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‘Barnzley’ Armitage on inventing the Smiley T-Shirt

It was around the time that the streetwear DIY thing was just beginning to take off. People were going into the Chanel shop down on Bond Street and cutting the buttons off the jackets so they could sew them into their jeans. I had this mate called Toshio Nakanishi, who would go on to form Major Force a few years later, but at the time, he was in a band called Melon. I used to make merch for them, and we did this parody T-shirt of the Chanel logo with “Melon No. 1” on the chest.

Then, Chanel released “the T-shirt.” The Chanel logo, in a single-color black or white print, printed onto a black or white T-shirt, for something ridiculous like 350 pounds. It was a serious talking point. I was dicking around at the screen-printers and thought, “I could fucking do that.”

So, we cut the logo out of an advert in Vogue and whacked it on a T-shirt. Everyone wanted one, which makes sense, I guess. 

“Oh yeah, the Chanel T-shirt? 350 pounds? I’ve got one here, actually, 15 quid.”

“Thanks, I’ll take two.”

There was that subversive element to it. You’re wearing a T-shirt that says Chanel, but it’s not Chanel, and no one cares. It was the Wild West. 

Let me tell you how the smiley thing came to be involved with acid house, because there’s actually a reason for it. In 1988, Nellee Hooper – who worked with Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, and The Wild Bunch – called me and told me that his friend Miles was moving to New York, so he’s got this flat in Camden Town freeing up. “Do you want it?” 

The Wild Bunch had just dropped their first record, and we were going out to clubs every night. We had this side-business idea of making bootleg T-shirts to make some extra money. Chanel, Hermes, Gucci – screen-printing the logos and selling them on Kings Road. We’d walk along the street with a massive bag of them, fresh from the printers, and we’d sell out before we’d even made it halfway down the road.

But this was also around the time that Hip Hop was blowing up. We were all obsessed with finding out where all the breakbeats and samples originated from. A lot of them were from old ‘70s funk and disco records. I was seeing this ‘70s revival and thought, “Okay, what’s the most obvious ‘70s symbol?” Maybe these kids would want to buy that if they’re into this music, right? One of the first things that came to mind was that stupid smiley face symbol.

When I went to the printers, they thought it was a fucking joke. 

“This looks fucking stupid.” 

“Don’t worry about it, just print them.” 

So, I’m strolling down Kings Road with a bin-liner full of smiley T-shirts, and everyone’s looking at me like I’m a bit confused. I ended up selling a few shirts to the Duffer of St. George shop on D’Arblay Street and a few more to Rat in Covent Garden.

But what kicked it off was that Danny Rampling bought one from Rat. It turned out he really liked it and started wearing it out on trips in Ibiza. At the time, I’d just done this photoshoot with i-D and had gone off to Tokyo for a few months. And in January 1988, Danny opened this club called Shoom in an old fitness center on Southwark Road – it’s a graphic design agency now – London’s first acid house club, essentially. Balearic. Strobe lights, smoke machines, people dropping ecstasy. Full on what became rave, you know?

Anyway, in the photoshoot I’d just done for i-D, I was wearing one of the smiley tees, and when I walked around Tokyo, I’d see pictures of myself plastered up in little shops and boutiques. People recognized me from the posters. 

“It’s you!” 

I even bought a jacket with a smiley face on it from some kid out there. At the same time, back in London, Danny was setting up Shoom, and just so happened to use the smileys for the flyers.

So, I get back to London, and I go to check out Shoom. Week by week, it gets busier in there, and suddenly, kids start rocking up in these homemade smiley T-shirts. It went from something that absolutely nobody was interested in, to this huge trend that might as well have been the only thing happening – along with a bunch of rank dungarees and hippie clothes.

We did a bunch of other ‘70s revival stuff around the same time. We did T-shirts with the “peace” hand-sign and the American flag on them. We did one of those Robert Crumb “Keep on Trucking” graphics, too. But nobody picked up on those in the same way. The whole house thing seemed to dominate everything after that. It went from twenty rare groove hip hop clubs in Soho, to nothing but house three weeks later.

The fashion changed overnight. Everybody went from wearing MA-1 bomber jackets to pure rave. I’ve never seen anything happen so dramatically fast. Streetwear today moves quickly, and different brands come up, but everybody pretty much looks the same all the time. The house thing – we’re talking about all these different tribes, the hip hop kids, the mods, the football lads, all suddenly converging into one.

Here’s the thing though: that i-D shoot I was in before I went to Japan was the only time i-D ever paid me for a shoot. I went in there and said: “Look, you need to give me 300 pounds to do this shoot. I won’t tell you what it is, but it’s going to change everything.”

They said no. 

I said, “Your loss.”

A few days later, I bumped into one of them at a club. 

“So what’s this story?”

“I’m not going to tell you. 300 quid and I’ll do it.”

Back and forth. Back and forth. 

Eventually, they cave. 

“Alright, we’ll give you the 300 quid, but this better be fucking good.”

So, I got the money, went straight to the pub with the Duffer [of St. George] boys, bought a few rounds, got some drugs in, stayed up all weekend. 5am on Sunday morning rolls around, and I remember I’ve got this shoot to do with 30 pounds on me and zero sleep. I had a smiley T-shirt, that was it. No idea what we were going to do. 

We went down to the pub to think about it.

Now, we’ve got 15 pounds left. 

Eddie Monsoon, the photographer, said, “Alright, we’ll go down Brick Lane, buy the cheapest knock-off polyester crap we can find.” I’m talking ten pence T-shirts and flares. Disgusting. Went in, bought all that up, dressed up these models that were there, and shoved a smiley face T-shirt in there as well.

Anyway, Eddie goes to hand the photos in on Wednesday. 

On Thursday, I get a phone call telling me that I’d better go down to the office. 

I’m expecting to get read the Riot Act. 

I walk in, and it’s like that scene from An Officer and a Gentleman: everyone clapping. 

“Brilliant mate. Fucking genius.” 

They ended up using the smiley for the cover of the January ‘88 issue.

Personally, I thought it was massively irresponsible.