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On this episode of ‘Vibe Check,’ host Jian DeLeon speaks with two guests who live and breathe New York City. Nicolas Heller, known as New York Nico, produces work that can best be described as that which belongs to a cultural anthropologist in the country’s largest city. His recent New York Accent Challenge scouted for contenders of the city’s best accent, attracting anyone and everyone who uses the internet. Now, Nico has partnered up with Jaeki Cho, creative director of streetwear and sneaker boutique Alumni of NY, to introduce the Best NY Shirt Contest. The deadline for submissions is April 29, after which the top three designs will be made into T-shirts and sold for charity.

The Accent Challenge exceeded Nico’s expectations, with Jaeki himself participating and making it to the top 16. Jian speaks on the elements that constitute a distinctive New York state of mind both on and offline as exemplified by Nico’s and Jaeki’s work. As individuals who lived through 9/11, the duo acknowledges an unparalleled sense of community that surfaces in times of strife. (3:02).

The below interview is a transcribed version of ‘Vibe Check.’ It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jian DeLeon: I think the thing about the New York accent and now this Best NY Shirt competition you guys are doing exemplifies that, right? It’s not just a place, it’s a way of seeing the world and interacting with people that you may or may not know, or may be your neighbors, or may be friends of friends. But there’s a distinct New York attitude and approach to even shit like a pandemic. Can you guys expand on that as native New Yorkers?

NH: Yeah. I mean it’s so important now more than ever for us as New Yorkers to come together and support one another. And, I said this in my Time’s interview, so I don’t mean to sound redundant, but I feel like something like this, like people say that New Yorkers are rude, right? But then you see how New Yorkers are all coming together to just help out total strangers. And it makes you realize that that is so far from the truth. I mad young when 9/11 happened, but I remember seeing it after 9/11 even as a 10 year old, or however old I was. But I remember just noticing how much nicer people were to one another, and how people would look out for one another.

Jian notes how the T-shirt is a staple of street culture, and with New York being home to some of the most iconic tees, it’s no coincidence that the garment lies at the heart of the new contest (6:41). The cast shares their favorite NY T-shirts, many of which came into being prior to the rising boom of streetwear. Many industry professionals have joined the roster of judges for the competition including Nico’s dad, graphic designer Steve Heller (12:39). Much like Nico's previous project, the contest is attracting visual artists and creatives across the state to participate. With the deadline approaching, the judges have also received entries from designers like Beloved New York's David Chang and hard hitters including Nike Creative Director Kimou Meyer. Crucially, Jaeki and Nico elaborate on the characteristics they’ll be looking for in submissions (14:23).

JD: So tell me a bit about the submissions you guys have gotten so far. People have until the 29th to submit. What attracts you to a good shirt is not just a great graphic, but also something that really symbolizes New York? What is a good New York T-shirt to you guys?

Jaeki Cho: I think as long as it’s something that is authentic, and it’s not a caricature of what media often times represents New York to be. I think that, for me, it’s something that resonates with me. When I said “I Run New York” as an example, when you look at it, you just know exactly what that represents. It’s not like, I slap a Timberland boot on there, or like a fat bait on there, you know what I’m saying? All these things that just on a surface level represents New York. It’s poetic man. You know what I mean? You need to have a little bit more depth into the design, that as a New Yorker, regardless of your ethnic background, or your interest in this particular niche culture, you would resonate with that. That’s why I feel like Milton Glaser’s “I Love New York” is just simple, it’s to the point, and it’s also timeless. So I think more than anything, personally for me, I can’t speak for Nico, but I’m looking for something that is timeless that every generation can relate to.

NH: Exactly. When Jaeki and I started talking about this idea, it was like we need a shirt that has a cultural impact similar to I Heart New York. I mean, I actually don’t want to speak for Jaeki here, but I want a shirt that’s so iconic that it just starts getting ripped off. And it gets co-opted by tourists, you know what I’m saying?

In defining what makes a good NY T-shirt, Jian, Jaeki, and Nico analyze and reflect on the iconic identity of Milton Glaser’s I Heart NY tee and how NYC as a whole can be seen as an attractive brand. Competitions of this nature are unique to these times, and the quarantine can be appreciated for what it’s done in bringing people together (19:53). As long as we’re under house arrest as Nico describes it, there’s bound to be more contests in the near future — and with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month coming up, Jian proposes one for Best NY Asian. After all, as Jaeki expresses, the Accent Challenge has already been a testament to the diversity of identities in New York (22:06).

New ‘Vibe Check’ episodes are released every Tuesday and Thursday, so stay tuned for the next episode coming later this week.

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