The No Mas Q&A [Pt. 2]: Art, writing, business, and the “Baghdad Oilers.”

Posted by Rob Walker on December 4, 2006
Posted Under: Brand Underground,Q&A,Subculture Inc.

Here’s the second part of the No Mas interview; part one focused on appropriation, free speech, and the law. Part two deals with why founder Chris Isenberg turned to a brand as a vehicle for expressing ideas about sports, given his background as a writer, plus details about how he got things off the ground that should be of particular interest to any of you creative-entrepreneur types out there, plus the story behind the shirt that first got me curious about No Mas. Here goes.

You’re a writer, so of course I’m also curious, if you had a set of ideas about sport and culture, why did you choose this medium as opposed to say, writing a book?

Well, I guess in my own way I had tried very hard to create a career for myself as a dude who wrote long, sports feature stories for magazines. That definitely was my original intention to be A.J. Liebling or Gay Talese or Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer or Roger Angell—to be a high-minded writer of feature pieces for magazines. And I discovered that career really was basically gone.

I have had tastes of how great a job this could be. Right out of school, I got a commission from Sports Illustrated to write a feature about the Oxford Cambridge Boxing Match. Full ride travel and a decent fee, and I wrote something I was very proud of and they said they loved but held for a year and never ran. I also tried to get funding to make a documentary about the Oxford Cambridge boxing match and failed (now of course, ten years later someone else has done it). I got an assignment from Vanity Fair to do a small profile on the bullfighter Francisco Rivera Ordonez which they killed because W came out with a story about Ordonez right before my piece was scheduled to run. I did a long piece for a magazine called Icon about Michael Ray Richardson, the former Knicks point guard who had been kicked out of the NBA for drugs and went to play in Italy, and that magazine folded right before my story was supposed to run and then a big documentary about him came out.

It’s very possible that if I had had better luck on some of the big stories I lost I might have stayed in journalism, and I have been lucky enough to actually publish work I am proud of in places like The New York Times, Details, Village Voice and The Fader. I’ve also published work I am not very proud of. And I think to really make a career in journalism today work—unless you’re Sebastian Junger or one of a tiny number of people who figure out how to write their own ticket from very early on — you have to be comfortable with long apprenticeships where you do a few good things but mainly crap, and your prose gets mangled and you work primarily with vipers in a extremely venomous environment. And I just didn’t have the tolerance or the Machiavellian skill to negotiate those waters. And when I’ve tried to work outside of the system I’ve basically been really unsuccessful.

I’m also a slow writer who doesn’t like to sit still and be alone at a desk, and who gives birth very painfully, so I think in the end it’s probably a huge blessing that I didn’t become exactly what I wanted to be.

One of the best things about No Mas is that it’s become a platform for me to do the kind of writing that I wanted to as a freelance journalist but could not figured out how to get paid to do or paid enough to do. I am extremely proud of the No Mas issue of Frank 151 that I produced this year. It was a preposterous amount of work, but it was like getting to do one issue of my dream magazine. I loved doing it and I love having copies of it to give to people. I very much hope to do more media projects like that and to continue to develop the No Mas web site, with my editorial partner Dave Larzelere, the former head writer of ESPN Classic Now. We have been getting a lot of good feedback on the site and if someone would just give me 100,000 dollars we would really be able to do wild out.

As a longtime Astros fan, I enjoyed the J.R. Richard entry that ran the site, and the “Illustrated History of Recreational Drugs In Sports” was pretty great. On the practical side, how did you go about it when you first started out — did you know a lot about, say, where to get things printed, how to distribute, stuff like that? Has that side of things changed a lot for you, in terms of the learning curve?

I am definitely a testament to not needing to have any background in fashion, design or finance—but also to the fact that it would be really good if you did. My next set of tasks on the clothing side involves trying to produce and finance cut-and-sew garments, rather than just buying American Apparel blanks and printing an interesting design on them, or buying vintage clothing and messing with it. And honestly it’s a little daunting. But it’s definitely also exciting to try new things.

For the production, there was never a point where I was screenprinting in my garage or anything. At first I went to a guy in Sheepshead Bay that had done the shirts for our softball team Black Betty, 2006 Williamsburg Champions. And then he pretty quickly referred me to someone bigger nearby because I was wanting to do more complicated jobs. The Strawberry print had like 10 colors and needed a good automatic screen press. I went to these other guys out in Brooklyn called Red Line Screenprinting. They really gave me an education in how screenprinting worked and when my stuff was getting made, I would go out there and do quality control and pick colors and watch and learn. They were not a shop that did a lot of streetwear work, like Pro Graphics in Queens, but to me they had lower prices and a better attitude. I did my stuff there for over a year, and Russell, who is the art director over there, is a fantastic guy; he taught me a lot about graphics and screenprinting. Now I use Tom Korest and Vector Distibution in Michigan. They do excellent and consistent work and price things fairly, and now they warehouse all my stuff and ship directly to my stores and individual internet customers. They are really good people.

In terms of getting accounts in the beginning, I really just did it myself or had help from friends. Union I walked into off the street with samples. Union and Nom de Guerre especially were helpful in getting other accounts, because the other “luxury streetwear” stores that have sprung up around the world were in many ways directly or indirectly modeled off those stores. So if you sell well in those stores, a lot of other stores might contact you through them, or will have heard of you if you cold call or they see you at Magic. The same thing is true for Turntable Lab and Digital Gravel, my primary internet accounts. I have also benefited from advice on all kinds of things from the guys at Mishka, King Stampede, and Mighty Healthy. We all started at roughly the same time and have done sample sales together, and shows together and they have all always been kind about sharing business information. Also Daniel from Barking Irons, who I showed in Tokyo with last April, has given me a lot of help and advice. Not everyone in the community (streetwear or fashion generally) is like that. And now that there are so many people doing brands or starting brands and the streetwear category is getting so big, even people who aren’t naturally assholes are getting sick of answering questions about how to get into the business, so it’s not as easy to get good advice probably as it was a couple of years ago.

In terms of the fine art side of my business, from putting on Fall Classic to doing smaller installations to selling on the web. Finding artists, collaborating with artists, buying high quality prints, framing, and finding customers and markets for these products is a whole other set of only sometimes overlapping challenges.

Since I’m particularly a fan of the Baghdad Oilers shirt, maybe I can get you to sort of talk about where that idea came from, as an example of how you think about the brand and how it relates to the sport/culture nexus. I’m also vaguely curious if you have some kind of connection to Houston — you have a Phi Slamma Jamma shirt, too.

The Baghdad Oilers — that’s the kind of thing that really just popped into my brain one day fully formed. So it’s hard to say what made that thought occur to me. But I very vividly remember in ’91 when I was a senior in high school and the first Gulf War started. I saw an interview with a fighter pilot who was talking about how excited he and other pilots were to be getting into the action and he said “This is our Super Bowl.” People always use sports metaphors in wars and war metaphors in sports—particularly football. And sometimes they just seem so wrong. Particularly this second go-round in the Gulf with Bush, which I was very opposed to from the beginning. You really get the feeling from Bush that he is running the war like he’s Tom Landry—well I guess not that well really more like Walt Michaels–but anyway as if it is a sporting contest. And Bush is a sports guy. That was his big qualification before being the Governor, running the Texas Rangers. I just have this feeling like the Bush and Cheney people really approach it like a it’s a sporting event. With no regard to the human consequences of their actions. “This is our Super Bowl!” Yee-haw!

And then I am someone who thinks a lot about team names and logos and studies them. And the Oilers logo has always been one of my favorites. I like those situations like the Oilers or the Steelers or the Hartford Whalers where the logo represents the main economic basis of the town, or what used to be the mainstay. So I guess all those things were percolating with the fact that this conflict was wrong and primarily about insuring a steady supply of oil, and it just hit me like Iraq is the new Texas and Baghdad is the new Houston. Baghdad Oilers. And of course, for them, the derrick should be on fire. We did some versions of the design which said Baghdad in an Arabic script too, which looked very cool, but in the end I liked the subtlety of having it look at first glance like a Houston Oilers shirt and then the play revealing itself when you look closer, and the Arabic was a more immediate visual tip off.

I have no connection to Houston. I’ve never been there. Just a coincidence that two of the shirts play off Houston based teams.

And finally the obvious: Where do you want to go from here? I don’t know if No Mas is your main activity or not, or your main source of income, more to the point. But what do you want to do with it – or without it — next?

Since June, except for the odd copywriting job, No Mas has been my only source of income, so number one is to sustain a business that will support me and hopefully one or two other full-time people. Because trying to do everything myself just isn’t possible and is stunting the growth of the company. And I have big dreams for No Mas. I don’t think it’s just a clothing company. I think it’s more like a channel– a perspective on sports that’s deliverable across many platforms. Already we sell clothing, we do art shows, we make print and online media. I want to continue doing all three of those things and expand on them.

On the clothing front, I want to move into manufacturing my own garments. I want to explore those areas where I believe freedom of speech trumps the athletes’ right to publicity, but in other cases I want to make licensing deals and partner with retired athletes (I just completed a deal with Rubin Hurricane Carter). I am going to be doing a collaboration with Daniel from Barking Irons, I am working on something with Puma, I want to really expand and upgrade the web site — the content and the commerce. I am going to continue to work with Mickey Duzyj and James Blagden, but I also want to continue look for new artists to work with, and new directions and projects. I definitely want to do another major stand-alone gallery show in ’07 and I’d like it have it travel to more than one place. To take the work on the road — especially to Japan.

Murketing cannot thank Mr. Isenberg enough for his time and patience, and incredibly informative and thoughtful answers. Stop by No Mas for more on him, the brand, and all related products and projects.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I’m really curious what the background of this sort of brand transformation is. Do you know of any kind of good history of the kind of stuff No Mas is doing?

Written By BW Irvine on December 4th, 2006 @ 7:19 pm

I don’t know if someone has written such a history. It’s a topic that I dealt with a bit in the brand underground article ( I mentioned there the Ramones logo as one sort of precedent (Presidential seal remixed to have eagle holding a baseball bat). Dapper Dan and other customizers in NY in the 1980s did intereting things, and I have heard it said that Freshjive was the first brand to remix things like the Tide logo. PNB Nation was, I believe, another innovator in this area. I’m sure there are other examples, but if you do find a good history, lemme know…

Written By murketing on December 8th, 2006 @ 9:39 am
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