Fashion is undeniably integral to Hip-Hop culture today. What kind of rapper doesn’t have his or her own streetwear line?
But if mixing Hip-Hop and fashion now seems natural and even conventional, let’s not forget that this idea was totally unique and innovative not so long ago. A trio of graffiti artists from New York known as the Shirt Kings are at the origin of this idea. In the Eighties, Edwin “Phade” Sacasa, Rafael “Kasheme” Avery, and Clyde “Nike” Harewood began transferring their passion for graffiti from the surface of trains to the surface of t- shirts!
Fabric became their new canvas and soon enough, the Shirt Kings were translating street culture and street art onto clothes, becoming the first to commercialise their graffiti. Welcome to the birth of the streetwear concept!
They opened a store in Queens in the Coliseum Mall. The shop became iconic in the Hip-Hop scene, in the same way that Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shop was to the punk scene. Some of the biggest Hip-Hop stars began passing through the doors, from the likes of Jay Z, Jam Master Jay and RZA… And soon the Shirt Kings’ t-shirts found their way into several of these artists’ video clips.
Customisation was the hallmark of the Shirt Kings. For every piece and every customer, the graffitis were custom-made. Always painted with airbrush, the Shirt King style was immediately recognisable, remixing pop culture elements and icons: we see Mickey Mouse sporting a big gold chain while smoking crack, the pink panther reclining on a champagne bottle. Through their vision, cartoons became badass!
A new book entitled ShirtKings : Pioneers of Hip Hop Fashion, co-written by Shirt King co-founder Edwin Phade Sacasa and journalist Alain Ket, takes a look back through the history of the brand, the store, and features never-before-seen photographs of this style and adventure/cultural phenomenon.
The Other interviewed Edwin Phade Sacasa to talk about what it means to be at the origin of a style movement that has now become mainstream.
When, why and how, did you get into graffiti art?
I got into Aerosol Art in 1976. I watched my older brother write on the subway train. I noticed the respect he and his team commanded. The fun, the girls, the art…
Was “Shirt Kings” a way to make a living out of your passion?
Creating Shirt Kings was a gift from God for me. It was a natural transition to taking my passion of painting on trains and developing a way to eat, while still being able to paint. I was 20 years old when I started airbrushing. By the age of 22, I had a store front and established who we were: Shirt Kings of Jamaica, Queens.
So how did it work? People would come in and ask for a special design?
Shirt King Phade is all about custom. The Shirt King brand allowed the customer to be part of the design process. By engaging the thoughts of the client, you let their creative juices flow, resulting in a one-of-a-kind piece of art. All Shirt King shirts were airbrushed one by one, giving them their authentic cultural stamp. Sometimes we would hand paint the gold chains on the characters to give them the illusion of 3d realness! With diamonds gleaming!
Our Shirt King shirts were 50 dollars and up. Once idea was settled on, the shirts would take about 2 hours each. If all of us did 4 shirts a day, that would total around 15-20 shirts per day.
Did the idea of customisation exist at the time or did you “invent” it and popularise it?
Me and Nike are from Brooklyn so we already had the custom bug from early on. We used to go to Delancey street in JHS to get custom-made Garbadine pants. So the seed was already planted in the 70’s. Dapper Dan did sewing custom design work later. We applied those ideas and techniques to our work ethic. We were and still are close to Dapper Dan. Together, we had most of the hip-hop custom on lock!
What is the funniest customisation request you ever had?
The funniest request was Kool DJ Red Alert ordering a shirt with a penis wearing a tuxedo. Red ironically wore his ‘Jimmy’ shirt on the cover of a couple of magazines. When editors realized the shirt Red wore was nothing but a ‘big dick’ in disguise, I got a phone call.
What were your inspirations?
Me and Nike used to run home from school like big kids to watch Gigantor and Speeed Racer. For breakfast, we watched Kimba, Bionic 6 and Transformers. We were inspired by The Herculords, Casper and Disney. Personally, I was inspired by Peter Max and Stan Lee.
Who was your first client?
My first client was Larry Love from Grand Master Flash group. The Shirt Kings’ first client was Jam Master Jay. My regular clients were High Schoolers, College students, Police Officers, Strippers, Drug Dealers, etc.
Who were your most famous clients?
The most famous client is Bill Cosby and Malcolm Jamaal Warner. The Shirt King shop attracted the Hip-Hop elite of the time. From day to day, if you sat in the SK shop, you might have see Run-DMC, L.L. Cool J, Monie Love, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Eric B, Afro’s, Public Enemy, Roxanne Shante, EPmD, Super Lover C.
Growing our roster of artists Nike, Kasher, Chase, Jay-Z, JeffStarr, Beef, Derrick, Icon, 50Cent, Dean, Dek the Hyper, Tyson, Dana, Pooh, King Folio, King Darnell, and JMartin. All the artists supported us because we were young entrepreneurs with a vision, not knowing we were creators. We were black business owners using their God-given gifts and talents to create a way out of the crack ensured streets of New York City.
What words would you use to describe Shirt King style?
Worldwide, Custom, Hipart!
Did you have competitors in the world of hip-hop customisation?
We were the first who began to understand that we topped the food chain when it came to doing what we do! Any competition, we shut them down, and employed them. That was the Shirt King way.
Did anyone copy or steal your designs?
We influenced Disney to do an Urbanized Mickey. Warner Bros followed: Buggs and Taz were wearing baggy pants with their hats to their backs. That’s not stealing. That’s paying it forward and creating a new generation of creators using the blue print to feed their families.
Did the graffiti scene criticize you for “commercialising” your art?
Plenty of artists criticized my work at first. They thought it was a fake Phade doing the art on clothes. Then it became apparent that I was a marketing genius. I was able to dumb down the “wildstyle” art to become readable and fun. I kept the colors and I was able to make aerosol art inspired T-shirts acceptable and fun to wear.
Today, who are the brands that you consider a part of the Shirt Kings heritage?
When and why did you close the shop and brand?
The Brand is very much alive. I have never stopped painting. The change of the times changed what people desired. Our customer base grew up. I still paint and work and develop designs for clothing lines. I just did a collaboration with Stussy and Supreme. For me, this is my life.
Where can I get a vintage “Shirtking” t-shirt today?
You can contact me: