Jess Rotter started her company Rotter and Friends in 2007 and has been making the coolest musician tee shirts ever since. Natalie Portman fans may know Rotter and Friends from the Captain Beefheart tee she's confessed to loving. And it's just as likely that Woodstock attendees (we're talking the original Woodstock) know the brand from the kinds of musicians she draws on her tees, like Neil Young or Stevie Nicks.
I met up with the truly inspiring illustrator on a sunny morning in Brooklyn to find out how she "makes it" in fashion and to try to get some musical advice to impress my friends. Needless to say, I got both.
Fashionista: What made you want to start your own business making music tees? Jess Rotter: I started Rotter and Friends in 2007. I used to do art for a British clothing line back in the early 2000s and I was doing illustrations for brands, so it was just fitting. I was working in the music industry, so I kind of tied both music and fashion and decided to start Rotter and Friends.
What kind of background do you have in either art or fashion? I went to college for painting, and I always had my hands in jars of music, fashion, and art, so I never put myself in one category. While I was studying painting I would intern at record labels, so I was always interested in bridging those together.
Were you ever apprehensive about starting and owning your own business? I always considered it to be such a personal labor of love project. It made me nervous to deal with "money stuff"--I hate that part--but the craziest part to me is that the tee shirts are more successful now than they were when I started, so it feels like all my nerves are gone. We’ve been doing this for like 11, or 12 collections and it’s still selling out and it’s not mass marketed--which is most important to me. It’s lasting and I think that that’s what's exciting about. Honestly, I feel like we’re more of a clubhouse than a company because it’s really a forum for rare music. My market is like men in their 60s talking to me about the concerts they saw and then young women who see Natalie Portman wearing our Link Ray shirt and they want to be like her. It’s a really nice extreme.
Who are your favorite musicians to listen to? Hardest question ever! You can’t go wrong with Neil Young... It’s really hard for me to pick one. I would say right now I’m in a super-big Tim Buckley phase, too.
Who is you favorite musician to draw? I think I’ve drawn every member of Fleetwood Mac except Mick Fleetwood--they're great. I’m illustrating this country funk project coming out this summer--it’s a compilation of country boot-cut jams of the '70s, like Jim Ford, Bobby Gentry, and Tony Joe White. I illustrated a 20-page book for them and it’s the most hair I’ve ever drawn in my life. It’s like 20 pages of hair. That was a lot of fun.
You've done some amazing collaborations -- What has been one of your favorites? I think the one I did with Dossier; we did a Stevie Nicks shirt. I did an illustration of Stevie Nicks for Dossier's last issue, and we had so much fun doing it that we decided to just make t-shirts of it. The tees sold out in a week! The press on it was amazing, and even Stevie Nicks’ publicist gave us the thumbs up, so it was really cool!
What is a typical workday like for you? A lot of coffee! I also work at a record label, Mexican Summer, so I talk about records all day. Then I come home, change the coffee to wine, and draw until like three in the morning. [laughs] Yeah, it’s pretty intense.
What's the biggest challenge that you face in owning your own t-shirt company? I think it's challenging being your own publicist. You need to put yourself out there all the time--that’s a really important thing when you have a business. You need people to know about it. I was reluctant to join Twitter for years but I see what a difference it makes and all of that.
What’s the most fulfilling part of your work? When people buy the shirt and don’t know the record and discover the record and are like "Whoa!" That happens a lot, and it's awesome!
What's the biggest risk you've taken with Rotter and Friends? You really risk your reputation by going to a mass retailer, which is something we chose not to do...I think we avoided risks because we kept it so small.
What inspires you outside of music--Have you ever thought about doing a t-shirt line of non musicians ? Yeah, I do a lot of other artistic work. I have art shows, I do wood burns, I’m working on a comic book now which is like I took my heart out of my body and started drawing with it. Doing a comic book has been my dream and my goal. It’s called Paradise and it's going to come out in the fall.
How do you hope to grow Rotter and Friends in the future? I really find collaborations and projects to be the most fun. We did a show in Los Angeles of all of my illustrations rendered in watercolor. I’d love to do more stuff like that. One-off projects are really appealing to me cause there’s less pressure and you can put all of your energy into something wholeheartedly.
Visit Rotter and Friends online at www.rotterandfriends.com.