Chris Isenberg, 34, lives in Brooklyn and takes the L train to the No Mas office in Manhattan to operate his sports-centric brand, No Mas (Spanish for â€œno moreâ€), a brand that is larger than T-shirts â€“ No Mas is a lifestyle. When people confuse No Mas as a streetwear brand, Isenberg is not upset, however, he encourages people to understand what No Mas is: â€œwe make apparel, we make artwork and we make media,â€ says Isenberg.
In his youth, Isenberg was active in after school sports clubs, a place he contributes to 90 per cent of what he knows. â€œThere would be these after school sports club councilors that were in their late-20s,â€ he says, adding the councilors would teach him to play cards at the same club he saw his first Playboy Magazine. â€œThat was a breeding ground for sports and sports-related knowledge,â€ says Isenberg, who stopped going to after school programs during junior high.
Isenberg, an urban culture writer, has written for The New York Times, The Fader, Village Voice and, of course, Sports Illustrated.
â€œItâ€™s not only for 18 to 22-year-olds, itâ€™s for intelligent people that like sports and they can be any age.â€
Format: No Mas has released a sneaker with Puma, First Round. How did this collaboration materialize and what was the design process?
Chris Isenberg: I have been talking with the guys at Puma, for a long time. Also, Iâ€™ve done some agency work with them, so Iâ€™m friendly with the guys and the collaboration developed over time. I wasnâ€™t sure exactly what I wanted to do, at first. We did one Fall Classic show in 2005 and, last year, I was hoping to do a Fall Classic 1986. One of the pieces I was going to put in the show were miniature portraits of the 1986 lottery draft class, which includes Chris Washburn, Len Bias, Roy Tarpley and William Bedford â€“ sort of the ultimate tragic draft class â€“ and have these miniature portrait-balls bounce around in the lottery hopper.
That was the first genesis of this idea of the lottery. For a variety of reasons, we werenâ€™t able to do that show, but that idea stayed with me. I think when youâ€™re thinking about ideas, over time, thatâ€™s a sign that theyâ€™re good ideas. This idea was of the lottery that is used in the NBA as a metaphor as playerâ€™s lives who have so much expectations on them that, sometimes, fizzle, fade away to obscurity, are great or meet a completely tragic end.
To get back to the shoe, when I was talking to Puma, they had this shoe that was called the First Round and that seemed to go with the lottery idea. This was a way to do something thatâ€™s beyond regular sneaker collaboration; it had an actual art show with it. I think that gave value to both parties, hopefully, beyond what the normal process is. Puma underwrote a full show and the process of designing that and the sneaker was extremely involved. My creative partner in the show, Yan Kallen, he designed the pattern that was embroidered on the shoe. His main inspiration was a lot of Russian Constructivist art.
Format: Recently, No Mas released T-shirts with designs by James Blagden and Mickey Duzyj. How did you meet these illustrators and why are their illustrations a right fit for No Mas?
Chris Isenberg: Mickey was the first one that I met and I met James through him. I work with a lot of people that went to School of Visual Arts, for whatever reason, they produce talented kids. They produce an annual art book and I was looking through one, and saw some of Mickeyâ€™s work. There was one piece of people going up and down an escalator and one throwing a jockey. There was something about the quality and line of it. Mickey is a hugely talented guy and, first of all, it was great and that struck me. As terms of it being a fit for No Mas, it had a feeling of classic about it, even though it is new. There was a hint of sadness and irony, but not too much irony. It was sincere. My immediate thought was I really want to see what he can do with boxing. The first pieces he did for No Mas are these portraits of Jake LaMotta, which we havenâ€™t done anything with, but theyâ€™re excellent. Then, Mickey and I did Fall Classic, together. Then, I guest edited my issue of Frank151, I was asking him about other illustrators and he brought James up. Theyâ€™re classmates and I think theyâ€™ve known each other since the start of collage.
Format: No Masâ€™ recent releases include the Ecstasy of Defeat line. Why did you choose these sad subjects to illustrate on a T-shirt?
Chris Isenberg: A lot of those guys are guys that Mickey was interested it. We didnâ€™t have the series title first, but they were subjects he wanted to deal with first. After, the series title came when we looked through the subjects. Mickey is very interested in horse racing. I think Mickey and I are very interested in sports failure, how people react to it and what it means, and self-destruction in a romantic way. The Bobby Fischer story is not that romantic. He just went mad and kind of evil from being an incredible phenomenon and genius. Haru Urara is light and fun, because itâ€™s this losing that become a kind of winning, as itâ€™s so consistent, itâ€™s not tragic. The other three, Bobby Fischer, Stu Unger and Manolete all have a drama in the narrative that is interesting. I think Mickey and I are more drawn to tragedy than comedy, in some ways.
Format: Recently, Michael Vick was arrested for dogfight charges and there is a media brew-ha-ha surrounding this case. On CNN, Russell Simmons says dogfights are wrong, but prosecuting Vick is not the answer. What are your thoughts?
Chris Isenberg: Firstly, there are no Michael Vick dogfight jerseys in production at No Mas or parodies of that. I donâ€™t know if I have the stomach for a dogfight. Iâ€™ve saw a bullfight before and I did dig it. Iâ€™ve been in countries where cockfights are legal. What litigates it? Itâ€™s just a question of it being legal or not. I mean, greyhound racing is legal. Itâ€™s not fighting to death, but what happens to dogs in greyhound racing that are not winning any money anymore? Iâ€™m not going to defend dogfights, because I would not watch them. There is an element of race and social superiority that adds to the steam of it. Thatâ€™s why someone like Russell Simmons is objecting to it and I think thatâ€™s fair enough.
Format: In a previous interview, you explain your 2001 â€œsocial experimentâ€ of making a T-shirt that read Cassius Clay, ultimately, leading to No Masâ€™ first T-shirts in 2004. What challenges have you experience, especially, since No Mas is a sport-centric brand.
Chris Isenberg: The whole thing is hard! To produce objects and distribute them, Iâ€™ve never dealt with objects, working capital and collections. In many ways, if it had to do with sports or music, a lot of what is really challenging is making it a real business and sustain the thing you like to do. It requires a lot of skills that I did not have and Iâ€™m still not that adept at, which is part of the reason No Mas is not making jeans, zip-ups and other kinds of things. You have to design it, make tech packs and pay for it, thatâ€™s challenging. In terms of appealing to sports fans, I make things that I like. Iâ€™m fortunate that I represent a class of people that may not be a huge group, but is a large enough group for a market to what Iâ€™m doing. What I like about sports is that itâ€™s a window that you can see all the parts of wider culture that are interesting. I may run out of fallen heroes form my youth, but there will be another thing.
“There are plenty of 60-year-olds that buy our Keep The Dodgers In Brooklyn T-shirt and not matching it with royal blue sandals, wearing a New Era hat.”
Format: Do you consider No Mas to be a streetwear brand?
Chris Isenberg: I consider it to be a sportswear brand. Streetwear is a nebulous term, to me â€“ I donâ€™t make all-over print hoodies and I never will. In some part, the streetwear band wagon and hype machine is just goofy to me, but Iâ€™m also older than some of people who are playing in that arena. I donâ€™t consider No Mas to be a streetwear brand, but it does not make me mad when someone calls it that. Also, weâ€™ve collaborated on artwork that and to call it street-art would diminish what it is. Not that street-art cannot exist as high-artwork from Banksy to FUTURA, but that line is so blurry, at this point, itâ€™s irrelevant. In that term, I donâ€™t like be classified as that does not acknowledge what we do: we make apparel, we make artwork and we make media. Itâ€™s not only for 18 to 22-year-olds, itâ€™s for intelligent people that like sports and they can be any age. There are plenty of 60-year-olds that buy our Keep The Dodgers In Brooklyn T-shirt and not matching it with royal blue sandals, wearing a New Era hat.
Format: What is your opinion on Gary Sheffield and his comments on racism in baseball, specifically, his comments on subservient Latino players in comparison to African-American players.
Chris Isenberg: He definitely lets it fly. The fact that Kenny Lofton corroborated this, well, Kenny Lofton was a disgruntled Yankee while he was a Yankee so it seems like that is sour grapes. What about Rubin Sierra, Cecil Fielder or El Duque? No one is controlling El Duque. Sheffieldâ€™s comments about Latino players and why Major League Baseball invests in them, Latino players are a bargain in terms of what they can sign the players for and what caliber the athletes are and what caliber of baseball they play. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s a black or white thing, itâ€™s like any market spending their money where there is value. Itâ€™s not that surprising that Major League Baseball is spending so much money in Latin America. I donâ€™t think the primary motivation is that black ball players are going to be too outspoken in the club house â€“ sounds like bullshit to me. At the same time, I love Gary Sheffield. I love him as a player and his attitude. Itâ€™s cool that he says what heâ€™s actually thinking. So few athletes will come out with it and heâ€™s really letting it fly. He cost himself a lot saying this stuff, whoâ€™s going to going to give Gary Sheffield an endorsement? In an odd way, you have to respect that he wanted to say it so bad, even though itâ€™s against his self-interest.
Format: What does No Mas mean?
Chris Isenberg: It means no more in Spanish. Some people will take it as a reference to a famous fight. The words themselves, to me, are a statement of protest. Also, it has a sense of no more things that are in the past, to me, things that are gone. With our tagline being â€˜The Thrill of Victoryâ€™ and â€˜The Ecstasy of Defeat,â€™ you know that weâ€™re going to consider some things that most sports brands wouldnâ€™t consider, like failure being one of them.
Format: No Masâ€™ Native American T-shirt has the Redskins, Indians and Blackhawkâ€™s logos on it. In your opinion, is the long tradition of using aboriginal imagery in sports acceptable?
Chris Isenberg: I think, ultimately, itâ€™s unacceptable and it should be gone from professional sports. But, at the same time, people have affection for these characters. I think the teams are crying, because they realize they are denigrating a group of people that theyâ€™re claiming to represent and, at the same time, theyâ€™re crying, because theyâ€™re going to be eliminated as mascots, at some point. I think Chief Wahoo should be gone and even more than Chief Wahoo, the Cooperstown collection is still selling the older Indian logo hats, which are even worse, they look like cartoons from Nazi Germany, itâ€™s just bad. At the same time, when the Chief Wahoo is gone there will be a little of me that is sad, because thatâ€™s a logo I grew up with. Blackhawks, in terms of the look of it and the name, it looks sort of regal and the name isnâ€™t offensive. When we made the Blackhawk jackets, the Blackhawk tribe occupied Chicago, was driven off, persecuted and decimated by the federal government and then the city takes their name for a hokey team. Even though it looks regal, there is something on an underlining level that is totally offensive about that. Offensive is not the right word, itâ€™s just brutal. The only way to justify it is by saying the history of the United States is brutal: itâ€™s about people dispossessing land, decimating their population. Why shouldnâ€™t our sports teams reflect that? If you want to say that, fair enough, thatâ€™s true.
Format: The No Mas blog has highly detailed accounts of sporting history. When did your thirst for sports history and sports journalism start?
Chris Isenberg: A lot of the blog is written by my friend Dave Larzelere. I would say 90 per cent of the stuff, right now, is written by him. I think thatâ€™s how I got interested in reading, in general, and once I started reading, I liked sports biographies a lot. I canâ€™t remember the Dewey Decimal code, but I think it was 978-point-whatever and thatâ€™s where I would be to checkout pleasure reading, or trying to look at pictures of babies being born in the encyclopedia so I could see a breast.
Format: Several of the No Mas T-shirts, if not all, comment on specific athletes or athletic history. Have you encountered hassles and how do you avoid hassles with athletes, athletic institutions or estates of athletes?
Chris Isenberg: I had one cease and desist. It had to do with the Lovers T-shirt, which I think is a completely defensible parody. I think part of how it was avoided was simply being under the radar. People understand that itâ€™s parody or parody on political speech. In the long run, moving forward, I want to continue to do things, because I donâ€™t believe you have to ask permission to make artwork, political speech or parody related to sports. However, Iâ€™ve started to work directly with athletes and thatâ€™s something I want to do more of, too.
“…what happens to dogs in greyhound racing that are not winning any money anymore?
Format: In a previous interview, you talk about the highs and lows of sports journalism, specifically, your career. Youâ€™re an accomplished journalist, why has your goal of being the next Gay Talese or Norman Mailer shifted?
Chris Isenberg: I got really frustrated with the state of the media. If I was 22, now, I think the accessibility of the Internet, now, can still help me, but would have helped me a lot when I was 22. I just wanted to put stuff out there, but you couldnâ€™t just so that, you had to go through channels. Primarily, economically, I could not figure out how to make a living doing what I wanted and not doing what I didnâ€™t want. Writing is a very painful process for me. It does not come easily for me. If you have to work really hard at something that causes you a lot of pain and you do not have the satisfaction of being published â€“ it happens all the time. You have to negotiate with the system that is set up if you want to put your work out in a traditional way. Iâ€™m not saying that I donâ€™t want to practice that kind of journalism anymore, but I want to create my own platform to practice it or come back to it on my own terms. If that doesnâ€™t happen, I can live with that, because I know what it feels like to work within that and I couldnâ€™t do it.
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