Why the T-Shirt Is the Soul of New York Fashion

Rachel Tashjian

Who makes the best T-shirt? Well, The Row makes a $450 cashmere T-shirt that feels like wearing a cloud. Last year, Supreme released a box logo tee that ennobles its Futura logo in Swarovski crystals, brilliantly encapsulating the skate brand’s irreverent luxury pedigree. And just try getting your hands on one of Keith Haring’s original screen printed shirts—they’re harder to find than a work of art, and can cost just as much.

But for many people—purists, amateurs, and snobs alike—there is simply no better T-shirt than the souvenir bootlegs that hang from Canal Street awnings, are priced at 4 for $10, and read, “I <3 NEW YORK.”

The telegraphic typewriter logo, designed by Milton Glaser in 1976, represents the heart and soul of New York City on a Gildan blank—a streetwise heritage that documentary filmmaker Nicolas Heller, better known as Instagram’s leading NYC anthropologist @newyorknico, and Jaeki Cho, a producer and partner in the New York store Alumni, are carrying forward with their #BestNYShirt competition.

“I was thinking, what would be the 2020 version of a New York T-shirt that accentuates New York pride?” Cho said in a recent phone interview. Glaser’s image was initially designed for a state-wide marketing campaign, but when it became ubiquitous on white T-shirts in the city, it transformed into an iconic piece of pop art. “One thing that we realized about New Yorkers, is that New Yorkers love to wear New York products,” Cho said. “I don’t know that that’s the same for other cities. But I don’t see that in Tokyo. I don’t see that in Paris. I don’t see that in London.”

They all wear New York stuff!” Heller said.

“You come to New York,” Cho said, and “people wear New York products!”

So what would a T-shirt that represents the city, battered but undefeatable in this moment, look like in 2020? “A couple decades ago, New York was in a different spot,” Cho said. But “it still remains, arguably, the most ethnically, culturally diverse enclave in the world.” Cho and Heller first connected through Heller’s last Instagram contest—the New York Accent Challenge, where Cho’s jabbing Queens cadence made him one of the 16 finalists among entrants like The Kid Mero, Debi Mazar, and Wayne Diamond. (“Extra oxtail gravy on the top,” Cho commanded. “You already know.”) Cho admired that Heller’s accent challenge went beyond the stereotypical mob-boss cliches that have come to stand for New York in the popular consciousness, instead encapsulating something broader and more diverse, tougher and more eccentric. He hopes the T-shirt competition can do the same.

“If there’s something that could represent the city as a whole,” Cho said, “without any sort of specific elements, I think personally that could be a shirt that really represents New York City.”

The rules are simple: entrants submitted designs during the week of April 22 to April 29. An impressive lineup of six New York T-shirt experts—Opening Ceremony’s Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, designer Heron Preston, curator Kimberly Drew, Noah designer Brendon Babenzien, stylist Mel Ottenberg, Awake Clothing’s Angelo Baque, graffiti writer Claw Money, and Heller’s father Steven, the celebrated graphic design writer and art director—will narrow the entries down to 16 or 8 finalists, to be announced May 1, which people can then vote on via poll in Heller’s stories. The two finalists will have their designs produced and sold on the site for Cho’s store, and the judges will independently select a third design that will also go into production. The proceeds will go to two charities, The Campaign Against Hunger and God’s Love We Deliver.

Heller has been sharing a number of the more than 500 entries on his Instagram account so far. Many of them draw on New York’s landmarks and street-art aesthetic; nearly all of them embody the city’s unique spirit of poignant gutsiness. Many assemble the pedestrian pains and pleasures of daily life—vermin, Greek coffee cups, dollar slices— into cheeky or regal works of metropolitan heraldry. On one, roaches, rats, and pigeons yuk it up together under a graffiti banner reading, “EVEN THE DISENFRANCHISED SURVIVE.” Another is a take on the classic checkered pizza box, the Statue of Liberty’s flame replaced with a gooey slice. There is a dominatrix done in Ben-Day dots, leaning on the Empire State Building with a whip, with the slogan: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”; and a Chinese food menu with sports, movies and television, and hip-hop icons listed instead of foods. All the shirts highlight how certain cues—graffiti, ’70s typefaces, ’40s graphics, storefront signage, and swaggering, chin-up catchphrases—have coalesced to define the city’s vernacular visual culture. It’s all driven by an impulse to enshrine the quotidian, or even the repulsive, by scaling it into something grand.

But it isn’t merely pride that motivates this New York love of T-shirts. The very soul of the city itself goes hand-in-hand with the T-shirt’s populist ethos, and its role as the foundational garment of streetwear culture. “T-shirts are just such an accessible medium as a clothing tool,” Cho said. “I can attest, New York was back then, and it is now, a mecca for artists, graphic designers, and media companies. There’s always been a massive amount of creativity in the city.”

New York City is a walking city, so billboards and posters are less visible. But it’s also a highly confrontational, in-your-face city, a reality perfectly suited to the T-shirt, which can jolt messages—“Fuck you, you fuckin’ fuck!”—into a daily commute. “Streetwear is just ingrained in this city’s DNA,” Cho said, and good T-shirts are “artistic artifacts that capture the city at a certain point.” Reason Clothing’s Ramones logo T-shirt, with the Diplomats’ names in place of the band members’. Or the Mighty Healthy tee that chopped up famous magazine logos into a collaged message: “Mad People In New York Are Hustlers.” Or Only NY’s simple purple dismissal: “Nah son.”

At the moment, Heller is living in T-shirts from his favorite small businesses, but Cho said he’s wearing polos—“Essentially a New York summer staple. Everybody from Dominicans in the Heights to Jamaican cats in Crown Heights, it’s just the classic polo.” And, “Unfortunately, my torso doesn’t always look great in a T-shirt at this point in my life,” he said. “A structured actual shirt looks better on my fit.” Of course, you can take the New Yorker out of the T-shirt, but you can’t take the T-shirt out of the New Yorker.

Originally Appeared on GQ