The Graphic T-Shirt Matrix | GQ

Making sense of the garm of the moment.

It’s hard to imagine life without graphic t-shirts. Since Jean Seberg’s “Breathless” New York Herald Tribune tee, the they have been ubiquitous and universal. A staple in wardrobes—and life—for decades.

Right now they are having a full-blown moment. Not just because we all dress more casual these days and athleisure and blah blah blah. But graphic t-shirts sit squarely at the apex of several different cultural waves, including music, art, streetwear and high fashion. That’s lead us into an anything-goes frenzy: John Mayer teamed with cult Deadheads Online Ceramics to design his tour merchandise, helping his fans and acolytes to realize that we can discover the wonders of graphic t-shirts on many levels. Louis Vuitton creative director Virgil Abloh’s career in fashion kicked off with graphic tees, and he was seen wearing a t-shirt from Salty Dog Cafe, the South Carolina low country seafood institution celebrated by many Gamecocks but far fewer Francophiles. And rapper Travis Scott was spotted this NBA season courtside wearing a vintage Bjork tee. The swan dress will occupy real estate in our collective memories forever, but today, like most days, a t-shirt makes more sense.

Graphic t-shirts have also reached peak popularity because they are approachable and relatively affordable. Those who want to get behind Alessandro Michele’s latest super-psychedelic Gucci collection but aren’t ready to go full-devoré-velvet track suit can find a much easier entry point with a classic (albeit $600) logo tee. You can support your favorite new skate brand (even if you don’t skate) or claim your allegiance to the watering hole where you drown your sorrows. The t-shirt is the great equalizer; it humbly connects clout-craving kids with $20 in their pocket to card-carrying cool kids DJing pop up parties at Art Basel.

We all have our favorites. And if asked, with little effort, you could conjure the exact way it feels, fits, and the circumstances in which it came into your possession. It could be the Yankees Suck t-shirt you don’t exactly remember buying somewhere outside Fenway after a night spent slithering down Landsdowne Street, but is still in rotation even after all the tears and beers it soaked up before the curse was reversed. It could be justifiably retired, hanging from the rafters, but even today you wear it with pride. Or maybe it’s the same Crass shirt you saw a 6’1” runway model wearing in Soho last week, hers tactically decimated while yours has somehow become two sizes too small. Perhaps you waited t in line for hours of Fairfax or Lafayette Street to get the tee of your dreams—hey, no judgements! T-shirts are a safe space for everyone.

Obscure or obvious, earnest or ironic, the graphic t-shirt is a global language, telegraphing interests, aspirations, and admirations, taste and the lack thereof. It’s affordable and ageless. The older it gets, the cooler it looks. The right t-shirt can help make new friends or strike up a conversation. They don’t take up much space (until they do, in which case remember: the first step to dealing with your hoarding problem is admitting you have a hoarding problem), and if you wash on cold and hang dry, they retain their color and shape. It’s simple, find one that works for you and put it on. Covet, collect, and most importantly, wear. Don’t overthink it—just put your head through the hole.

As a result of our current graphic gold age, any tee can become a grail—even one with a pizza joint logo. So we made a matrix to help you understand just what the hell is going on and which one to cop next.

PALACE
The London skate brand’s play on a classic Versace font proved that even its understated designs sell out in minutes online.

MARTINE ROSE
Graphic streetwear had its heyday in the ’90s. This English designer retooled a blocky logo some fans have been wearing for several decades now.

DIOR HOMME
Historic fashion houses often have archives loaded with iconic throwback logos that somehow fit the 2018 aesthetic perfectly.

OFF-WHITE
Virgil Abloh paved the way for a new era of street-smart high fashion with his vivid images, conceptual text, and oversize fits.

BRAIN DEAD
Kyle Ng draws on the world of sci-fi to churn out psychedelic tees in the realm of design objects.

ANTWERP
This new T-shirt era is totally democratic: The right gift-shop find can be just as covetable as a $400 designer tee.

JORDAN
When in doubt, smash the nostalgia button. A T-shirt for your favorite athlete or TV show is always out there. You just have to find it.

IGGY POP
Before buying, make sure you can name at least one song by the artist on your vintage rock tee. (We suggest “Lust for Life.”)

SCARR’S PIZZA
This tiny pizza joint on Orchard Street used a little symmetry to create an N.Y.C. souvenir you’ll actually want to wear on your body.

CDG x CACTUS PLANT FLEA MARKET
Comme des Garçons’ new ready-to-wear line and Pharrell’s favorite hippie-dippie T-shirt brand teamed to establish a fresh must-have status symbol.

ONLINE CERAMICS
A couple of art-school pals started out posting Grateful Dead tees with super-crunchy spiritual flavor on Instagram. Now they make ’em for John Mayer.

COME TEES
L.A. painter Sonya Sombreuil sells one-off designs to Kanye and Rihanna, making these some of the rarest and most sought-after art tees in the fashion world.

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