sequence in all her fearless fly girl glory, decked out in red, white, and blue, you know you’re in for a visual assault on the American Dream. Lee’s camera follows Mookie (played by Spike Lee) as he ambles, indifferent, in a Jackie Robinson jersey on his delivery runs for “Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.” A fight breaks out between Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and a Larry Bird-jersey clad John Savage over a pair of scuffed Air Jordans. There’s Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) ‘Love/Hate’ rings and the parable that comes with them, Mother Sister’s (Ruby Dee) caftans, DJ Love Daddy’s (Samuel L. Jackson) parade of hats that are as relevant as his commentary, and Jade’s (Joie Lee) effortless charm in her belted dresses; the neighbourhood is brimming with style. Prolific costume designer Ruth E. Carter developed a visual feast that has aged incredibly well, despite being, for all intensive purposes, a very timely film. Watching Do The Right Thing now, after all that has happened since then, is just as relevant and fearless as it ever was.

text and screencaps by Cayley James

Book Review: Harris Tweed

Harris Tweed is more then just a fabric in the UK. It is an institution. The material is so revered that it has its own legislation—an official Harris Tweed is: “a tweed that has been hand-woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.”

Lara Platman’s gorgeous ode to the anglophile textile, Harris Tweed: From Land to Street, is an immersive introduction to the fabric. Through lush photography, informative behind-the-scenes text, and first person accounts from the people who make tweed their livelihood, Platman introduces the reader to an industry that’s as concerned with community and tradition as it is with producing quality tweed.

Harris Tweed follows Platman’s year spent in the world of the farmers, millers, and weavers of the rocky islands off the west coast of Scotland. The book explains in detail how the fabric is manufactured. Each chapter is devoted to a step in its production journey, including the wool and those who shear it, the mill, weavers, and other aspects of production, until Platman explores how the tweed is used as a final product in contemporary interior design and fashion.
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