Though an old T-shirt is just about the easiest and breeziest way to look banging in the summer months, the ones vintage dealer Brian Procell sells out of his Lower East Side storefront are as much history lessons as they are fashion statements. With an eye for rare graphic tees, Procell scours the country for the sort of homemade shirts that proliferated in the ’80s and ’90s during a nationwide explosion in underground bootleg production. “When people started bootlegging, it went totally viral,” he says. “In every hood across the country, you’d find people screenprinting their own shirts and selling them on the street or in bodegas or record shops. And every region has its own types of fruit.” A geek for all things vintage who has spent the majority of his career as a buyer and consultant for fashion brands, Procell swears that every T-shirt in his shop gives us clues about the culture in which it was printed. “I really look at all of these as folk art,” he says. “It just kind of makes you think about how it was printed and where it was printed, especially if it was just done by an ordinary Joe in whatever city. In a way, this is my view of Americana. It’s very much a pop culture artifact of urban America.” Here, Procell rounds up some of his most exceptional finds and explains what makes them so special.
1) Black Bart
The Simpsons debuted around the same time hip-hop, Public Enemy and Spike Lee were really making their mark, and Black Bart was a response to the phenomenon. It was all about the idea of being your own boss and life in the hood. Fox made all this merchandise for the show but they had no intention of selling it in urban communities, so people just made Black Bart tees in their houses. Here, “big ole butt” absolutely has something to do with Spike’s movie School Daze and the butt dance. I love the pit stains on this one. Sometimes, I’ll wash out the stains on a tee, but for this one, the shirt’s so rare that I think pit stains are important. They’re almost like the rings of a tree.
2) Polo Ralph Lauren
A Lo-Life is someone who takes collecting Polo Ralph Lauren to the extreme. Polo is a religion for them—it permeates every aspect of their life. They’ll wake up and they’ll have a Polo robe on, piss in their bathroom and have a Polo poster above the toilet or a framed catalog. They started as gangs in Brooklyn in the late ’80s and they were known for robbing retail outlets flash mob style. They would just break down the door and bum-rush the place and steal so much Polo in a matter of minutes and then brag about it. This T-shirt is one of their ultimate items, because it was produced for employees for a Polo company outing in 1991 and never made available for sale. There was no way they’d be able to steal this unless they went to somebody’s house. It’s like forbidden fruit.
“I think pit stains are important. They’re almost like the rings of a tree.”
3) Bootleg Adidas
This is probably the greatest Adidas shirt that Adidas never made. It’s a product of the crack era. These were amazing urban bootlegs silkscreened by mom and pop shops and distributed throughout urban cities in America in the late ’80s. The amazing thing about this particular shirt is the way Popeye is dressed— [in] a Patrick Ewing crewneck that was a really famous style made by actual Adidas when they had a deal with Ewing. He’s also about to hop in and drive a Wrangler, which at that time was a drug dealer status ride. Everybody wanted to become a
made man so that they could buy a Wrangler. I’m pretty sure whoever bought this shirt dyed it themselves, too, because the color is a very unusual lavender. I’ve never come across this particular hue before.
Gangster rap tees are coveted and so rare. Ice-T was really into shocking graphics, and this one kind of takes the cake. The guy in the shirt is wearing a Los Angeles Raiders hat, which is one of the holy grails of deadstock snap-back culture. Those hats were so iconic to gangster rap. I remember when I was a young kid first coming across a bootleg like this and wanting to buy it, having my mother look at me like I was crazy. The appeal was shock value. But what’s weird about this one is that the graphics almost remind me of Tom of Finland’s famous macho gay cartoons.
5) Paradise Garage
Paradise Garage was a downtown club in the 1980s, a creative hub for the New York art community where Larry Levan was the DJ and was really influential to disco and the creation of house music. This shirt was made for the employees or something, or maybe you could buy them there. I found this at a stoop sale from a man in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He told me he frequented Paradise Garage in his younger days—he said he had the time of his life there. I looked at him, smiled and left. It was five dollars.
This was made in the 1980s for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. They were exhibiting T-shirts as a medium for art, so this was an actual art piece. [The shirts] were hand-done by individual artists and framed and exhibited at the opening. The guy that put it together was Willie Smith, who supported graffiti artists like Kenny Scharf and Basquiat and passed away from AIDS in the early ’90s. This shirt was done by Zephyr, a guy based in Jersey City who would come out and hit a lot of trains. He had an incredible hand style and was known for an elegant tag. I catch Zephyr’s old tag partner, Dr. Revolt, on the F train every now and then, and I asked him once about the shirt. He told me what I had was pretty rare.
PROCELL, 5 Delancey Street. Fri-Sun, noon-7PM; Mon-Thurs,
appt. only. 212-226-2315.