Alexander-John and PHADE are collaborating with Rock The Bells on their new collection, and both of these titans of visual art bring a spirit of authenticity to the proceedings.
Their new drop, The Tagged Collection, amplifies the vibrant, vital art of graffiti and the pair's immersion in Hip-Hop culture and street art's role in that culture.
"My handwriting style is the focus of this collection and that's still a part of the history that needs to be told," PHADE explains. "Moving from Brooklyn to the Bronx and seeing the beginnings of Hip-Hop via my older brother, the art always went first. Yes, we have the music and [it] seems more dominant today, but the art always ignited the culture."
This pairing was a no-brainer for John.
“What LL told me? ‘I wanna do dope stuff,’” John recalls. “[He said] ‘I’m not chasing newness, I want it to be authentic and I want it to be dope.’ So with those two things in mind, I went back to the artform that I felt like I started with and identified [with] first, which was graffiti”
PHADE is the legendary "Shirt King" who rose to fame with his distinct customized t-shirts in the 1980s, transferring his love of graffiti from the subways to shirts. His Coliseum Mall store in Queens became a legendary Hip-Hop fashion outpost, he's collaborated with brands like Nike and Supreme; and his shirts have been seen on everyone from Jam-Master Jay to RZA. He feels that this drop is a chance to bridge generations.
"For me and him to come together to create something, it's not only historical, it's life-changing," PHADE says. "Because a lot of the youth don't collab with their elders. Busta Rhymes just dropped an album where he did a song with Trippy Redd and Kendrick [Lamar]. So this clothing line speaks to that, in a sense. It's time we got together. Maybe we can curtail, through the arts, a lot of things that go on because of the generation gap."
Hip-hop’s original visual element serves as the jumping off point for Alexander-John’s approach. “Just the concept of graffiti writing and tag writing and it’s one of the elements of Hip-Hop,” he says. “And it’s cool to bring out the concept of luxury merged with streetwear—[which] was something that the early rappers were responsible for and to be able to give that light…the O.G. dressers—[with] their jewelry and Versace print — that all belongs to the O.G.s of the game.”
More than anything, Alexander-John sees the collaboration as an opportunity to connect the brash confidence of Hip-Hop’s classic years to contemporary pop cool. Today’s Hip-Hop stars rock the biggest designers, but there was something to having the look of the street and pushing it onto the mainstream stage.
“To be able to bring that back for this generation, who does have a level of confidence now; but the clothing and that look doesn’t exist,” he feels. “We’re experiencing a time right now where our people want to be heard again. It’s [like] the Spike Lee era and how we watched the clothing in his movies, in the Jordan ads…it was a movement in fashion. To be able to tell a story like that, in the time that we’re in right now, I think it’s going to be pretty powerful.”
That connection to sincere expression is what’s informed John’s designs from the very beginning. Not having traditional training, he had to find his own creative voice and build his own brand from nothing. His belief in himself is born of a willingness to push himself creatively and stylistically, never allowing complacency—or commercial success—to dictate how he feels about his work.
PHADE believes pushing forward and reaching back are intrinsically connected.
"I always felt I was ahead of the game and I still feel I'm ahead of the game and people are just catching up," PHADE states directly.
"This collection showcases my beginnings: hanging on the trains, bombing the New York City subway system as a youth. And that hasn't really been captured yet in marketing. There are people who have tried. But when you have a true artist — there's a handful of us who have translated the art into clothing — this is a new beginning."
Alexander-John loves so much about the style of 80s/90s Hip-Hop (“Doorknocker earrings, the leather jackets, the cardigan sweaters, and just the color blocking—which was a big thing.”) And he wants everyone to recognize how classic Hip-Hop style informs even the most contemporary of looks.
“I can develop this capsule and even though it depicts an era… it’s being utilized by many brands,” he explains. “I just want to put the spotlight [on it]. And it’s classic, its present. Something that never goes out of style, it doesn’t go out of style because its present. Anything deemed classic is present. That’s exactly what this collection is, that’s what the culture of Hip-Hop is.”
And with so much going on in our culture, Alexander-John sees an opportunity to return some distinction to Hip-Hop-specific style. Make it cool to be Hip-Hop again; a badge of honor.
“I’m in Atlanta,” John shares, before alluding to the unrest in the streets that followed high-profile incidents involving African Americans and oppressive law enforcement. “And when I went out ,there was a lot of people. But it wasn’t distinct. The reason why soldiers wore uniforms, the reason why the Romans wore metal and gold, is because when they got together, it looked like a crazy movement.
“I want to make clothing that speaks before you do. And if you were in a group or if you were part of it…we took pictures all over the world of people who bought these pieces. And there’s this [one] dope picture that tells the story of being on the same page. And understanding a time when things were dope, and being proud of that.”
Both Alexander-John and PHADE are testaments to (and staunch advocates for) following your own muse and believing in your own artistic voice. PHADE knows the art is born of sincerity and the sincerity is always close to home. Hip-Hop's visual soul lives today where it has always been: the community.
"A lot of inspiration comes from the street," PHADE explains. "What we do evolved from street art and has become prominent in galleries across the world. That only solidifies guys like me. The common thread is being part of the culture that I've been blessed to be a part of and staying true to myself. Not jumping on a bandwagon of somebody else's style. Do you and be free doing you. The common thread is originality."