Mott Street in Nolita is not exactly Bleecker and MacDougal or St. Marks and Avenue A. If a tie-dyed camisole turns up on Mott, it might just be made of silk; the torn jeans you see are likely to sport Rogan labels. Regardless of how hip and bohème the styles, prices in this part of town are strictly haut bourgeois. So imagine our surprise when we discover that more than one of the precious boutiques below Houston are offering the kind of garments usually sold by vendors at a street demo.
We first notice this phenomenon at a lovely shop called JANET RUSSO (262 Mott Street), where a sequined $650 summer dress hangs right alongside stacks of T-shirts in pretty color combos—pink with burgundy, kelly green with lemon—that say “Better Karma . . . ” on their fronts and “Vote Kerry” on their backs. The shirts ($30 for adults; $24 for people too small to vote) are form-fitting and non-sweatshop-made (two nice things) and have garnered an overwhelmingly positive response, according to the store’s manager. But, of course, not everyone in the $600-skirt bracket is a Democrat: So what happens when a Fox 5 fashionista wanders into the store? “A few people have said, ‘Where are your Bush shirts?’ We just say, ‘You’re in the wrong shop!’ ”
Around the corner at the YOUNG DESIGNER MARKET, held almost every Saturday at the St. Patrick’s Youth Center (268 Mulberry Street), an attorney from New Jersey named Jim Morrison is selling T-shirts he manufactures under the business name Dangerousbreed.net. (Even when the pricier Nolita stores are dead as doornails, this market is hopping, and no wonder—who can blame shoppers for flocking to a place where innovative clothes and accessories actually cost less than $100?)
Though at first glance Dangerousbreed’s offerings appear to be merely more of those tedious fake-old souvenir tees, a closer look reveals surprising sentiments: A portrait of a woman is accompanied by the words “Gaza Strip Club”; “Enjoy North Korea” sports palm trees; “Saudi Arabia, Sportsman’s Paradise” features a leaping trout. “The challenge is to design a political shirt that you would want to wear every day, not just to a political rally,” Morrison, who makes the shirts himself, explains proudly. “Very few T-shirts have a message layered underneath the irony.” Some of his creations are completely new; others are riffs on vintage motifs (the bucolic hills on a Baghdad shirt once graced a Colorado tee). On Sundays, Morrison plies his wares from a table at Orchard and Stanton; at either location, the shirts cost $20—he says this is the most he would personally ever pay for a tee.
Over at the TRIPLE 5 SOUL flagship (290 Lafayette Street), where the sensibility is raffish-skater hip-hop (a gray sweatshirt with a lot of zippers is $60), the political positions are sharply partisan. A company called Body as Billboard (its slogan is “Advertise for Shit That Matters”) offers undershirt-and-panty combos that range from a concise “Fuck Bush” to a saucier “The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own” to our personal favorite, “Keep Your Laws Off My Fucking Body.” (Tops are $36; bottoms $25.) By way of further explanation, a visit to bodyasbillboard.com turns up this bluntly refreshing manifesto, which reads in part: “Why? Because corporate America uses our bodies to advertise for companies where employees have no health benefits, work in hideous and dangerous conditions, are treated like shit and to boot, do not even make a living wage. . . . These companies should be paying us to wear their logos scrawled all over our bodies. The average American is exposed to over one thousand advertisements a day. This is fucking bullshit.”
Of course, some people prefer a subtler approach to the political wearable—or maybe they just don’t look good in a tee, or can’t wear slogans to work. Still, they needn’t face the day message-less: At GIRLPROPS (153 Prince Street) a rhinestone-encrusted peace symbol on a silvery chain is $5.99; a larger heart-shaped peace sign, equally glittery, is $7.99. You can confidently wear these to the office with your stuffiest fake-Chanel suit or Gap twinset: The boss will never suspect you’re wearing Fuck Bush panties under your Spanx.