Steve Coe is a charming, plain-spoken Brit with a design, photography and art-direction background; he runs several T-shirt companies, including the
irreverent labels Bogus and Special Lucky Winner. But he has reached the
upper echelon of hipness with the L.A.-based Worn Free, which purveys loving reproductions of shirts
worn by rock legends like John Lennon, The Doors, Frank Zappa, The Ramones and Blondie's Debbie Harry, as well as designs by such graphic wizards as
John Van Hamersveld.
Worn Free shirts have become pop-culture talismans, appearing on Entourage characters, in the "hot item" style blurbs of Entertainment Weekly and Us, and on the much-discussed torsos of celebs like Jennifer Aniston, Teri Hatcher, Mischa Barton, Brandon Routh, Heather Graham, Eddie Vedder, Keith Urban and Steve Jones.
These madly collectible, ridiculously comfortable threads are designed, says Coe, to relate to musicians as people — rather than simply wear the band's logo or photo, fans can partake of a kind of secret history of cool.
Each Worn Free tee bears a tag with a photo of the artist wearing the shirt and other historical information that helps tell the story of its significance in music history. In many instances, Coe must pay to use not only the likeness of a rock icon but also the logo or other graphical information on the shirt. Despite the extra legwork required, he has been ultra-scrupulous about obtaining these rights. Worn Free's deal with its licensors is nontraditional but rigorously fair: They receive a generous, preset portion of royalties from shirt sales rather than a cash advance. "It makes things easier," Coe points out, "because I can offer one deal, and people can either do it or they can't."
Born in Ilford, Essex — "on the cusp of Northeast London" — Coe fell in love with both music and pop imagery at a young age. He also learned about the tension between playing it safe and following your dreams. "My dad was a drummer when he was younger and wanted to be a recording engineer, but he ended up taking a telecommunications job to earn enough to raise his family," Coe recalls. "He didn't want me to have to make the same choice. From an early age, the message I got was not to worry about getting a 9-to-5 job."
He learned photography at the feet of his shutterbug grandfather, who owned a darkroom, and was playing guitar by age 12, in thrall to classic-rock titans like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin. Later in his teens he became obsessed with happening bands like The Happy Mondays, The Charlatans and The Stone Roses.
In pursuit of ever cheaper beer, Coe regularly found himself at a pound-a-pint "acid jazz" night, where a DJ's crates of legendary Blue Note, Verve and other vinyl introduced him not only to the incendiary genius of Miles Davis and the silky glissandi of Grant Green, but also to the graphic perfection of vintage record covers. Such imagery would remain more of a hobby for the time being, but it adorned the back walls of his mind even as he turned his attention to more pressing matters.
Coe decided to take a break before pursuing university studies, and thus began six months in the South of France, "living in tents and making beads and sitting on the beach and all that hippie crap," as he puts it, not to mention "drinking a lot of wine and meeting some really nice French girls."
At Farnborough Technical College he took a class called Media Design, which opened up a new world combining photography, animation, graphics and editing. Electrified by the experience, Coe began pursuing — and securing — freelance work immediately after graduating.
They'd say, "We need six people to appear nude tomorrow morning," and I'd find them.One of his earliest gigs was at the acclaimed, uproarious production company Planet 24, the creative force behind the raucous and highly rated late-night variety program The Word, among other hit series. Coe worked on The Big Breakfast and Hotel Babylon, assisting in his official capacities (tape-library overseer, editor) but also volunteering for duties that were closer to the action. "I'd help people out with deadlines," he remembers. "I was good at getting things for free, so they'd say, 'We need six people to appear nude tomorrow morning on The Big Breakfast,' and I'd find them. I loved doing that kind of stuff. I just learned what I could."
Still, the call of photography lured him away, and he took a lab job simply so he could process his own work and save money on film. "People would come in with their holiday photos and I'd always be doing my own stuff," he reveals with a chuckle. Once he'd gotten his portfolio together, he began pitching to ad agencies, magazines and other outlets and saw some of his experimental, highly graphic work on MTV, the BBC and Channel 4, in such publications as Tank Magazine, and on album covers for fledgling bands.
One of Coe's clients urged him to pursue computer design and loaded him up with software. He then designed a logo for his new production company, which was working on a documentary about snowboarding. The shirts he made to promote the project prompted an admiring friend to ask him to devise other T-shirt designs.
"That snowboarding documentary never happened, but I had a company infrastructure and was equipped for design, so I started creating logos for other businesses," Coe explains. At the same time, he continued working on film projects, but all roads seemed to lead to a single destination. "My business partner, John Hickie, and I went to Asia to shoot an extreme-sports documentary," he recollects. "We were shooting monks in Shaolin, China, and Muay Thai fighters in Thailand, but during our downtime we started talking about T-shirts; that turned into Bogus."
The very first design for this new entity was The Smoke Crack Diet, featuring a photo lifted from a real diet ad. It wasn't exactly a high-water mark of contemporary taste, but it helped define the sensibility — if that's the right word — of Bogus shirt designs. Since Hickie (a gifted director who currently helms the Future Weapons series for the Discovery Channel) was utterly inept as an illustrator, Coe amused himself by forcing him to draw many of the designs: "He got one shot at each image, and since he couldn't draw, it usually looked horrible, so, of course, we'd use that. The whole idea behind Bogus was just the worst T-shirts you could ever buy."
Enmeshed in their filmic enterprises, Coe and Hickie had little time to spare for the development of Bogus as a company and ended up giving away more shirts than they sold. Nonetheless, they won a devoted audience of skaters, surfers and other sports-culture participants, in addition to a fair amount of press. It took a while, but big orders eventually came in from Urban Outfitters, bringing the label more cash in a few months than it had made in three years.
Meanwhile, Coe had been quietly nurturing a concept for a different sort of T-shirt company.
Hardcore, with George C. Scott, came on TV — and I wanted every single shirt in that film."I was watching a Cheech and Chong movie, and Tommy Chong had this shirt I really wanted," he remembers. "Then, years later, that movie Hardcore, with George C. Scott, came on TV — and I wanted every single shirt in that film. I had this idea of licensing and reproducing classic shirts that had that pop-culture vibe." He developed and tested the plan in partnership with a creative agency, but his partners were ultimately disinclined to build a business around so much licensing. Coe, who'd relocated to New York, was nevertheless convinced it would work.
Combing through classic photographs of iconic artists, Coe found numerous instances in which rock legends sported shirts bearing the names of obscure watering holes and local radio stations, as well as homemade slogans. Reproducing these shirts, rather than simply printing band logos or images, would connect fans to the personal histories of their idols and confer a kind of insider status on each wearer. Worn Free was born.
Early support for the venture came from Arturo Vega, who'd created artwork for The Ramones. Shortly after establishing this relationship, Coe got an e-mail from a lawyer representing Yoko Ono, who expressed interest in Worn Free. "Yoko is an artist, and she appreciated this idea of making shirts that celebrated the history of the artist and their personal style rather than hawking some exploitative merch knockoff," he points out.
Coe adds that his offbeat approach has worked to his advantage. "Because we were a small company and trying something new, we were very lucky and got people like Yoko and Gail Zappa and others to work with us," he asserts. "We don't intend to sell on a mass scale — as much as I like Target, I don't want to sell there and have our stuff be mass-consumed. I'm more interested in building the concept organically, letting people discover the shirts and the stories that go along with them."
The response has been tremendous, with movie and TV stars and modern pop artists going gaga for Worn Free's wares. What's more, as with the company's Radio Clyde shirt, famously worn by Zappa, the buzz has sometimes spread beyond the garments themselves. That shirt's brisk sales prompted British journalists to wonder why Hollywood hipsters were going clubbing in shirts promoting a relatively unknown Glasgow radio station, and soon Radio Clyde was earning not only T-shirt royalties but international recognition.
With the world awash in comparatively disposable couture, Coe places great emphasis on comfort and quality, using numerous vendors specializing in different textures and processes. "I want you to buy a Worn Free shirt and feel it's great and comfy right away but not have some phony distressed technique to make it look old," he declares. "It should wear in naturally. Fortunately, we're working with some outstanding suppliers and manufacturers who are helping us keep the standards extremely high." Coe is planning an even higher-end line of shirts to sell in boutiques like Barney's.
"I won't just make any shirt for the sake of it," Coe insists. "Sometimes I don't think the graphics are strong enough or cool enough or the original photo is good enough." Not that he's hurting for variety. "We have over 70 designs. I tried to crop it down for the season," he admits, "but I couldn't!" Coe plans a line of country-music shirts, among others, and is considering a touring exhibit of classic photos from the archives he's been exploring.
Just as Bogus saw big retail action, Coe sees similar potential in his latest line of humorous shirts, Special Lucky Winner. These togs, "created to help make people luckier," will come blessed by a global coterie of healers and holy men (or so claims the brand's fledgling site) and equipped with scratch-card tags. Purchasers may find, upon scratching, that they've won a free shirt — if they're especially lucky, that is.
You wouldn't expect a man who designed a shirt reading "Honk If You Want Chlamydia" (for Bogus, naturally) to wax sentimental about being an entrepreneur, and you'd be partly right. "It's one of those love-hate things, isn't it?" he says. "You're your own boss, so when you can spend time off it's a miracle — but it's all for the bigger picture. I've known where I wanted to take Worn Free for years, and what's really inspiring and exciting is actually doing what I envisioned. There's still a long way to go, but it's really nice to reach that crescendo. I'm going to expand into other areas, and eventually I'll probably move on and build something else from the ground up."
Being his own boss has been pretty sweet for Coe, but there's been an additional reward. "My dad's working with me now, helping out with financial planning and other organizational stuff," he confides, "which is really cool."