THE IT: Wet Cement at Harry Rosen

Wet Cement’s limited-edition Harry Rosen T-shirt. Story and photography by Brendan Adam Zwelling.

An in-store appearance by L.A. screen-printing T-shirt upstarts Wet Cement at Harry Rosen: Stranger things have happened, but possibly not amid the windsor knots and Canali double-breasted blazers of the menswear legend’s Bloor Street flagship branch. Stef Zeh and Andrew Lee, the friendly duo—designer and president, respectively—behind the breakout T-shirt line, set up temporary shop last weekend to press limited-edition Harry Rosen designs on demand for customers and media alike.

Your correspondent, having been given the chance to personally man the printing machine, left with a smart blue-on-blue version (plus a blue-on-self bonus, despite close supervision) that gave Harry’s some Chelsea Hotel-style grit. It would land comfortably in the Wet Cement design concept of signs, official warnings, notices, and scrawlings which populate the brand’s shirts, sourced from photos taken by Lee and Zeh themselves and printed with heavy emphasis on textual detail. Flip through them on the rack and they’re like a hazy, turbulent travelogue from a lost weekend in New York or an intense European tour.

Their hands-on, personal approach to production is what made the Harry’s gig possible: the setup on the main floor was essentially a micro version of their actual production line, and the process itself hasn’t changed much.

“In the beginning we didn’t have any money; I had a job when I was sixteen silk-screening t-shirts, so I knew how to do it,” Zeh recalls, with the honest earnestness of someone who still can’t quite believe how far an idea has taken her. “So we literally went to Home Depot and bought a 500 watt halogen bulb for $15. My darkroom in my old apartment was about this big [roughly the size of a single bed] and we used to sit in there playing Yahtzee together while the screens would burn, then I would go and wash them out in my bathtub with a paintbrush and a hose. So when Harry Rosen was like ‘We’ve got this machine but it’s kinda rickety,’ and we had to shove cardboard in it to make it work – this so brings it back to the beginning!”

Kitchen-sink commerce has since given way to sales at Neiman Marcus and Saks and a growing celebrity following.

“When we started three years ago we were shipping a thousand shirts a month,” says Andrew. “Now we’re shipping 20-30 thousand a month and we’re still doing it by hand—every single shirt is done the same way. That’s the charm of the line. If we switched to mass-production it would lose that feel.”

Media exposure, courtesy of star customers like Cameron Diaz, Jim Carrey, the cast of Jersey Shore (Andrew: “They really, really like it. I was surprised by that”), and Charlie Sheen has not only made the brand white hot but also led to a kind of mild subversion as their No Paparazzi design finds its way onto the subjects of the TMZ-ified blogosphere. “That’s the whole irony of everything in that world,” Stef remarks. “Stars don’t want to be famous but their job is to be famous, yet they don’t want to be photographed but if they’re photographed more they’ll make more money. That’s L.A. in a nutshell, that shirt.”

Andrew handles business, Stef does the design work, and it’s hard to imagine these decade-long best friends doing this apart. She dominates in conversation with authenic, looping enthusiasm, while he fills in the gaps with gentle addendums as his partner recharges. In a way their amiableness seems out of step with their creations, which feature images that have a stark, corroded and even distressed feel to them.

Does it reflect how they’ve come to see the world? “No, not at all,” Stef responds. “It’s just about, like, why do things have to be the way that everyone says they have to be. In the beginning all the print shops in L.A., when I would go in there and say ‘this is what I want to do, teach me how to mess around with the emulsion,’ they’d look at me like ‘what are you thinking, it’s never going to work,’ and they’d laugh. I feel like a lot of people try to be seen as being a lot more put together than they are, but we’re all the same—the same insecurities, the same fears—so we’re kinda stripping things down a bit. We’re definitely not trying to project anger or anything. I mean look at us.”

Stef Zeh and Andrew Lee of Wet Cement, at Harry Rosen.

A Wet Cement design from New York.

A Wet Cement design from Düsseldorf.

Read more of The It here!

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