Sonya Sombreuil started her clothing line COME TEES in 2009, while living in the western Massachusetts town of Haydenville. As part of an East Coast underground artist network, she started out restoring vintage garments before moving to LA in 2014, where Sombreuil quickly carved out her place among a tight-knit community of California-based multidisciplinary artists and streetwear designers. Rihanna was papped a few years ago wearing COME TEES' "Duppy Conqueror" jeans while leaving Heathrow Airport, and in 2016 Kanye was snapped wearing a Sombreuil original in Malibu.
A painter by trade, Sombreuil screen prints all her garments — mainly t-shirts, with the occasional jeans, jacket or dress — with no sponsorship or investors. Her garments are graphic and arresting, often featuring song lyrics applied in a heavy brushstroke mixed with vivid, comic book-like images. The result feels like it might have been lifted from an underground zine or gig flyer. All of her pieces are produced in a limited edition, which has secured her in-demand, underground status, although she's not attached to the label of DIY artist: "It’s my method," she explains, "but not the concept of my brand."
Earlier this year, gallerist Bridget Donahue approached Sombreuil about an exhibition in the back room of her namesake gallery in Chinatown, New York; the resulting show, Faith Crisis, ends its run this week and is her long-awaited return to painting, utilizing the same vivid colors and graphic symbolism that run through everything she makes. We spoke to Sombreuil about where she sees her work on the art-fashion divide, the evolution of the status object, and why hype culture can be a false economy for underground artists.
How did Faith Crisis come about?
It was quite cosmic. Since early childhood, I was a painter — that's been my whole identity. That habit has become peripheral in recent years, but I considered it the core of what I do and how I process life. COME TEES is unique in that I'm the only designer and the designs are all drawn or painted rather than found, although they are highly referential. I hadn't abandoned painting in that sense, but I've been so focused on a different market and function of the images. It was really cool when Bridget [Donahue] reached out. She’s quite brilliant and intuitive — she was one of the first people who gave Martine Syms and Jessi Reaves shows. I felt really lucky because the necessity of going back to my primary practice had been exerting itself in my psyche.
There's a lot of crossover between art and fashion now — on more of a mainstream level than when you started COME TEES.
I was just a little bit prescient — going back through Supreme's archives, they’ve collaborated with really esoteric artists.
You often talk about how you’d like your brand to follow the Supreme model, but COME TEES is so defined by being underground, whereas Supreme is arguably the most mainstream brand in the world.
There's no way I could function like Supreme, because they're anonymous and I'm Sonya. I admire Supreme in that they do a really good job of bringing in a lot of concepts at a lot of levels, really subtly. Their whole brand is about the status object. They're a metabrand — a brand about branding — but if you’re looking for cultural nuance, there’s a lot there.
I recently saw the Eckhaus Latta exhibition at the Whitney. Something that's come up a lot lately is that art will not only merge into the fashion realm, but clothes will also become art objects. Would you ever put your t-shirts in a gallery?
That's a complicated question. I grew up with Zoe from Eckhaus Latta, and I've been observing them since their inception. What they do is so special and unique, in that they can activate a real range of spaces. Their inclusivity model was quite new when they started doing it. But for me, personally, the idea of the t-shirt as an elevated art object is sort of vulgar.
Every object is aspiring to culture-climb right now, and that doesn't appeal to me. I get the luxury brand experience, but a t-shirt being akin to a painting seems like doing too much. I used to struggle with a t-shirt having a $200 price point, but my clothes are really time-consuming and, frankly, expensive to produce. The issue with the art object thing doesn't really have to do with price, but with status. Something about it seems kind of pathetic — that a piece of clothing would declare itself that way.
Do you think of yourself and your practice as belonging to a larger context of LA or California-based artists?
My practice is deeply linked to a few other streetwear brands, and Zoe's brand. We're close-knit — we share all our information and sources for factories and production, and we scheme. But I also see each of us as having a slightly different context. We're all engaging slightly different worlds that we've traversed.
You’ve said before that you struggle with the label of being a DIY artist — why is that?
The reality is I'm functionally still a DIY artist. For me it's very literal — I pay for and hand-produce almost everything you see. But a lot of art is getting stuck in that status. DIY isn't a part of my image that I intend to perpetuate. I’m not trying to carry that mantle. In terms of being part of a network of people who are self-governing as artists, outside of commercial support, I have so much respect for that. But in order to survive and advance and further propagate my ideas, that's not where I'm trying to move to.
Your designs and practice are very closely entwined with music. Is there anything that's been particularly influential?
Historically, I've been really into rap and soul music, and I also love gospel. I've really liked afro-Cuban music lately. More than anything visual, I'm informed by music.
I interviewed Martine Rose, who said something similar about the musical fabric of London helping her capture the feel of the city.
I really resonate with Martine Rose. I don't have many heroes, but I look up to her. There's such a milieu of culture in her work — the punk stuff, but also reggae and club culture, and also something very formal and distinguished. Her success is one of the most joyful and encouraging things in fashion, because her clothes are so smart and not necessarily easy. Oddly — because I don't think my stuff is that hard to get to — I get that feedback a lot too: that it's a little too arty or niche, that I would sell more of it if it was somehow easier to wear.
There’s a lot of mixed feelings at the moment about whether or not this is a good era for fashion, and creativity in a wider sense.
In a lot of ways, there's never been a better time because the audience is so nimble. They understand what conventions exist and how they're being broken. One of the assets for an artist is to be really specific and try to reiterate your vibe in as many different ways as possible, while getting closer to your frequency. But it's confusing now — there's a lot of interference. I’m guilty of this too — I'm looking at too much stuff and I have dysmorphia sometimes, about what I wanna make wear. There’s a high level of artistry in the mainstream culture, which is excellent, but visually things exhaust themselves quickly. Liking things or following someone is not the same thing as investing in them. People don't always understand those metrics.