Shirt Happens

Budding urban-wear mogul takes Phoenix's MosDef label to the streets

Alissa Ramirez is the designer of the line. She conceptualizes, makes and sizes all the patterns, stitches up samples, and oversees production of the line in a small factory (22 industrial sewing machines) in the back of the Swell store. Russ Ramirez is one of the heaviest rave promoters in the Southwest, and a who's who of rave DJs have appeared in electronic-music magazines sporting Mintek.

The average retail price of Mintek items is $60. Alissa weaves a picture of the line as "clean, technical-looking clothes with a music-oriented feel." Her apparel is also designed with function in mind: special shirt pockets for keys and laser pens, Velcro ID pouches, and front pants pockets big enough to hold a water bottle. "It's hands-free party clothing," says Alissa. "Comfort is the key."

The Valley's newbie on the dance-culture-focused, street-wear tip is PLUR, which stands for "Peace, Love, Unity, Respect," which has long been a popular catch phrase for the ethos of rave culture, which meant it was only a matter of time before someone trademarked it.

A tee shirt line similar to MosDef, PLUR is owned by Grant Stousland, who also runs the largest screen-printing facility in Arizona. Stousland got his start in the clothing business selling tee shirts to Deadheads under the name Blue Hair back in his hemp-salad days, when he used to follow the band around the country.

Earlier this year, Stousland hooked up with a circle of local rave scenesters and launched the PLUR line, which quickly made a cannonball splash. Already, PLUR is carried in Urban Outfitters stores nationwide, and well-known underground boutiques in L.A., Toronto, NYC, Chicago and San Francisco. Visually, the line pops like a string of Black Cats, ignited by reactive inks that glow under black light, and the impressive mind's eye of Sik Graphics designer Ryan Lair, who--wait a minute--also designs MosDef's graphics.

Hmmmm. Mr. Ross?
"Yeah, I don't know about that. I think it's wack to start selling a universal thing like 'Peace, Love, Unity, Respect.' That's cheesy. But they're making money, and I guess that's their job. It's mine, too, but my stuff stands way, way alone from that kind of thing."

Other up-and-coming Valley street-wear lines include No Player Haters--whose owner, Brian Hooks, scored a coup last year when commercial hip-hop mastermind and consummate player-who-is-hated "Puff Daddy" Combes was spotted wearing the gear--and Flow Ethics, started by Dion Terry, 22, a graffiti artist who grew up on the Fort Defiance Navajo Reservation.

Terry's line consists of hip-hop-informed tee shirts ("All work and no rhyme makes Jack a dull boy") and "hoodie" sweatshirts with gold-tipped RCA amp plugs for drawstring handles.

Terry says the psychic nudge for starting Flow Ethics was "seeing stuff in Urban Outfitters with some goofy spray paint kid graphic, and knowing I could do better."

"Besides," he says, "I'm not even looking to see my shit in Urban Outfitters. Then the message is destroyed. All these little lines, they're about keeping things looking fresh, but staying chill, low cost, you know, on the real."

Also newly in the mix is Skilit, a tee shirt line started by local artist Rudy McCoy, best known for his Phunk Junkeez album art, and partner Tony Cruz, a professional rock-band tour manager (oxymoron, anyone?) with prime contacts across the states.

Asked to break down his new line's aesthetic vibe, McCoy, 28, thinks a moment, ponders the maroon scab on his left elbow from a recent dirt-bike mishap, then spits this out: "It's like when you're 8 years old, and this fine blonde chick is riding you on the handlebars of a fat BMX bike, and there's a massive ramp up ahead, and you're going to jump over your two best friends."

Uh-huh. Well, what's Skilit's marketing strategy? "Right now, our main concern isn't selling," says McCoy. "It's generating name recognition. We're all about throwin' out the shirts for the next few months."

To whom?
"Musicians, skaters, snowboarders, all kinds of professional, extreme-sport athletes, and exotic dancers."

Exotic dancers?
"Yeah, we're spending a lot of time in topless bars, giving out baby dolls and the little aerobic tops. We believe it's crucial to have good-looking girls wearing our product."

Twenty-five-year-old Valley designer Robert Ponce says he plans to concentrate more on car shows and west-side nightclubs this summer when he launches two new lines: Player Racing Companies, a flashy tee shirt line; and FETTI (slang for money), a high-dollar line of hoodies and polo shirts costing $75 to $100.

"FETTI's a get-what-you-pay-for line," Ponce says.
Still, he says, like any successful street-wear line, "the clothes look like they cost even more than they do."

Ponce isn't new to this game. He started several shirt lines in the past, most notably Criminal Behavior, which was quickly endorsed by rap artists Das Efx, Mac-10, the Outkasts, and Above the Law. That line's key design element was Ponce's use of Old English letters, popular with the gang-banger sets. "I had to be careful with the colors," Ponce says. "One time I combined red and blue, and those shirts didn't sell for anything."

Ponce's current line, Evolution, is shirts and caps bearing Chinese calligraphy characters. The hip-hop supergroup Wu Tang Clan's use of Asian symbols and kung-fu theater philosophy has only helped Ponce, who says the best sellers of the 12-character line are knowledge, harmony, power and influence.

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