I’ve wanted to create a newsletter for a while now, to tell you about everything that’s going on over here at Good Shirts. There’s much to discuss. I receive hundreds of shirt submissions each week. Some are profound, others are downright bizarre. At this point, my memory (and camera roll) is like 90% shirt. My childhood trip to the Grand Canyon has been blotted out by 100 MB of "I’m with Stupid" tees. For better or worse, I eat, sleep and even dream T-shirts. Thus, I feel if I don’t share some of the thoughts and stories I have accumulated, my brain might finally implode under its own weight - like a quasar, eating itself into oblivion. (Don’t send me messages if this isn’t what a quasar does).
How to begin? I suppose everyone loves a good origin story.
I started Good Shirts (neé Good_Vietnam_shirts) while living in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2019. I got a job working for a company called “Princeton English” (no relation) helping high school kids who wanted to study in the US write their college application essays, and tutoring them for the SATs. One day, from across the Phở joint where I took my daily lunch breaks, I saw my first strange T-shirt: a bootleg Patagonia tee reading “Patamountain.” At anything, I thought that this shirt was rare…so I snapped a pic, and went back to work. But as I wove through traffic in my junky Honda Wave, I saw another young man with a whole, incomprehensible ramble running down his back. It seemed too strange to be a mere coincidence. After work, I visited a T-shirt shop in my neighborhood. The rack was full of these inexplicable, randomized text shirts.
My eyes were wide open. These kind of shirts were not rare – they were abundant. And now that I had tasted of the forbidden mistranslated shirt, I had to have more. I began spending my lunch breaks scanning through the racks of local shops, snapping pictures. On weekends I went to Đồng Xuân Market to swim in the sea of what is called "Shanzhai" (I learned from the IG account and art project @Shanzhai_Lyric). In July of 2019, I started the Instagram account. I encouraged my friends to follow. Within a month of posting my favorite finds each day, I had amassed a cool 2,000 followers.
I think the shirts appealed to people not because they are “dumb,” but because they are strange, unexpected, serendipitous, poetic and Funny – all things that art should be. Their origins are deeply mysterious, and they seem to point to something else, something deeper in global, commercial culture (if you will). Shanzhai Lyric, the artist duo from New York who exhibited shirts like these in the MOMA in 2021, write expertly on the subject, calling the phenomenon: “an anonymously and collectively authored ongoing poem emerging out of the detritus of consumerism.”
I was a moth to their flame.
Bootlegs, knock-offs and all things counterfeit have always fascinated me. At an early age, I was recreating my own counterfeit currency, attempting to replicate the filigrees and pointillized presidents with a number 2 pencil. In middle school, I sold fake Jordans™ that I bought from China to my classmates; the same year, I saved up $500 and bought a fake Gibson Les Paul from DHGate that was good enough to fool my friends (but not good enough for the guy at the Pawn Shop I tried to sell it at when I was down bad). I’ve always been compelled by the idea that anything “real” or “official” or even “sacred” can be reproduced, if given enough attention and effort. But maybe, as Shanzhai Lyric suggests, there’s something more to it - the notion that nothing truly belongs to anyone - that those sacred objects with their holy branding can be reclaimed and redistributed through art (and commerce, if you’re not afraid of an occasional cease and desist).
By the end of my 10 months in Hanoi, my humble Instagram account had grown to 20,000 followers.
Eventually, the direction of the account changed. People began to submit more and more shirts – many of which were not mistranslated, but still funny, strange, and interesting – and so in early 2020 @Good_Vietnam_Shirts became @Goodshirts. I also began selling my own T-shirt designs. Today, Good Shirts is a full-fledged business, with seven people on staff. This year, our shirts will be appearing in Spencer’s Gifts across the country, which is a cool milestone for us. We’ve also got collabs with a ton of cool people in the works for 2023.
Stay tuned, and thanks for rocking with us for the last four years (and beyond).