Throwback Airbrushed T-Shirts Might Be the Next Big Customization Trend

From Kanye West to Alexander Wang, these nostalgic, spring break-ready tees are a hit among tastemakers.
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From Kanye West to Alexander Wang, these nostalgic, spring break-ready tees are a hit among tastemakers.
Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

It's safe to say that the biggest trend of 2016 thus far is merch — or as Virgil Abloh appropriately named it, merchwear™ — but coming in a close second is customization. Sure, it's nothing new, but it's taken an entirely different turn this year. We've seen a particular spike in popularity surrounding pieces of the DIY variety: There's Kanye West's painted denim "Pablo" jackets; tastemakers like Abloh, Heron Preston, and Tyler, the Creator have taken to drawing on their sneakers; and ASAP Rocky, ASAP Ferg, Travis Scott, and Skepta have all recently worn items that look like they, themselves, took a sharpie to them. Plus, established fashion brands have made a point to let customers make pieces their own, from Gucci’s DIY options to monogrammed leather goods at Madewell to Opening Ceremony's in-store embroidery station. But it seems the next wave in the all-custom-everything trend has arrived to kick off fashion month, and it’s a real throwback: airbrushed T-shirts.

Following his Yeezy Season 3 presentation at Madison Square Garden in February, Kanye West appeared with the entire Kardashian-Jenner squad (which was draped in Balmain) wearing an airbrushed tribute T-shirt with the face of his late mother, Donda West, on the front and his wife’s late father, Robert Kardashian, Sr., on the back. It was only available for purchase that day at MSG, despite the countless merch pop-ups that followed both domestically and internationally. He would go on to wear it during his Saturday Night Live performance beneath a Balmain bomber and periodically since then. Kylie Jenner would make a few appearances in the T-shirt as well.

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Months later, in August, YG — who is also riding the merch wave — shared a preview of an airbrushed T-shirt reading “Baby Daddy” and “2004,” complete with a throwback photo of the rapper. Sadly, they are not available yet. Full-time rapper and part-time painter ASAP Ferg, who actually went into fashion before Rocky pushed him to rap, also posted multiple Instagrams wearing a full airbrushed, long-sleeve crewneck with his name down both arms and the most lit Mickey Mouse there ever was on the chest.

Most recently, at Alexander Wang’s NYFW party with Adidas on Saturday evening, models who walked the show wore custom airbrushed T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like “Wang Squad,” “Wang Show Shit,” and “Shit Show” — gifts from Wang especially for them. The designer commissioned Noel (yes, single name) of the New York-based company Art Of Your Mind for the tees, which earned just as much (if not more) attention at the party as the limited-edition Adidas merch up for sale.

Luckily, for all Wang Squad hopefuls, the artist will host a pop-up at Wang’s Grand Street location from Friday through Sunday to customize any T-shirt or denim purchased, as Pier 94 restrictions kept Wang from offering custom designs during #WANGFEST. When asked how they fit into Wang’s spring 2017 equation, Noel said: "That's the thing about it. It’s just low-brow art. The only people who were really buying it were people that wanted that; who it is popular with is what changes." He also notes that, in the beginning of his career, he worked with underground subcultures — "car cultures, gang-related material" — which is why he doesn’t look at it as a trend. He’s made a living off of airbrushing for nearly 15 years, and when asked why he thought the fashion crowd was regaining interest in the art, he explained, "they're interested more in the 'trashy' aspect of it. There's this nostalgia of going to the boardwalk or state fair or getting the party favor, something they took away from that moment and seeing someone finish from point A to point B right in front of your eyes." As far as parties go, #WANGFEST — with its free-flowing Slurpees, McDonald's pop-up and fully stocked 7-11 with unlimited junk food — is certainly one from which you’d want a memento.

In a time when everything is knocked off by fast fashion giants, individualism and Instagram (let’s keep it one hundred here) will likely continue to fuel the customization trend. Even West’s tour merch is custom to each show, event and city it’s being sold at. Custom pieces feed the desire of exclusivity, and there’s nothing everyone wants more than something no one else has. Airbrushed T-shirts are hand-painted, making every single one an original. The nostalgia — paired with the low-brow nature and the fact you can request any insignia you want — could bring this back in a big way, especially amongst the fashion crowd. We’re calling it now.

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