Barnzley Armitage and the bootleg Chanel tees

Some time last year, I was asked to contribute my thoughts on slogan T-shirts to a book that was being published by Bloomsbury. I met up with writer Stephanie Talbot and we discussed the non verbal communication of T-shirt culture, the communication of blogging and the genius of Maison Martin Margiela’s AIDS T-shirts. Just before Christmas, Bloomsbury sent me a copy of the final book, SLOGAN T-SHIRTS: CULT AND CULTURE which is a thorough and thoughtful investigation into the subject. It features interviews with so many people I look up to, from futurologists like The Future Laboratory’s Chris Sanderson, collectors like Contemporary Wardrobe’s Roger Burton, artists Jeremy Deller and Jamie Reid, plus designers including Katharine Hamnett and Dr Noki.

These interviews are highly educational and entertaining, and one of my favourites is with Barnzley Armitage (above, second from left), co-designer of Child Of The Jago, who I first became aware of years ago as a ‘character’ we would see in the King’s Road and out clubbing in Soho. This story resonated with me because before I knew who he was, I quite clearly remember seeing these bootleg Chanel and Hermes T-shirts in magazines and desperately, desperately wanting one…

Stephanie Talbot writes:
During the latter part of the ’80s a trend erupted that saw the appropriation of status-led logos such as Chanel and Gucci engaged with as street fashion, bringing an urban glamour to what was formerly regarded as bourgeois fashion. Inadvertently, this guerrilla gesture changed the fabric of designer labels as we knew them. By negating the exclusivity and fiscal inaccessibility of haute couture, these luxury brands no longer belonged merely to members of the affluent and privileged, deluxe fashion had crossed the threshold into pop fashion’s colourful playground. The man responsible for this revolutionary T-shirt spectacle was Barnzley Armitage.

It was in the mid ’80s whilst working at the headquarters of the iconic King’s road boutique BOY that Barnzley’s entrepreneurial spirit was inaugurated: ‘In the studio was a screenprinting table, and at night, once the manager had locked up, the guys who had the keys used to let us in and we’d mess around with ideas.’ Inspired by the sartorial prowess of Japanese youths that used to frequent the King’s Road, Barnzley recalls how they’d imported a trend that saw buttons removed from Chanel clothing and sewn onto the front of jeans. ‘I remember seeing all these Japanese kids hanging around Worlds End [Vivienne Westwood’s landmark boutique] with their video cameras, which at the time you sensed were going to be the next big thing after Walkmans. Anyway they seemed so futuristic with their gadgets and their customised clothes and quite suddenly there was this whole thing about bootleg designer clothes.’

This movement towards recontextualising designer motifs led Barnzley to cut out adverts from magazines and screenprint them onto muslin T-shirts: ‘Chanel made this T-shirt just for their show and I saw it in a magazine and it was either not for sale or for sale at £300 or something completely ludicrous, but I thought, “Fuck me, we’ve got a screenprinter at work, I’ll copy them” and so i made a big bag’s worth of these T-shirts and the next day I was walking along the King’s Road wearing one and I had the bag with me, and by the time I got to World’s End there were none left! all these posh kids had bought them. After that, literally every time I walked out of the front door with a bag of these T-shirts I’d translate them into cash and I thought “this is handy”, so I started doing a few other designs like Gucci and this went on for a few years. It started slowly and then it got quite ridiculous. By the time acid house kicked off, around 1987, I was the only person doing these bootlegs. But what happened was I went on holiday and when I came back I walked up to Camden to see what was going on and they had started selling counterfeit Chanel T-shirts themselves – and I was really pissed off because I thought I was the only guy who was allowed to do that. So I went to the owner of this one particular shop and said, “You can’t bootleg my bootlegs”, but before I knew it those types of T-shirts were everywhere, so then I thought now it’s time to move on and create the next thing.’

As Barnzley explains, this coincided with a time when rave culture saw people underdressing, but the trend for high fashion labels also maintained a prominence. Conversely, rather than adopting designer label culture as a symbol of prestige, street style culture parodied and claimed these extravagant artefacts as a leitmotif for a new type of style statement; one that undercut the snobbery attached to its unattainable values but also caricatured the logo’s visual itself.

‘We had always associated Chanel and Louis Vuitton as the enemies,’ states Barnzley, ‘and then suddenly what emerged were all these young Japanese kids wearing it, so by making those bootleg Chanel T-shirts I was making a mockery out of those who took it seriously; it was a type of “I’m going to steal your designer thing and make it my own” because when would you come into contact with Louis Vuitton luggage unless you were super rich? You just wouldn’t. And then we got a cease and desist letter from Chanel and so I took that down to the printers and we were going to screenprint that onto a T-shirt, but for some reason we never got round to it.’

This excerpt is from SLOGAN T-SHIRTS: CULT AND CULTURE by Stephanie Talbot, published by Bloomsbury.

Photographer: Richard Reyes

[Top pic via GWAR IZM]