The Semiotics of a Shoreditch T
Icons have always been plundered for Ts. Capped sleeves on Dean or Brando now a tad clichéd, though instrumental in rocketing sales in the 50s. And in that special drawer, the emblematic paean to formative culture: The Band tour concert T-shirt. Faded gothic lettering still curiously not out of date, just myopically challenged and worn only on special boys-own reunions. Merchandising panache that lemmings can only dream of, worshipped as nostalgia signifiers.
Ferdinand de Saussure, credited as one of the fathers of contemporary linguistics and semiotics, might have had a lot to say about the meanings attributed to T-shirt slogans. Or been somewhat disturbed. He died the same year the T-shirt was launched as standard-issue by the US navy in 1913, adopted shortly after by the army, then as ubiquitous work wear for just about anyone. And now the crew neck, short sleeve T is the most on demand item of clothing sold worldwide.
So what is it about the T-shirt that says Me over and over again, until someone wants to slap you silly for your single-minded style pathology? We’ve all been there. The Ts get replaced or ‘lost’ by misguided style-police partners. Ninety percent with a savagely disappointing short shelf life. Poor stitching, low quality fabric and ink dye that has given up the ghost.
Crossing Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch recently, (a feat in itself if you are London enough to remember the one-way traffic reversal mind fu**, I saw a T-shirt shop frontage ‘We Admire’. Had it always been there? Longer than six years it turns out. Until someone Oshiyas a new perspective into our digitally sedated brains, we just don’t see what’s in front of us. My appreciation of the T needed a re-boot, Jack.
Let’s start with the basics: the prejudices. A T-shirt shop means lowbrow fast fashion, right? Nope. Look at the designs on display. No mass-produced red swollen lips, hearts, buses or Beefeaters, no Jedi warrior or skull face doping me into the homogeneous world of tourist tat. There’s something more esoteric, more engagingly winsome going on. What istheir message? Can I deconstruct it? Can I chuff. But there’s no urban underground, unheard-of-philosopher pissing contest going on here. It is literally whatever amazes me from our world of incredible people and ideas.
For We Admire this is presented via the creative interpretations of around 60 graphic designers channeling their research on a particular artist, musician, architect, sportsman, film star, philosopher, whom-so-ever into a T-shirt design. It’s this artistic integrity that makes each T-shirt the designer’s work and not the to-order, ‘I’ll have five Derrida’s, eight Roly Barthes, a couple of Chet Bakers and a Fats Domino in a small.’ No, it doesn’t work like that, even if you say please.
As Theo Stegers the founder says, “Don’t try to pick winners – almost always fails.” A best seller at the moment is a hand drawn finely detailed Leica camera graphic. Go figure – but it works. It’s good talking to Theo. He does epithets to go and homespun side orders. He drew down from the Goethe ‘authenticity’ menu to illustrate his point: “What is uttered from the heart alone, will win the hearts of others to your own.” I’ll have two of those, one extra large. “If it’s authentic it’s interesting, if it’s bollocks – well, we’ve already seen the T-shirt.” Theo’s erudite honest-guv patter somehow deserves a place in the water-cooler exchanges of our significant lives.
Just 5 minutes into our chat, and I already find myself thinking about authenticity, mindfulness and self-determination. And just to be clear, we are still talking T-shirts. Barely past the first T, and Theo has used Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to extemporise on not trying to control what is uncontrollable in the heady world of T-shirt design. Faster than I can scribble, he works in a Kandinsky reference to ‘Concerning The Spiritual in Art’ – a plea for a spiritual revolution liberating artists from the bonds of the material world. I want to say, “I’ll have a latte, Jimmy” in a heavy Scottish accent, just to bat something back. To any designers who may approach him, he’s likely to say “Don’t send your CV or your portfolio – tell me about your passions.” It’s this vitality expressed as authentic interpretation that Theo cultivates in his designers, their T-shirt designs hung floor-to-ceiling in the store, like laid back QI questions waiting to be asked. And available to order online in around 2,000 separate designs. Go find yourself dudes.
In conversation with Theo you inevitably catch yourself thinking in T-shirt slogan sobriquets, mentally logging the pithiest for future use. Until he says, “You can’t chase cool.” The universal nomenclature for describing when it all comes together, as mysterious as the clouds passing the sky, is always “It’s so cool.” It happens because “Kids (and erm, adults) see something that resonates, without necessarily being certain about what those elements are.” And We Admire really is as simple as that. Just smarter.
Of course, they sell online. Forty per cent of orders are from outside the UK, from Italy, Israel, USA, South America and elsewhere. And they produce to order. For someone who has made it his business nurturing the quality of what’s on the T-shirt, it is no surprise that he’s also fastidious regarding what they are made of. Theo wants you to wear it to death, wash the backside out of it, and still see crisp edges in the design. They will soon be using Coolmax Fresh FX spun directly into the yarn of the T-shirts, in the structure of the fabric, providing permanent wicking and actively suppressing the growth of bacteria that can lead to bromhidrosis – body odour to you and me.
Best designs, best fabric – all they need next is best fit. Well, it just so happens there’s a very exciting product service being planned by We Admire, which will do all three on-demand, sure to tap into the zeitgeist across all ages and cultures for men and women. A T-shirt tease game-changer. Who’d have thought, Shoreditch, Ferdinand and smarter Ts.
We Admire Ltd
13-15 Great Eastern Street
London, EC2A 3EJ
By Paul Markevicius