Blood is the New Black


Although urban fashion has certainly been more art-driven recently, with the prominence of large graphics on tees and hoodies in both streetwear and more hip-hop centric brands, the industry is still generally concentrated on a design-driven aesthetic. Marrying art and fashion by using the t-shirt as a canvas is a concept we’ve seen before, but Blood is The New Black, owned and operated by Mitra Khayyam, takes it one step further, promoting the artists just as much as the brand.

“…each Blood is the New Black shirt has the artist’s own Blood is the New Black logo and their name screen printed on it, plus the shirts come with a hangtag that promotes the artist’s own website in addition to ours.”

Format: You wrote your thesis on how artists can use t-shirts as a way to reach a wider audience, and how this in turn helps people discover up-and-coming artists. This is a very interesting topic of research. Please, in a few paragraphs, explain your findings.
Mitra Khayyam: I wrote my thesis in 2002/2003. At the time I felt as though art wasn’t something I could legitimately get my hands on, or even be around in a sense. Keep in mind that it seems like “going to art receptions” has only recently become the new “hanging out in bars.” But anyhow, anything that was affordable yet design oriented/artistic and easily accessible always had a hint of being dumbed down to it. People are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, believe it or not. I’m not saying that well designed or artist-created things didn’t exist, be it clothing, furniture, home furnishings or whatever, but because of ties to the artist’s name/image they were out of people’s range, either in price or in the way they were being marketed. I found that well made product, fair pricing, and informative branding was the trinity of sorts to help artists reach a wide audience and at the same time enable customers to feel comfortable about a product that is about more than just witty text or a series of clipart arranged on a garment. For example when Neckface was first throwing shit up around NYC the whole city was buzzing, but when I’d travel to LA, no one knew a thing about the guy, it was a shame. Now he’s become a household name like Shepard Fairey or Futura in part due to RVCA doing a great job of educating their consumers about him through their series of his products. Plus how is someone supposed to go about attaining work by people whose canvas is a door, or a street sign? T-shirts are a tangible means ownership in a lot of cases.


Format: How has your thesis research manifested itself within Blood is the New Black?
Mitra: This is hard cause I just want to say how has it not? The amount of feedback I get from people is proof positive that we’re doing the right thing. I get emails from average people on the street wanting to know more about buying pieces by our artists, words of encouragement just because, artists wanting to work with us, even emails from our family of artists thanking us for all the support we’ve shown them. To me this is family, not a business. Of course, every good season we have helps us go on to the next, but the bonds that develop between our group of artists, between our artists and their fans, and between myself and them is paramount to me. It’s always important for me to stress that Blood is the New Black isn’t me, but the artists. So each Blood is the New Black shirt has the artist’s own Blood is the New Black logo and their name screen printed on it, plus the shirts come with a hangtag that promotes the artist’s own website in addition to ours.

Format: Besides the success of the line, how much success have you had in helping artists reach wider audiences?
Mitra: I feel like a schmuck saying that if it weren’t for Blood things may have not happened but I can’t help but believe the company is partially responsible for a lot of the following. Artists have begun having solo shows for the first time, they are getting picked up by major corporations like Von Zipper and Vans to create product for them, sales of their own artwork has risen, they have been featured in magazines, and so on. To me, determining their success has not been how many shirts they’ve sold, but what they’re doing now that they weren’t doing before. We’ve even started doing our own group shows, we had our second one this past February in Vegas at United Tradeshow. Four of our 10 artists came out for it and spent a week fooling around in Vegas, which is a lot more productive than it sounds.


Format: How do you select new artists to design for Blood is the New Black?
Mitra: It’s all a gut feeling really. A lot of our artists are friends and friends of friends but some other ones I only recently met for the first time after having worked with them for a while. As far as what I look for, I don’t have a formula. I try to work with a variety of artists who work with different mediums, for example Dan Monick is a photographer while some of my favorite piece by Porous Walker are sculptures of sorts. Our Fall ‘07 collection is the most diverse yet, which is really exciting to me. Ultimately, one of the most important things is that the artist comes in with positivity and a sense of community

Format: What is the process like working with new artists that come aboard? How much creative control do they get?
Mitra: You’ll never hear me say “Crown’s are really trendy, can you try to come up with a design that has them in it?” Artists get full creative control. If certain things aren’t feasible, I’m honest about it. I don’t want to put out half assed product, it’s not fair to anyone involved. Sometimes people come up with some great things conceptually that I just don’t feel confident about doing justice to. Generally I just ask for six to eight designs and wait to see what they come up with. I curate a collection from the designs they submit, sometimes selecting specific designs for the current season and holding on to the rest for a later time, or just running all of them if I think they’re solid. Since the process of designing for a t-shirt body specifically is new to some of our artists I’m there to help them, but try to refrain from art directing, and when I do catch myself doing it I feel really terrible about it. Some artists like to work with me all the way, as far as picking out colors, sizing graphics, even going through their sketchbooks and referencing images, and I have fun doing it, but that’s their call not mine.


Format: Since you launched, what are some of the categories people have tried to put Blood is the New Black into?
Mitra: Jeez I’ve heard it all, some derogatory and some just cliché stuff like streetwear. I’ve heard a lot of reference to DIY and crafting, neither of which I really was into growing up.

Format: How do you personally categorize Blood is the New Black within the greater fashion realm?
Mitra: I’ve always had a hard time with this. I always say we’re a neither, nor. I don’t try to define the brand other than what I know it is, an art collective t-shirt line. And that’s what I hope it will be another three years down the road. I don’t think it’s a streetwear brand although some of our artists may create pieces that appeal to the genre, I also don’t think it’s a goth brand although some of our other artists images may be dark. The line is a sum of many parts, who are the artists, it’s not a trend, or look, or lifestyle. It can be if the consumer chooses to make it so, but it’s not my intention. To be honest even though I make clothing, I don’t even think the line has much to do with “Fashion” per se. Half the time I’m amazed I’m even doing this, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what others may view us as, or what I’m supposed to be.


Format: Who wears Blood is the New Black?
Mitra: I’ve met moms who’ve told me they’ve stolen all their kids Blood is the New Black tees, I’ve seen skaters wearing our stuff, goth kids wearing our stuff, hipsters, comic book geeks, design snobs, college kids, since the line is so diverse there’s something for everyone. Currently you can find the line at Barracuda (LA), Beams Tee (Japan), Mini Mini Market (Brooklyn), Wasteland (SF), Well and Good (Toronto), and Digital Gravel (online). All these stores cater to different crowds, but their customers know what they like, and I guess it must mean they like us?

Format: What is the ratio of male to female customers? If one gender is more prevalent than another, why do you think that it is?
Mitra: Right now its 50/50. We started off as a women’s line so for a while our sales leaned towards that, but on a wholesale level we’re doing the same numbers for guys and girls. Online, we sell more men’s tees than we do women. Surprising, right?


Format: Do you have pieces designed with one gender in mind? Do your designs naturally attract a gender because of their content?
Mitra: That’s a question for the artists and not myself. I don’t believe anything is designed with gender or sales in mind. I think things are designed with sincerity using the medium at hand, the t-shirt and the artists own work.

Format: What are some items besides t-shirts that Blood is the New Black produces? How, if at all, have you changed you focus when dealing with different items, as you are no longer using a t-shirt which you’ve mentioned as central to your message.
Mitra: We also produce tote bags, pillows, posters, and wallets. I’m very cautious about expanding our line of merchandise. I’ve been asked by numerous stores to flesh out the line with separates, but I have no desire to right now, nor do I think I will want to do so in the future. It does get a bit tricky, the heart of the line will always be the tees, but the accessories have always been nice to have on the side. A lot of our customers bond with the artists and want to support them in as many ways as possible, so they end up buying the tee first, and then the tote, a poster for their room, and now with the wallets they can go all the way. I view it as a fun challenge for our artists as well, to design a wallet can be viewed as a completely different concept than a t–shirt. They start thinking about what wallets are used for, the value of money, etc. and it’s interesting to see where they go with it.


Format: Please explain how you came up with the name Blood is the New Black.
Mitra: I was just trying to take the piss out of the fashion industry. Brown is the new Black and stuff like that. Blood gives us our identity which ought to be what we should be celebrating, not trying to hide it behind some color of the season. It sounds a lot more morbid that it is huh?

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Shane Ward

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