It’s not often you’ll find a transatlantic ode to Britpop royalty will aid a major social cause, yet, that’s exactly what happened to the New York-based bootleggers known as Night Gallery.
As designer Josh S. explains, Night Gallery’s initial goal was “just to remake an Oasis shirt we couldn’t get anywhere and then bind it to a cause we care about.” The result was a striking black tee, printed with the Manc band’s logo and a handful of lyrics taken from Definitely Maybe’s Live Forever. Not long after they’d hashed out the perfect design, Josh and co. found themselves struck by the story of 23-year-old police brutality victim Elijah McClain, and decided to donate all proceeds from the shirt to McClain’s mother. “We raised $6000 USD in a week and were immediately in way over our heads with production and shipping,” the designer recalls. “After we cleared that, it just felt like the project had more legs and I had original ideas I wanted to execute for other subjects… bands, brands, movies… so we kept going.”
Far from your run-of-the-mill design house, they’re not even ready to accept the permanence that comes with being called a ‘brand’. Though with the nature of his work, Josh’s hesitancy is hardly misguided, bootlegging and fashion have always had something of a tempestuous relationship. Just ask Harlem’s famed-haberdasher collaborator Dapper Dan: the New York legend immortalised in the hip-hop scene for his indulgent balloon-sleeved Louis Vuitton leathers and chunky Gucci jackets, all made from the designer’s own screen-printed fabrics back in the late 80s. Responding to the racist textile and fur dealers who had initially refused his patronage, and the luxury houses that would eventually see him litigated out of business, today the designer’s work is a necessary counterculture blueprint for an art form currently undergoing its own design renaissance.
At its core, bootlegging is a practice whose appeal lies in spoofing the world around it in all of its ironic glory, upending predetermined associations and meanings exactly as and when it sees fit. Whether it’s Christopher Shannon tweaking the Sports Direct logo into a saucy XXX moniker, Gucci’s Balenciaga ‘hack’ and meme-worthy ‘FAKE’ bags, or Sports Banger chopping and screwing the logos of sportswear giants like Reebok and Nike into a commentary on the current state of British politics, think of it as means of subverting taste through the eyes of popular culture – and definitely not copying.
But while the motivations of designers like Rick Owens, Dapper Dan and Vetements use bootlegging as a way to shake up notions of luxury in fashion, Night Gallery are driven by a passion to create some of the more authentic and covetable off-the-counter merch you’ve ever seen. So, we sat down with the screen-printing savants to talk everything from design processes, making more than just ‘band tees’ and the ever-impending threat of legal annihilation.
Bailey Slater: Let’s start right at the beginning, talk me through the process of making your first design?
Josh S: Honestly, the first design was so easy to make it didn’t really take much more than finding a logo, the correct typeface, and understanding the spacing of each on the tee. I wish I had a more complex story for building the design but it was/is by far our most simple design (and not even ours). That said, we really do not want to make that shirt ever again. It’s really not our style at this point or something we want to pursue. I have a lot of fun making my own work versus recreating established designs.
BS: And how did you land on the name?
JS: The name comes from the show Rod Serling made after The Twilight Zone. I’ve always been a fan of his, I was super creeped out by episodes as a little kid, and liked that it was an inversion of the world and things people know of. That’s also the basis for a lot of our designs… they’re something people know but framed up differently or recontextualised. It’s a reinvention but familiar. I like to play with expectations and leave little inside jokes for people and help these subjects keep living in new ways or in new audiences.
“The goal is never to just make something and have no intention behind it… it’s always to expand the cultural value of the subject.”
BS: Your Oasis design obviously blew up in a big way – were you expecting all the chaos that followed?
JS: No not at all. It was actually kind of too much. The shirt was up for three or so days and on the fourth day at 8am I woke up to a call from Elijah McClain’s mom. She didn’t understand what we were trying to do at first, like, she thought we had made a shirt with her son’s face on it and were trying to make money which was 100 percent not the case. Then to make things more complicated she called us out on Twitter saying we were trying to make money off her son and people got upset at us and it got super messy really quickly. So we ended up speaking again later that day and I explained to her that we were making the tee and donating all of the money to her through the GoFundMe page and she was so thankful and supportive. After we had her thumbs up we felt pretty great about the project.
BS: The range of artists you’ve spotlighted is super impressive – is this all down to your own personal taste or have your fans begun dictating who you bootleg?
JS: I think it’s mostly personal taste… we do take polls to gauge interest in certain areas that we’re looking in but I usually just follow my gut. The goal is never to just make something and have no intention behind it… it’s always to expand the cultural value of the subject. The more I can add to their myth, lore, or look, the more successful I consider the design. At the end of the day, I am a fan of all of these subjects. I really love them in a lot of cases so I feel like I’m obligated to do them justice and help the memory or idea of them stay relevant.
BS: What’s been your favourite piece to create so far?
JS: I like the Talk Talk shirt a lot and think it keeps ageing well. Cat Power is also one I love a lot. The Smiths shirt is another favourite. In some way, they’re all my favourite because the subjects teach me something about myself and how I design when I make them.
“I like to play with expectations and leave little inside jokes for people and help these subjects keep living in new ways or in new audiences.”
BS: Have you been sued yet?
JS: No. We’d just agree to take any design down and sell it to the artist or whoever wanted it. We also don’t produce tons of items… limiting things to 75, 50, 25… we really don’t make money. Most of it goes right into production and shipping. This whole thing is really just a labour of love. And since we care about the quality of goods and hope they aren’t degraded into fast fashion we spend more on higher-quality garments and inks and tags.
BS: Have you always been a fan of fashion?
JS: Yeah, I think as much as anyone could be. Growing up I really admired people who dressed well and had really clear looks and personal aesthetics. I still do. I think the harsher the better in terms of my admiration, but my design and personal style are so informed by visual culture and information… like I wear workwear or shirts with heavy amounts of information on them.
BS: Who are your inspirations?
JS: I look at designers like BootBoyzBiz and take so much spiritual influence in terms of design. They maximize information, culture, and the tangential nature of knowledge in a way that I am totally captivated by. They have been a huge inspiration to me from the start. The Smiths shirt we made is a tribute to them as much as it is The Smiths. Then I look at Rick Owens and admire his approach to taking the idea of a bootleg and pushing it as far as it could go… high fashion. A lot of times when I’m designing an item I think about how someone wearing actual, huge brands could pair it together. Maybe that’s arrogant, but for me, it helps imagine the context of an item beyond lowering it to ‘a band tee.’ Honestly, I don’t know if any of my designs are a success in that regard but it’s something I consider.
BS: How did Night Gallery’s radio show come about?
JS: I was asked by some friends at Deadbeat Radio if I wanted to host a radio show and I said, “Yes.” They’re great – just total pirate radio on the simplest website you could imagine. Bootlegging extended to the airwaves. Tune in.
BS: Where do you see the brand going in the next few years?
JS: We’re still wrestling with the idea of being a ‘brand’ at all. People started considering us one before we even decided to be one so I have to wrestle with the friction of the expectations around that. We debated for six months about adding custom tags to our clothes! I think we’ll keep our heads down and design and make more things about the subjects we love. We have goals and benchmarks we want to hit, sure, but we’re not sitting around and saying, “OK this year we make ten thousand shirts,” or something.
We do want to branch into some weirder pieces, some cut and sew, some denim or jumpsuits, maybe a table or some home goods. At the end of the day, I just want to make things, if we keep gaining traction that’s cool and I would welcome more people but if we never got bigger than this that’s fine too. It’s more fun to create first and think about everything else second – but we do think about those things just as much.
BS: What do you hope Night Gallery’s legacy will be?
JS: No idea. Another thing I try not to think about. We’ve only been around for a year so what legacy could we have, you know? There is something about the idea of a legacy that feels so tied to ego and being boastful and I can’t think like that if I want to keep my head straight. At the end of the day if Night Gallery does anything meaningful it will hopefully be to have kept these subjects and ideas alive in a new and interesting way for new and old fans. It’s all about passing things on and hoping they connect with new people.