Oversized white T-shirts don't get a lot of love these days.
Â A South Los Angeles high school banned them on campus last spring, believing they contributed to brawls between black and Latino students. The Texas Youth Commission cautions parents against buying or allowing children to wear them, warning they put kids in "extreme danger" of street gangs. Last January, a Maryland state's attorney told National Public Radio that the mere courtroom presence of a dozen young men in matching white shirts reduced a witness in a Baltimore murder trial to a violent shaking fit on the stand.
Â Â Â Â Â The fashion police are also cracking down. "It has killed the business of urban clothing," says Pauli Singh, owner of a chain of 12 casual-apparel stores in the Baltimore-Washington area. "Absolutely killed it. You can sell 50 of them in a day, and you don't make any money." Singh's lament is echoed by inner-city menswear retailers across the East Coast, who decry the cheap schmattes for sinking their business into a years-long slump. Trend forecasters in newspapers as mainstream as the Cleveland Plain-Dealer have declared the T-shirt outré, passé, wack.
Â Â Â Â Â Despite the haters or because of them the gown-like shirt isn't showing any sign of joining the one-strapped overalls and backward pants in hip-hop heaven. On 125th Street in Harlem, where the predilection for huge white T-shirts probably took root in the mid-1990s, stores like Dr. Jay's and Jimmy Jazz are still flooded with them, hung on racks in clear plastic to keep them immaculate. At the outdoor urban bazaar that is 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, fat three-packs of colossal tees are piled atop peddlers' folding tables, sold at corner bodegas and vended out of illegally parked cargo vans. In Baltimore, where the shirts are worn not only huge but also hugely long, yards of white (and, increasingly, black) cotton hang from young black men, drape the knees of white 'hood rats and billow like drag-racer parachutes behind teenagers racing on mini-motorcycles.
Â Â Â Â Â Rather than shrinking in popularity, the oversized T-shirt appears to be getting bigger. And longer.
Â Â Â Â Â Galaxy, the original and leading brand of "tall tees" so called for their extra-long cut has recently introduced a 7XL to its line of white and colored T-shirts (its smallest size is 2XL). Mohammed Shakir, manager of a website that wholesales the competing SAAD brand of oversized tees, says he's had to inflate his output to 8XL (that is, XXXXXXXXL) shirts in order to meet customer demand across the United States and as far away as the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Â Â Â Â Â "I don't know what the hell is going on," Shakir says. "It's crazy."
Â Â Â Â Â To get a sense of just how colossal these shirts are, consider the case of Sun Ming Ming, the most recent Chinese NBA hopeful. At 7 feet 8 and three-quarters inches tall, Sun is one of the tallest living men on the planet. He wears a 6XL jersey. So does the comparatively petite Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, who is 7-foot-6.
Â Â Â Â Â The typical tall-tee wearer these days is young, black, urban and likely to be a hip-hop head although it has fans among others who want to look "down" by dressing up.
Â Â Â Â Â "Hip-hop loves making as bold a statement as it possibly can," music journalist Peter Shapiro says. "There's the idea of not only living large, but living extra-large, and wearing a long shirt that goes down to your knees is a bold statement. You'll get noticed."
Â Â Â Â Â Shapiro speculates that the extra-long look and the general outsized tendencies of hip-hop fashion is born of a combination of foppishness and cultural economics.
Â Â Â Â Â "All pop-music forms have their accompanying style of dress, and there's been a strong strain of dandyism in them," Shapiro says. "African-American culture in particular has always placed great emphasis on looking sharp."
Â Â Â Â Â In other words, hip-hop fans tend to pay as much attention to their look as hip-hop artists, even if they don't have the kind of clothing budget multiplatinum sales provide; in a culture obsessed with credibility, street wear and stage wear are often interchangeable. The glory of the oversized T-shirt, then, may lie in its ability to satisfy contradictory cultural injunctions: It's both cheap and extravagant, all-purpose and outrageous and economical enough to afford the decadent gesture of wearing it once and throwing it away.
CAN'T BUY JUST ONE
Â Â Â Â Â "No one buys just one," says Tykisha Washington, a sales associate at a Baltimore apparel chain. "They come in and buy a dozen," she says of the young men who've made the 5XL and 6XL Galaxy tall tee the most popular items in the store.
Â Â Â Â Â "If you can go to the store and buy five shirts for $25, that's your whole week," explains Myorr Janha, vice president of marketing at urban fashion house Phat Farm, who predicts the style has a long shelf life ahead of it. "With jeans and a pair of sneakers, you can't go wrong in a white tee."
Â Â Â Â Â Shapiro and Janha both reject the more sinister explanations that have dogged hip-hop fashion trends since sagging pants hit schoolyards in the mid-1980s: that they mimic and glorify a violent prison culture, where beltless cons stash contraband in the folds of one-size-fits-all uniforms.
Â Â Â Â Â "Yes, it's very easy to hide things under baggy clothes," Shapiro says. "Yes, you can pack a lot of stuff under a long shirt. But I don't know that the style is explainable simply as an expedient for hiding your stash, hiding a gun or shoplifting."
Â Â Â Â Â Another oft-repeated nugget of conventional wisdom has it that the white shirt is a sort of inner-city camouflage.
Â Â Â Â Â "The culture of the customer is so everyone will look the same," says Stuart Silberman, vice president of marketing at Changes, a chain of urban menswear stores based in Baltimore that has been stocking tall tees since 2002. "If the cops are looking for a suspect, `he's invariably wearing a` long white T-shirt with long shorts. So they can't be identified. That was the real reason it all started."
Â Â Â Â Â That reasoning is double-edged, notes Kareem "Geech" Lee, 28, a salesman at Mitchell and Ness Nostalgia Co. in Philadelphia, which makes the $350 vintage sports jerseys, or "throwbacks," that have become popular urban wear.
Â Â Â Â Â "The reason why I stopped wearing white tees," Lee explains, "is because I was arrested in 1999 for a crime I didn't commit. The `suspect` had on a white tee and jeans the same shit I had on and he was dark-skinned and short like me."
Â Â Â Â Â Lee says he's now careful to wear shirts with emblems on them. "In my neighborhood, we all wear the same stuff, so me, I had to change my dress code up," he says, showing off his oversized green Adidas T-shirt and matching green sneakers. "I wear different things from everybody else, so now when `the cops` run up on me, they don't get confused."
Â Â Â Â Â Media confusion and laziness is partly to blame for the white shirt getting a bad rap, says Shawn "Ceez" Caesar of Unruly Productions Inc., an urban-entertainment marketing company based in Maryland. "If kids start wearing purple hoodies," Caesar says, "then purple hoodies would be associated `by the media` with crime."
Â Â Â Â Â However unfair, the association between oversized white T-shirts and the criminally inclined is by now well-embedded in the cultural firmament, as evinced by the 2004 praise poem "White Tee" by Atlanta gangsta-rap outfit Dem Franchize Boyz. This paean to the hard-core life begins, "I slang in my white tee/ I bang in my white tee," and goes on to speculate that "Niggas in the trap now/ I bet they got a white tee."
Â Â Â Â Â "You want to see the uniform, eh?" smirks a Wilmington, Del., police officer when asked about oversized white T-shirts on the city's streets. He directs a reporter to a crime-ridden northeastern neighborhood, where he says drug dealers have for several years adopted the white tall tee as their professional summer attire.
Â Â Â Â Â Those who do value the shirt for its thug-life imprimatur might be interested to know that their manly threads are actually women's nightgowns.
Â Â Â Â Â Henry Abadi never set out to establish a fashion brand, much less one that would become a mark of thug credibility.
Â Â Â Â Â Born in 1947, in Aleppo, Syria, Abadi studied engineering but was unable to find work because of state restrictions against Jews. Neither could he legally leave the country. Determined to escape, he hired a smuggler in 1971 to sneak him across the Lebanese border.
Â Â Â Â Â Disguised in a djellabah, the traditional Arab robe, and half-blind without his glasses, Abadi, his smuggler and another desperate émigré boarded a bus filled with Syrian soldiers en route to Lebanon for a weekend furlough. "Of course it was dangerous," Abadi, now 58, says in the Manhattan showroom of Harvic International Ltd., which manufactures the Galaxy brand of tall tees. "But when you're 24 you're not afraid of anything."
Â Â Â Â Â The escape went off, although Abadi's father was held for more than two weeks in one of a network of underground prisons run by Syrian secret police, until the family was able to bribe his release. From Lebanon, Abadi traveled south to Israel. There he was able to find dangerous work maintaining electrical towers, but loneliness drew him after eight months to the United States, where his older sister lived.
Â Â Â Â Â Like countless immigrants before him, Abadi took the first job he was offered, manning a table outside his brother-in-law's discount clothing store on Broadway in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was Abadi's first introduction to African-American culture.
Â Â Â Â Â "At that time," he says, speaking in a quiet, still-thick Syrian accent, "Broadway was the Harlem of Brooklyn. The Afro was the fashion. Even you would see white women come and buy the Afro wig and put it on."
Â Â Â Â Â After a year of observing the discount retail trade, Abadi decided to strike out on his own. He borrowed money to open his first shop, a children's clothing store named Princessa, on Avenue A at 14th Street in Manhattan.
Â Â Â Â Â "It was a lousy area," he says of the now-gentrified Alphabet City neighborhood east of the East Village. "A forbidden area. Even the police wouldn't dare go inside."
Â Â Â Â Â The business struggled. When his lease expired in 1977, Abadi moved to Jamaica, Queens, where he tried his hand at selling children's clothing and linens to the mothers in the predominantly poor, black neighborhood. This outing was even less successful than Princessa, so Abadi repaired back to Manhattan, this time to another struggling neighborhood, Spanish Harlem. In tune with the priorities of his poor and working-class customers, he called his new store Saverama.
Â Â Â Â Â "I remember the day we opened," he says, with obvious pride. "June 18, 1978." Abadi still owns Saverama, which sells discount clothes for the whole family. In a fitting bookend to Abadi's retail adventures, it's currently managed by another brother-in-law.
Â Â Â Â Â Having finally produced a profitable enterprise, Abadi determined to leverage his retail expertise into a wholesale venture less exposed to the vagaries of location. In 1983, he teamed up with a partner to form Harvic International. Their first imports were cheap sneakers from Taiwan that came emblazoned with the name Galaxy, which they sold to "off-price" mom-and-pop clothing chains and low-end department stores. Soon after, Harvic began importing commodity-clothing items like boxer shorts and swimming trunks and had them emblazoned with the Galaxy name, for which Harvic had registered a trademark.
Â Â Â Â Â Business was good, but hardly booming. In 1985, on a tip from a department-store buyer friend, Abadi ordered from Chinese suppliers his first batch of extra-long, oversized T-shirts. Known in the industry as 40-inch shirts to distinguish them from the conventional 33-inch length made by underwear brands such as Hanes and Fruit of the Loom the huge tees were becoming popular as "dorm shirts" for girls.
Â Â Â Â Â "I used to bring the blanks and they would print on them to sell to chain stores," Abadi says. "They used to print on it a lot of beautiful things" cartoon characters and flowers.
Â Â Â Â Â Abadi removes a 6XL Galaxy tee from a hanger in the showroom and spreads it out on a conference table, to explain its success as a sleeping shirt. "All our T-shirts are tubular, you see?" he says. "No seam, which makes it easy to print on." The shirts also have a tight neck, relative to their size, and are made of heavier cotton between 170 and 180 grams per square meter than a typical undershirt. These same characteristics would one day be prized by an entirely different customer base.
DORMS TO STREETS
Â Â Â Â Â During much of the 1990s salad days, apparently, for the dorm shirt Harvic imported about 500,000 of them a year. On the strength of that one item, the company was able to branch out into entire lines of discount clothing, including the Chinese-made school uniforms and inexpensive men's business wear it still wholesales nationwide under the generic names Authentic School Uniform, Modern Classic, Enrico Bertucci and Clarenzo Muzzi, among others.
Â Â Â Â Â By 2000, however, the dorm-shirt market had fizzled, and Abadi stopped importing them. He had only a few hundred of them left in his Brooklyn warehouse when he received an unusual order for the item from a menswear retailer in inner-city Newark, N.J., who wanted 1,000 pieces.
Â Â Â Â Â On the promise of that small order, Abadi says, he immediately placed a call to his Chinese supplier and ordered them to manufacture 60,000 more.
Â Â Â Â Â "He said he was a very good barometer," Abadi says of Clinton Men's Shop owner Joseph Steiner, who placed that first order. "Because he sells strictly hip-hop or whatever we call it. Street wear."
Â Â Â Â Â Steiner told Abadi that young black men in Newark were suddenly asking for their white T-shirts long, very long.
Â Â Â Â Â Abadi took a chance on Steiner's ear to the street, and the gamble paid off. "All of a sudden, I start getting calls," he says. "Young black men, hustlers or peddlers in Harlem, they start to call on me, because they've seen the shirt somewhere. I start getting calls from everywhere, from Georgia. This is 2000, 2001."
Â Â Â Â Â For a guy who reportedly touted himself as a bellwether in hip-hop trends, Joseph Steiner neither looks nor acts the part. The elderly Hungarian immigrant has been running Clinton Men's Shop for almost 35 years in a run-down section of Newark that appears, by the number of hand-painted advertisements lining Clinton Street, to specialize in car-window tinting.
Â Â Â Â Â "What do I know why they want it long?" Steiner says, waving a weary hand at the few customers browsing the 5,000-square-foot store, which is crammed floor to ceiling with shirts, jeans and sneakers. "It's a fashion for these youngsters." Steiner turns to his son, who's manning the cash register. "Why they like the T-shirt long?"
Â Â Â Â Â "I have no clue," mumbles Steve Steiner, 29. "They want it, so we get it."
Â Â Â Â Â Joseph Steiner shrugs. "There's your answer. I only wish my beytzim were so long," he sighs, using the Yiddish word for testicles.
Â Â Â Â Â Steiner discounts his role in establishing Galaxy as the tall-tee brand of choice. It's Henry Abadi who's the genius, he says, jokingly referring to the Harvic chief as a "big gonif," or thief. "But don't tell him I said so," Steiner quickly adds. "He's a good man. And a hell of a businessman." He taps the side of his head. "Very shrewd."
Â Â Â Â Â Back in New York, Abadi was having a hard time persuading his sales staff that their signature women's nightshirt was an emerging hit with the hypermasculine urban-wear crowd. "My boys didn't want to promote it," he says, so he took 20-year-old salesman Eli Cohen to a public school at 33rd Street and Third Avenue.
Â Â Â Â Â "I said, 'Eli, you see these black guys, you see these young students? They're all wearing Galaxy,'" Abadi recalls. "Eli said, 'Oh, come on, get out of here.'" So the older man beckoned to one of the kids on the playground. "I said to him, 'Tell me, my man, tell me what you're wearing.'" Abadi smiles at the memory. "The kid says, 'Galaxy. Only the best.'"
Â Â Â Â Â Abadi won't disclose Harvic's sales figures, though in an early phone conversation Cohen put the annual number of white Galaxy tall-tee sales at 3 million. Abadi says it's between 1 million and 2 million, but won't get more specific. The company employs 28 people in its Manhattan headquarters and Brooklyn warehouse.
Â Â Â Â Â In addition to the Galaxy tall tees, which are now made in 20 colors, Harvic has expanded the Galaxy line to include the full complement of casual urban men's pieces, including down jackets, square-backed camouflage tank tops, oversized solid-color polos and striped button-down shirts.
Â Â Â Â Â But the tall tee's status as king of the line is clearly felt. A glass case on the Harvic showroom table displays magazine clippings picturing athletes and rap icons such as Sean "P. Diddy" Combs rocking the tall tee, and a 2003 New York Times story about its use as a canvas for custom airbrush designs by graffiti artists.
Â Â Â Â Â Lately, the dorm shirt turned man-shirt has spawned another gender-bending fashion transformation.
Â Â Â Â Â "It has driven the shorts to be longer, too," says Andy Goetz, president of the Changes store chain. "So now we sell capris to men, because they need to have their shorts visible below the shirt. Otherwise it looks like a dress."
Â Â Â Â Â Galaxy has recently come out with camouflage-print capri pants for men.