How does one know they’re “onto something?” The true beauty of the creative process is that those looking to take a risk don’t know what the future will hold, but they – whether a singular entity or merely in charge of a collective – are willing to steam forward no matter if the result is one met with little to no enthusiasm. Inspiration strikes. Items are refined. Mistakes are made. This is creativity and always will be.
We’ve assembled 20 of the most well-known designs in streetwear and unearthed stories from a variety of sources as to what went into creating those enduring pieces whose imagery is synonymous with culture, but whose inspirations are perhaps shrouded in mystery.
Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant Stencil
In an interview with Format Magazine in 2008, Fairey said: “The Andre the Giant sticker was just a spontaneous, happy accident. I was teaching a friend how to make stencils in the summer of 1989, and I looked for a picture to use in the newspaper, and there just happened to be an ad for wrestling with André the Giant and I told him that he should make a stencil of it. He said ‘Nah, I’m not making a stencil of that, that’s stupid!’ but I thought it was funny so I made the stencil and I made a few stickers and the group of guys I was hanging out with always called each other The Posse, so it said Andre the Giant Has A Posse, and it was sort of appropriated from hip-hop slang – Public Enemy, NWA and Ice-T were all using the word.” The threat of a lawsuit from Titan Sports, Inc. in 1994 spurred Fairey to stop using the trademarked name André the Giant – thus creating what we now know as OBEY.
The Hundreds “Hip Hop is Dead” Tee
Bobby Hundreds explains, “This was the first tee that really garnered us recognition, and broke us in the media and opened a wave of retail doors. It was our ‘Jesus is a Homeboy’ or ‘Che’ tee that exploded the brand to that next level. I designed it between the library and the classroom while Ben and I were still in school. The original intent was to riff off of ‘Punk is Dead,’ but flip it for the early 2000s’ era, when hip-hop – as we had known and loved it – was unraveling. The shirt was controversial on many levels and reached the most prominent rappers of the time, some who publicly made a stink about it. Nas was also aware of the shirt, as his record by the same name didn’t publish until years later. To date, it’s still one of our most successful tees and was also offered in brown and navy, although black is the one most people remember.”
The Vans Checkerboard Pattern
“In the late seventies I was now out of high school and I noticed kids were taking the side profile off the shoe, where the white rubber was, and coloring it in checkerboard,” says Paul Van Doren. “So the first thing we did was start making rubber with the checks on it and eventually we made some canvas.”
SSUR’s “COMME des FUCKDOWN”
Russ Karablin and his SSUR imprint certainly got the streetwear world’s attention with his COMME des FUCKDOWN parody of COMME des GARCONS. In speaking about the project with VICE he said, “COMME des FUCKDOWN is a design we did eight to 10 years ago for a brand that myself and Jamie Story, who used to do a brand called JMoney, collaborated on, called ‘The Cut.’ We put out the design years ago and it had a good response then too, but we put it on ice for a while. The timing seemed right to bring that one back out with the whole 2012 thing and all that stuff. We brought it back again to tell the world to just chill the fuck out.”
Supreme Japan Box Logo Tee
While the often elusive Supreme has delved into cultural differentiations thanks to usage of both Hebrew and Arabic on tees in the past, their Japan Box Logo Tee took on a completely different meaning. Utilizing Japan’s instantly recognizable Rising Sun imagery, the shirt was meant to pay respects to those affected by the 2011 earthquake with all proceeds going to charity.
Air Jordan III Animal Print
The Air Jordan III is the first signature shoe for Michael Jordan that combined the on-court wizardry of His Airness with the off-court brilliance of designer Tinker Hatfield (who would create every single one from them on) – and a design that would ensure Jordan wouldn’t leave the Swoosh for another brand. Apart from the fact that it lacked traditional Nike branding on the side and was the first Jordan to use Visible Air, it was undoubtedly the elephant print that really made the shoes pop. While there is no clear case of why Hatfield chose the print, digest this tasty nugget from him: “When you’re a designer trying to think of new ideas, you need a space that’s off-the-wall and different. This book, A Pattern Language, which I read while studying architecture, explains why: An environment’s design gives you cues about how it’s used.”
Rocksmith “Notorious 81” Tee
Rocksmith tells us, “That tee idea came about in ’08-’09 when musically there [were] a lot of mashups coming out and we were doing a similar thing visually with a lot of our Rocksmith tees. This tee unlike our others that mashed genres of music, was a mix of the styles of two Brooklyn legends. We have always felt that if Jean Michel was alive he would have for sure painted Biggie. As a young brand based in Brooklyn, we felt that idea had to exist at least in interpretation – which at the time was core to what streetwear was.”
Ronnie Fieg’s Mercer Pants
“I wanted to create something that looks like a pant, fits like a sweat, and can be worn like denim,” says Ronnie Fieg. “There was nothing out there that amplified your footwear choice and seeing footwear is very important.”
Air Jordan XI Patent Leather
“I started designing the Air Jordan XI during Michael’s first retirement – I kept saying he would un-retire,” said Tinker Hatfield. “People at Nike gave me a hard time, so I wanted to show those assholes that we could make the best Jordans ever. The XI was the first basketball shoe to have a carbon-fiber plate in the sole and patent leather. By the time I showed Michael, he’d started playing again.”
Givenchy Rottweiler Tee
Riccardo Tisci’s Rottweiler Tee was seemingly everywhere since it first debuted at Givenchy’s Fall 2011 runway show. Tisci told GQ that he got the idea for the shirt from a boyscout book. “It’s not a violent picture. For me, it’s a sweet dog. It represents power and sweetness.” He went out to say, “A dog is much better than a human being, I think humans, in the society we live in today, are a little bit unfaithful. So many people are insecure about love. Dogs are the only creature that still has a heart and a brain and is still your best friend.”
HUF Plantlife Socks
The Plantlife print is just something that represents HUF… loud but hidden, a well-kept secret,” says Keith Hufnagel. “It’s like, you put on a fresh pair of socks every day, and then just cover them up with sneakers… so it’s all about those subtle details underneath. Push down the street and someone catches a glimpse of the Plantlife, and they’re like, ‘wait…what?’ It becomes a topic, like, ‘wait, what was on those socks just now?'”
Art by Art Jacobs by Marc Jacobs Tee
The back-and-forth between graffiti artist Kidult and designer Marc Jacobs is well documented. The artist has “contributed” to a number of Jacob’s store facades in the past – notably scrawling the word “Art” on his SoHo location. In response, Jacobs used a photograph of the graffiti on his store and printed it on a T-shirt which he then went on to sell for $686 dollars.
Supreme OG Kate Moss Tee
In 1994, Calvin Klein ran an advertisement campaign featuring a young Kate Moss. Around the same time, the first Supreme store opened in downtown Manhattan resulting in the brand’s logo popping up around the city thanks to stickers. Where were these stickers placed? You guessed it. Right over Kate Moss’s crotch.
10.Deep’s Bacchanal Print
Scott Sasso tells us, “The inspiration for that was simply that I wanted to do florals, but at that time florals were way out of the scope of what people were wearing, so I needed to figure out a way to toughen up the pattern a bit. I figured the best way to do that was to inject a subversive element into the pattern so that it would feel more masculine, and I came up with the idea of only using plants [that] are known for their psychoactive properties. It’s funny, I don’t think most people realize what plants are on that sweatshirt. We’ve gotten returns from people who ‘didn’t realize there were pot plants on it,’ and I think ‘what about the opium poppy, psilocybin, coca leaf, peyote and wormwood?'”
Staple Pigeon Dunk
In an interview with Sneaker Freaker, jeffstaple said, “My good friend Marcus, who used to run things at Nike SB, asked us to create the NYC Dunk that was to be aligned with the White Dunk show. If you remember, there was a Paris, Japan, Cali, London one, etc., etc. So he asked us to work on the NYC one. Of course, it was a great honor. To be able to bless the seminal shoe, the Dunk, and represent our hometown all in one project was just a dream come true. After sitting around and thinking for awhile about what represented NY best, the pigeon kept coming up. It’s something very innate to New Yorkers. And something you wouldn’t necessarily relate to the city if you didn’t, in fact, live here.”
Publish Brand Jogger Pants
In an interview with The Hundreds, owner Michael Huynh told them, “Alex James, a culture-savvy and longtime friend of mine had came to down to visit my office/studio to chop up design and what was going to be included in our first collection. Him and I talk culture a lot and so we bounce around ideas all the time. That day Alex James had worn a really dope pair of sweatpants – I believe they were by Marc Jacobs – and he was like, ‘Mike, you gotta do a silhouette like this!’ and I was like, ‘James, sweatpants though? Do you know how many there are out there?’ and he’s like, ‘Yea, you just gotta flip it and make it yours. A sweatpant… there’s not enough dope sweatpants out there. Either they’re very droopy, very big, very baggy or very slim.’ This was the perfect fit. I’m like, ‘OK, cool. But we have to make it distinctively unique.’ So we redesigned that Marc Jacobs pair of pants in a fleece material. It was like a comfortable, brushed fleece material. Little did we know what was going to happen, catapulted our brand completely… in ways we did not imagined.”
Huynh goes on to comment on the “happy accident” that led to the jogger we know today. “My factory misinterpreted the tech pack and made a big mistake. Instead of sampling in fleece they sampled in stretch twill. And when they came back I was like, ‘What the hell!’ But then we sat back and were like, wait a minute, there’s something here! There’s something very, very unique here! We couldn’t really distinguish what it was, but there was something there. With men, we only have x amounts of silhouettes that we can wear. We can wear: shorts, denim, chinos, swim trunks, etc. You don’t see a typical jogger type pant in twill. So the idea stuck with us and we were like, ‘Dang, this is fuckin’ sick!, let’s roll with this.’ I was sure the rest of the world wasn’t gonna get it, so we rolled it out slowly to see where it went from there.”
BAPE Camo Pattern
“I didn’t design the camo,” NIGO explained in an issue of HYPEBEAST Magazine. “It’s a common mistake that many people make. It was actually designed by our friend Mankey.” A modified duck hunter camouflage was used as the base with the Ape Head logo randomly placed throughout the design. Despite a tradition of military green, NIGO chose to inject a dose of color into his trademark, saying “the current trend was for colorful garments so it was a natural progression to start making different colored camos.” Sk8thing, a creative director at the time, recalled the process fondly: “With the ever-increasing use of computers in the design process, it was easy for us to try out different colors on screen before we made them up. We would try different colors and everyone would say ‘yeah, that looks great,’ or ‘no, that doesn’t work.'”
Santa Cruz x Jim Phillips “Screaming Hand”
Jim Phillips’ iconic Screaming Hand graphic has origins dating back to the 1950s, but it wasn’t until around 1985 that the graphic was officially used by Phillips to serve as the branding for Santa Cruz’s Speed Wheels line. In an interview, Phillips said “it’s always been a kind character I’ve drawn since high school…the “hand” like a drowning surfer.” He went on to say “it expresses the unexpressable.”
WTAPS Tiger Stripe
As part of a blog written by Yukiyoshi Shimada back in 2012, they speak of the real-world origins of the pattern as a source of inspiration. “Tiger stripe camouflage was used in the 1960s during the Vietnam War among the South Vietnamese Army and the U.S. Special Forces but it was not something officially issued by the U.S. military. During the Indochina War, the French military wore a lizard pattern camouflage which the South Vietnamese Army used after the conflict ended, but supplies ran out, and local production started by creating a copy of this; this is what is told as the beginning of tiger stripe camouflage. Then, the tiger stripe camouflage was used by the South Vietnamese Army and supplied to U.S. Special Forces and Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, but before it could be supplied to all the units, the troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Due to this, there was no certain uniform spec, so it seems that many different variations in color and pattern exist depending on location of manufacturing, time frame and production lot.”
Stussy “World Tour” Tees
The fall of 1989 was remembered for the first release of the Stussy World Tour T-Shirt and would go on to feature collaborations with 47 different cultural personalities including the likes of Futura, Gonz, Haze, Mister Cartoon, Kaws, Espo and more. According to Stussy, “The idea and execution were simple: juxtapose two cultures from traditionally different worlds – a style device that had been used in art and music. On the front of the tee, names of cities associated with giants of high-end fashion and glamor are written in a stoic and formal Helvetica type. London, Paris, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo – these were the cities considered to be the style capitals of the contemporary world. The back of the shirt was printed with names of boroughs where our kind of street culture was actually thriving. Considered dark and underground, these untapped urban areas were about to shake up the world. Scrawled in a hand-drawn manuscript, the back of the T-shirt clashed with the front in style, look and meaning. The graffiti was a shout-out to this band of outsiders – Brooklyn, Bronx, Compton, Santa Ana and Venice – that is reppin’ a new vibe, direction and attitude.”