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Exclusive: Come Tees, The DIY Denim You Need to Know

In our interview with internet artist Grace Miceli, we couldn’t help but be intrigued by a certain fashion designer she name-dropped as creating custom clothing with screen-printed art hand stitched onto it. It’s a designer who has picked up momentum in both the fashion and art world, no doubt helped by the fact that Rihanna just bought a pair. The designer’s name is Sonya Cohen, and her work is marketed under the fabulously tongue-in-cheek name Come Tees.

Combining her love of clothing and screen printing, each piece of Sonya’s apparel is one-of-a-kind, with the designer overseeing each aspect of the production of the jeans, t-shirts, and overalls by hand. While stitching messages on clothing is far from groundbreaking, each item in the Come Tees line can be considered a stand alone art work, emblazoned with a variety of images and text that are humorous, perceptive, grotesque, and strikingly beautiful all in one. Milk Made’s Jake Boyer spoke to Sonya about the genesis of this project, as well as her diverse array of pop culture influences, defining the line between artist and designer, and finding zen inspiration from Grandmaster Flash lyrics.

Looking at your work, it’s hard to say whether it’s a piece of artwork or a functional piece of clothing. Do you see a difference between being an artist and being a designer?

I don’t know. I mean, I’m coming at it from a particular angle.

What angle is that?

I’m coming at it from a craft angle and not really such a fine arts angle. They’re extremely hand-printed and it’s an intense process. I print and sew on my own labels, I handle every single aspect of their production. But I don’t really like to think of them as purely art objects because they’re so utilitarian. I also like the fact that they operate both outside of an art market and outside of a fashion market.

You have such characteristic images and you have a very interesting sense of humor. What do you think inspired your artistic style?

What I really love, my great love in addition to painting, is music. And I think about what I make as ‘homage’ or even just, purely referential, the way that world appears on clothing—like walking around wearing an icon. I used to have a fascination with Nudie Cohn, who made Nudie Suits. He was Polish I believe, but he had a little operation in Venice and he made apparel for a lot of country stars, he made Elvis Presley‘s gold lamé suit. And he made Gram Parson’s pot leaf outfit. He made Keith Richards a suit. So, I like the idea of symbolism and iconography on clothing, but my really big interest was having a narrative on clothing, which I think rarely happens. And with the jeans, I tend to think of them as having four panels like a storybook, so there’s a beginning and an end.

I really like that, because they say ‘all clothing is designed to make a statement,’ but you’re giving us much more than a statement. We’re getting a story arc in your statements.

Yeah! I put a lot into them. I really try to synthesize lessons I’ve learned in life and to have valuable insights on them. It’s one thing to make a statement, but I think one of the pressures with the jeans is that they’re so intense, both to design and to produce, that only a message with a very, kind of elevated status in mind is worth producing, because they’re so laborious. When I have something a little bit lighter, I’ll put that on the t-shirt. But when I really go through something, when I process it to a certain extent, I’ll consider putting it on jeans.

What is your construction process like?

First I draw the four panels, which is for me, a real task. I’m really self-censoring, so that takes a long time. And then there’s a lot of different aspects to it, like collecting the jean material and bleaching the jeans and then, the printing is very – it’s a lot of work, so I’ve had to really learn how to screen-print on that surface. It’s a lumpy surface with big, fat seams as opposed to a flat surface, which is what you normally work with in screen-printing. It takes a long time and it’s not really worth it to me if the message is something that’s frivolous.

There’s a lot of sexuality and drug use being addressed in your work, and you mentioned how a lot of that is based on your life experiences. What do you think you’ve learned that you’re trying to convey through Come Tees?

I think both the eroticism and the drug culture message is allegorical. Transcendence through psychedelia doesn’t necessarily mean, you know, taking drugs. There’s hardship in life, there’s suffering in life, and I think there’s avenues through which to see it. And one of the things I noticed when I’m going through adversity is there’s a lot of sage content just out there. And it’s in music and it’s in everything. And so, when one is in need, there’s a whole cultural milieu that you can find a lot of wisdom in. I find myself synthesizing different things that I just happen to be taking in at the same time. Recently, I made the Cosmic Flop jeans and I was reading a Buddhist text while listening to Grandmaster Flash lyrics from "White Lines," and if you listen closely, if you listen in the seemingly inane places, there’s really profound wisdom. I think that it’s a cliché that we all have these universal experiences with pop music, but it’s incredible how closely you can resonate with something in a song. And to answer your question, I guess that I’m always conveying something different, dependent on whatever I’m absorbing at each given moment.

This is a bit of a riff on chicken the egg, but what comes first for you? The clothing or the pictures?

I really think about the message first, but for me it’s very spontaneous. A lot of times I’ll hear something and think ‘Ugh that’s a great lyric,’ or ‘that’s a really cool thought’ and I’ll patiently find other things that parallel that. The most recent pair of jeans, the Forbidden Zone jeans, I had this story that I wanted to tell, which is in part inspired by the myth of Orpheus. It’s like the ‘poet must not avert his eyes’ or, doing something out of curiosity or simply being compelled to do something even though there might be risks. And I was working on the illustrations and then eventually I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s the Forbidden Zone!’ a film which I had just been shown. So there’s a lot that goes on subconsciously. But I definitely think about the storyline before I think about any images. A lot of times, images come relatively easily, because honestly there are pretty narrow parameters for what I’m capable of drawing (laughs).

What do you think is an important theme someone should take away from your philosophies?

I really try to talk about reality, and I think there’s a lot of pathos in life and I think there’s a lot of humor in life and I think there’s a lot of beauty, whether or not it’s tragic or comic. But, I think -this is a little bit self-glorifying- but I really try to make things that, in some way, are useful to people. Like the message is useful or it’s something that they can have a talismanic relationship with. I’ve always been making my own clothes, or at least embellishing my own clothes. And, for me, adornment was one way that you have protection, or that you put your values out into the world. Clothes are really important that way. And I’m using the most standard material clothing, jeans and t-shirts, as a canvas.

You address a lot of issues in your work, but what’s something that you’re seeing and you think more people need to be paying attention to?

Well, there are crises in our world…obviously there’s huge problems in the world and I always feel bad about the fact to a certain extent that what I’m making is frivolous. What I want to do in the future with Come Tees is to do more projects where I raise money for causes. Because that’s really what I can do with the skills I have. I know this sounds lofty but I think part of the problem in this world is that between the haves and the have-nots, not much is being done to tip the scales. Even though I make fashion objects I still want to be a player. I want to tip those scales!

Visit Come Tees’ website here

All images courtesy of Sonya Cohen

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