The Block

Interviews — 4 months ago

Inside Chris Black’s Expansive Tee Collection

An interview with writer, creative strategist, and vintage tee connoisseur Chris Black.

 

Chris Black’s work resists easy categorisation; based in New York, he heads up Done To Death Projects, a creative agency that counts Stussy, Thom Browne, and Veilance among its clients, as well as Public Announcement, a brand consultancy, media brand and podcast. 

 

He writes too, for the likes of GQ, SSENSE, New York Magazine and Vogue (though his Tee of the Week column for Garage Magazine held a special place for us, of course), and he’s published a book, I Know You Think You Know It All, on how to stand apart from the crowd. 

 

Led by discerning taste and a strong opinion, as he tells it, “Careerwise it’s been a wild ride. I dropped out of high school and started managing a band and we had some success. Then once I got to New York I just kind of fell into this stuff, I started working with agencies and brands and it kind of just lead to fashion.”

 

Here he discusses the impulse to collect, how nostalgia informs taste, and why niche is best when it comes to T-shirts. 

 

Photography
Cobey Arner
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Photography by Cobey Arner

Why do you like T-shirts, what value do you think they have?

I grew up going to punk and hardcore shows and that was a big part of my life, from 13 to 20 basically, and I think that kind of introduced me to it. T-shirts, and buying a band shirt, and signifying what you like by wearing a T-shirt, was very much part of that culture, and I think that that just kind of stuck with me from an early age.

Like before the internet – I’m 36 so I’m on the cusp, I had the internet in middle school but I remember a time before it – wearing a Smiths shirt on vacation, and another kid from somewhere else sees you in that, it signifies that you have something in common. Then, it was a bigger statement, now people just wear whatever they feel like, it doesn’t matter if they like the band or not, but back in that time it meant a little more, and that was kind of special.

Chris Black vintage tee collector photographed by Cobey Arner
Photography by Cobey Arner

Your Tee of the Week picks were super eclectic, do you think there are any common things that make for a great T-shirt?

The more niche the better to be honest. It’s such an easy thing to do and make, and I think if it’s something you truly understand or are truly interested in, then it translates well to a T-shirt. Some of those got super niche and kind of funny, like ten people that read this will get it. But that’s kind of the beauty of it, I think that’s why so many are being made because it is hyper-specific and cheap, I mean to make 36 one colour T-shirts costs $300. The barrier of entry is very low to make something cool and niche that speaks to you and your group of friends, and I think that’s the best way to handle it – for me, something mass is not very interesting.

Chris Black's Tee Of The Week for Vice
Chris Black’s Tee Of The Week for Vice

So I guess the common feature of a really great T-shirt will be cult appeal…

Yeah for sure, like go as deep as you can. Take it as far as you can take it, and then take it a little further, and then you’ll have the best work, that’s my outlook on it for sure.

For me, something mass is not very interesting

Do you have a favourite T-shirt, like, ever?

My favourite T-shirt ever is probably this Smiths shirt that I got in high school that I can still wear. It says “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” on the back, and I love that song but I’m also a big talker and kind of a loudmouth, so I feel like it’s really evocative of who I am as a person. As far as band graphic shirts go, I think The Smiths are probably the best of all time, the artwork is so good; it’s classic. I have a few but that one is like the original that I got when I was probably 13 or 14, and I still have it.

It’s like a combination of nostalgia and taste preference I guess

100% nostalgia, I think that plays a big part in anything. I like to think that I’m above it but I’m definitely not, especially when it comes to music. As a teenager, like an adolescent, that kind of informed everything for me, that was where all of my taste in clothes came from, by emulating the bands that I liked, the books I read came from that, I mean my first job as an adult was managing a band. Like all of that stuff, it all started when I was 12 or 13 and it continues today, and I think those formative years are very, very important, you know?

Photography by Cobey Arner
Photography by Cobey Arner

From your T-shirt series I get the impression you have a very big collection

It’s dark, I’m not kidding. I live in New York, in the East Village, and I don’t cook at all, like I have no utensils, I have no pans, I just don’t cook. So the closet in my kitchen where you would keep kitchen supplies is literally T-shirts full, and so is my oven. And I ship them, I have a storage space and I ship some to my parents. I have the same problem with books and magazines, so I’m definitely like a ‘collector’.

Do you have any idea how many you have? Like a ballpark figure?

Oh a couple of hundred easily. And to be quite honest I don’t wear any of them. I mean on a day-to-day basis I don’t wear clothes with any writing on them, or logos, I just don’t do it. I might wear a shirt with a graphic on it once every month, or every couple of months, maybe to the gym, but generally I just don’t, it’s more of a thing I just appreciate.

Photography by Cobey Arner
Photography by Cobey Arner

So they’re more like an object, like a coffee table book, or a magazine, right?

Yeah, 100%. A T-shirt to me is utility in some way, that’s how I view it. But I think that, depending on how you chose to wear it, it can make a big statement, and I think that’s why it’s such a democratic garment. Like, I can wear a blue or white plain T-shirt every day and it means nothing, and the next day I wear that same blue T-shirt with some writing on it, and it’s a completely different thing to a completely different person, and that’s an interesting thing. I think that it’s just, wearing something on your chest is truly a statement and something very bold, and I think that the boom of streetwear and graphic T-shirts has kind of, we’re used to shirts that say “Fuck” on them now. But that’s wild, that’s not what people were doing in the ’90s. So it’s just a different thing for me, I don’t care about like super expensive rare vintage T-shirts, I think they look kind of corny, that’s a different game.

Chris Black photographed by Cobey Arner
Chris Black photographed by Cobey Arner

What’s the maximum you would ever spend on a T-shirt?

Maybe a hundred bucks? Like I don’t care, I mean every once in a while there’ll be something vintage that I’m like, “Alright, that’s probably worth 100 bucks.” There’s actually an amazing ’90s Tate modern shirt that my friends had at their store in LA called Varsity, and that was like $125, I probably would have bought that. But more than that is crazy.

One thing I never understand is the premium white T-shirt

It’s just fucking crazy. Every summer I buy a pack of ten white T-shirts that I wear, and when summer is over I donate them and it’s like, “Onto the next.” I mean I’ve owned a James Perse $100 Japanese cotton white T-shirt before, and it’s like, fine, the fit is OK, it’s a little too thin for me, but it’s a status thing, when it comes down to, like with everything else.

A T-shirt is such a democratic garment

Do you think the graphic T-shirt is still as much of a thing? Or do you see it dropping off? And what do you think would come next, if that’s the case?

I think that in general, we’re going to move back towards, for lack of a better term ‘real dressing’. The everybody looking like shit and wearing sneakers and sweatpants, I think that will probably come to an end, just because that’s how fashion works, it goes in cycles. But like, T-shirts are never going to go away. The classic T-shirt is such a staple, like Levi’s jeans or Converse All Stars, these are things that will never truly be out of style, you know? And, trends and style are different, as in, as it gets swept up in a trend, it gets swept up in a trend, and that just goes up and down, that’s just how the pendulum swings.

Photography by Cobey Arner
Photography by Cobey Arner

Yeah like T-shirts are part of the lexicon of things that everybody wears

I mean T-shirts can really touch on so many subcultures at this point, from sports to skateboarding, to music. It kind of touches everyone’s life in some way, and even someone like my dad, like my dad couldn’t give a shit about fashion at all, but he collects college shirts. He has all these champion college shirts from all over the world, and he wears them all, that’s what he likes to wear, and it’s kind of funny, but that’s a perfect example of a T-shirt, he doesn’t think about it at all, it’s just something he likes, like he doesn’t think about the meaning behind it or whatever, and that’s kind of a beautiful thing.

Photography by Cobey Arner
Photography by Cobey Arner

Do you think that’s where you get your collector trait from?

It’s funny because no, it’s not the same, but maybe? I wrote something years ago because I realised, we were on vacation together and my dad and I came out to go somewhere, and we were in the same clothes, and I was like, “Shit, this is crazy!” We’re both wearing Patagonia shorts and a polo shirt, and loafers. I mean there are definitely things you take from your parents without realising it, I think my parents think I’m a lunatic for all the shit that I’ve bought, they don’t get it, they’re like, “Why would you, who cares?”

Most of the stuff that I find interesting is weird bootlegs people send me

I feel like for a lot of people who collect things it’s because they’re aware that this stuff accrues value, and at some point, it will be valuable, but it seems like you just collect things very purely

I don’t give a shit about that, no absolutely not. Once the money leaves, the money is gone. I mean with T-shirts, in particular, that’s a different thing, because those interests are pretty niche for me, and of course, there’s a lot of people that like what I like, I’m not saying I’m some snowflake, but it’s niche. Whereas the books and magazines, like there are people that will pay for this collection of IDEA, or The Face, and there are people that will pay for signed copies of Juergen Teller’s first book, you know what I mean? That’s a much wider net. But all of it, to me, is just what I love to be surrounded by. It’s not about money, I’ll just make money, I don’t need to sell stuff to make money.

Photography by Cobey Arner
Photography by Cobey Arner

Who do you think are the most interesting people designing T-shirts are today?

Honestly? I don’t care like that, I really don’t. It’s more if it just strikes me personally, on an interest level. Most of the stuff that I find interesting is weird bootlegs people send me, that are like $20 online, like an Oasis bootleg that I really want, and there’s no design to it really. People send me stuff, or I just see stuff and I buy it. A guy that follows me on Instagram, who I’ve never met, DMed me a picture of this Last Days of Disco shirt he made, and it says, “Doomed-Bourgeois-in Love” on the front, and has a still from the film on the back, and I was like, “This is fucking incredible!” And then he sent me one, and I took a picture of it, put it on Instagram, and I sold probably 15 of them because people wanted it so bad. Dumb shit like that is what I care about more than a ‘designer’.

Photography by Cobey Arner

In terms of your own career, how do you choose what projects you’ll work on, what’s your criteria?

If it’s a brand I love, or if it’s just something that I see as a challenge, that’s really what it is. “Can I make an impact?” is part of it too, because I’ve had many clients over the years who would pay me to give them my opinion, and help with strategy, and come up with these concepts, and they would never get used, and that gets frustrating. So at a certain point you’re like, “OK, well I’m happy to do all this, because I like money, but I also want to see something realised,” and as you get older you care more about that.

Read more: Our favourite Summer T-shirt designs