Weezy out of his brain of DMT syrup, Homer Simpson sprouting weed leaves out of his fingers, and a dual tribute to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and a morning wank. Bristol-based label, African Apparel, have conceived a small line of tees that are as hilarious as they are subversive, flipping pop culture figures on their head and smearing them with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Like, seriously, who wouldn’t want to wear a Freddy Mercury tee with cocks artfully reflected in his shades? ACCLAIM caught up with label founder, Cedric Barada, to talk the label’s origins, ethos and future.
Could you briefly touch on the origins of African Apparel? How the label started and the impetus behind starting the label?
The label started a bit by accident. African Apparel actually started as a conceptual band in the summer 2008. We did something like three or four gigs all in all; we were sort of a weird jam band where nobody could actually play an instrument. Early psychedelic vibes, but nothing serious of course…an attempt to link comedy with something a bit more spiritual and spontaneous. I think you can still hear some of our tracks on an ancient Internet device called MySpace. As any respectable band, we needed a band t-shirt. This is where the John Marley design came to birth. I think it represents the band angle well. It’s a ridiculous design, but also a clever one, as loads of people don’t get it at first and fall into the trap of thinking you are actually wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt. So this is how everything started: I got a few tees printed out for our band and they sold out in a day or two, so I reprinted them. Soon the band wasn’t performing anymore but loads of people kept asking me where they could buy the John Marley tee. So I morphed the band into a clothing label – we were already called African Apparel after all – and asked a few different artists I loved if they were up to do a design for us. And there you go, that is basically how the t-shirt label started.
Where are you based? And how many people do you have working alongside you?
We’re based in Bristol, England. We’ve got an office/studio on Stokes Croft. Essentially, I run African Apparel on my own, but with the help of friends. I choose the artists we work with and the designs we produce. I deal with the every day tasks like taking orders, sending the tees, dealing with customers and stockists, etc. Rob and Paul who print our tees have got their workshop on the other side of the road from us. I share the studio with my good pal Christopher, who did the Known Pleasures design. He inevitably has his weight behind some of the decisions – we see each other for hours every day, so we predictably influence and help each other. It’s good in that way.
How would you describe the aesthetic that underpins the label?
African Apparel is about creativity and fun. We try not to be constrained to one special thing, and do stuff as long as we enjoy it. There is constant discovery and interest in both new and old music, art and design. Things that touch our collective mind. But more than anything, African Apparel is a way to express ourselves. The tees are used as blank canvases for our daydreams. The result of our daily lives – hanging out with friends and talking shit, stuff that we want to put out there, a celebration of our individuality and of the artists.
Who wears African Apparel?
People with good taste and a sense of the absurd.
How do you differentiate African Apparel from other labels?
We’re not even trying to differentiate ourselves. All we’re doing is creating the tees we’d like to wear and that represent us.
What defines a good streetwear label?
I don’t know if you can define African Apparel as a streetwear label… What I see is far too many copycat labels on the market. It would be good to see more labels that are not just directly inspired by hip-hop, graffiti or skateboarding. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I personally think there is a saturation of labels doing a poor job. A good label should be adventurous, have their own original approach and be honest with themselves and with the people they want to reach. And, of course, there are the obvious criteria of quality and details of manufacturing.
Are there any specific themes that run through your collections?
Again, things that touch us. It actually could be anything we’ve got on our minds at the time and want to put out there. Music and art are obviously a big part of our lives, that’s why they’re recurrent themes in our designs, but it could just as well be a completely different spectrum of themes.
There’s a real (and refreshing) strain of humour running through your current line of tees. Is that something you were aiming for? And why is taking a humorous approach important and appealing?
Yes, I think humour is one of the most profound demonstrations of human intelligence, even in its most light-hearted version. It’s a way to bend realities and shift them to an all-new thing. Of course, everybody is different and might not always have the cultural keys to get the joke. The old saying is true, you can laugh about everything but not with everybody. I think we’ve upset a few Joy Division and Bob Marley fans.
A lot of your prints are quite subversive too, in the way they undermine or add a healthy dose of irony and sarcasm to the images of ‘idols’ or pop culture figures. How does that reflect the philosophy of the label?
Irony and sarcasm are intimately linked to humour – at least here in the UK. Icons and idols are symbols, they represent a certain history and set of ideals. They’ve got power. Their image might even have more power than the actual individual. For example, you can see pictures of Bob Marley or Jimi Hendrix on any kind of product, everywhere on earth. You want it or not, they are there. Most of the time side-by-side, sold cheaply on a market stall between a bong and a beach towel. They’re inked in our collective subconscious. That’s the idea behind our John Marley design. It can work on different levels, but more than anything it’s a faux-hippy kick in the teeth.
For your collaborations, how much input does each party have to the specific project?
It depends, sometimes the design is already done and we just have to say, ‘Yeah, we really like this, let’s put it out there!’ Other times we ask an artist if they want to collaborate. Usually they come up with the overall design, but we follow closely how it’s done from the ideas to sketches and finals, and give our input here and there. Then you can say it’s more a mix between a commission and a collaboration.
Could you tell us about your Rap tee, designed by LL Cool Jo? How did that collaboration come about?
Jo has been a close friend for more than 10 years. Unfortunately he lives in Bordeaux so I only see him once or twice a year. The Rap design is actually a tattoo he has on his forearm. Jo has always had some sort of lo-fi rap project since I’ve known him. I was even in one of them at some point. That’s probably why his Rap design has got the frown down. But it can also have a lot of different meanings, like a comment on what loads of modern rap is etc….
If you had a chance, is there a company or individual in particular you’d like to collaborate with?
There are loads of amazing individuals and artists we’d like to collaborate with. It’s difficult to say. As for a company, I personally like what Perks and Mini do.
What’s your vision for the label? Do you see yourself expanding its scope?
African Apparel is about expressing ourselves in any way we find interesting. Anything is possible. We’re moving into a broader range of clothing with a series of crew necks this fall, and some other surprises. Next step is putting on nights and art events. But it’s all part of the same thing, just another way of doing things our way. Doing what we want.
You can check out their gear here.