January 26th, 2006


Memewaves and t-shirtism

One of the nice things about last week's trip to Tokyo was getting to meet designer Alex Rich, who I'd interviewed (by iChat!) for the Japan issue of ID magazine but never met. Look and feel is very important, and what struck me most about Alex in person was his remarkable accent, a cross between Welsh and French Swiss (it figures; he's from Wales and spent about a year working at ECAL in Lausanne).

Alex designed my favourite T-shirt, a proudly minimalist, grey and (I think) Protestant garment (now sadly somewhat gnawed by the rabbit you can see in that same picture) which just says "Nein No Non".

I'm not sure if Alex was influenced by Experimental Jetset when he made his delightfully negative shirt (to be fair, he balanced it with a "Oui Ja Yes" shirt). In 2000 the Dutch designers made their Anti shirt. "The 'Anti' shirt," they explain on their website, "was basically our take on an archetypical slogan shirt, the word 'anti' being the ultimate negation."

As regular Jean Snow readers will know, T-shirts are more viral than bird flu (Jean makes tees the way other people sneeze). The way T-shirt ideas influence other shirts, take off and get knocked off is a fascinating subject: clothes as memes.

Berlin-based designer Craig Robinson's blog Flip Flop Flying tells the story of Experimental Jetset's most viral design, their 2001 "John&Paul&Ringo&George" shirt. I first saw this being worn by waiters at the Colette Cafe in Paris back in 2002 or so. Since then it's taken on a life of its own; Craig has spotted unauthorised versions of the shirt referencing the Wu Tang Clan, Abba, The Wailers, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns 'N Roses, and a Swiss campaign on gay rights (actually, I'd say the Swiss shirt is referencing Alex Rich's "Oui Ja Yes" shirt too).

Far from condemning the piracy, Experimental Jetset see the memeplay as part of what they call "T-shirtism". Maintaining a moral tone as neutral as their Helvetica, the designers merely distinguish between what they call "manifestations" (photos they've found in design books and elsewhere of people wearing shirts they actually did design) and "variations" (shirts inspired by their designs, but not made by them).

I salute Experimental Jetset's attitude, and I suspect that, like good surfers, it's the people who respect memewaves rather than trying to control them who get to ride them home. Memetation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.