Kyle Ng of Brain Dead’s T-Shirt Top 7
Inside the Closet of the Designer, Social Fabric Host, and Comic Book Nerd
- Interview: Arthur Bray
Fashion design success stories often start with a t-shirt. As a garment, it’s simple yet expressive, democratic but packed with personality. The t-shirt is a fundamental piece in every closet, has acted as a connector between street and high fashion, and has revolutionized the industry by allowing anyone with an idea—and a work ethic—to launch a brand. I spoke with Kyle Ng of Brain Dead about the t-shirt’s power as a communication canvas, and his love for band and comic book merch. The Social Fabric host then dug out 7 of his favorite t-shirts, and explained their emotional significance, and why—even with seasonal drops and a string of collaborations under its belt—he thinks of Brain Dead as merch for a culture, more than fashion.
Are Brain Dead t-shirts fashion or merch?
Brain Dead is an idea that can take different shapes. It is essentially merch for culture. We do make graphic tees that exist because we think they look rad, but a lot of it is merchandise for a culture that we try to shape. “Culture” sounds really pretentious, but it’s how we try to interact with a community. Whether it’s food, art, movies—we want to create culture that someone can wear and represent. All the stuff I usually wear goes back to my lifestyle, whether that’s skateboarding or reading comic books. T-shirts have always been a way to convey ideas. It’s like a billboard for who you are.
Is a merch line the same thing as a brand?
I think you are a brand if you’re doing something. Your ethos, your ideology, what you execute and produce, what you don’t do—that’s a brand. Having some sort of gesture—that’s a brand. This could be a production house, or McDonald’s. I don’t think just having clothing makes a brand, a brand is clothing with a stance.
Do you see a difference between bootleg and official merch?
A lot of the popular hip-hop homage tees are bootleg merch. That’s really rad, because people are putting a spin on things by adding their own vocabulary and design aesthetic. Sometimes it’s better than the official merch, simply because the tee undergoes a unique DIY process: cutting and pasting images. That looks more raw but is interesting, whereas a company that does official merchandise follows a formulaic process where they just slap a logo on a finished product.
What makes for the best t-shirt?
The best t-shirts are ones with an approach, a perspective, and a culture already around it. Graphic tees can be the most low hanging fruit—it’s merch, so of course it’s low—but what’s the merch for? What does the brand represent? People say Supreme is played out, but then when they do something with Mike Kelley or John Woo’s film The Killer and that’s exciting, because it isn’t obvious. I think Online Ceramics is cool because they like Grateful Dead and they hand-make their stuff. That’s an interesting story. Come Tees is cool too, because her apparel all has a DIY look and feel. There’s this punk store in Brooklyn called Dripper World that are known for their unique curation of bootleg t-shirts.
I got this Fantastic 4 tee from my friend Jenny of the vintage store Please And Thank You. She found this and gave it to me as a gift. I’m obsessed with 90s comic books and the printing quality of the t-shirts that came out of that era. It’s great quality. 1994 and 1995 were really good years in the comic world. Punk shirts were really good but I read so many comic books as a kid, they’ll always be more nostalgic.
This is one of my favorite tees, a rare departure from all the black selection. It’s a bootleg Free Winona t-shirt. I was an indie rock kid and was obsessed with Winona Ryder. When she got caught shoplifting in the early 2000s, this bootleg tee started appearing in shops. She’s the queen of indie culture and shoplifting is so badass, so I had to cop!
Lollapalooza 1993 Festival
I don’t wear many band tees but I love this Lollapalooza tee. The lineup is so insane and it represents such an important era in music and culture. The fit is also wild, it’s short and cropped, shrunk-to-fit perfectly. The yin & yang symbol is the most iconic 90s symbol for “alternative,” but it’s also really shitty and tribal! The lineup on the back is insane too. I grew up listening to Dinosaur Jr. and Rage Against the Machine in the Bay Area, and love Primus and Front 242. I’m not a big festival guy but something about this t-shirt really connects with me. Festival merch back in the day was so much cooler!
Image Comics Spawn
This Spawn tee is my favorite t-shirt of all time. As far as comicbooks, this changed everything. In the 90s there was a resurgence of this comic book imprint called Image Comics, started by comic book designers who left Marvel. These guys were featured on TV and were stars. They created the character Spawn and it marked a new era. When I found this at a flea market, I was like “I gotta get this!” It’s everything I wanted as a kid. Finding this shirt was the grail of tees. The colors are so nice. If you think about it, punk shirts are always black and white, but comics are always colorful, and the colors really matter so there’s more care put into it. The fade is brilliant.
Harmony Korine’s Gummo
This is a merch piece from Harmony Korine’s 1997 film, Gummo. Growing up, this was such an influential film to me. I was really into filmmaking as a teen, and when I watched this in high school I totally flipped out. The front photo is such an iconic image, but moreover, just having a Gummo tee is next level.
Clay Arlington x Brain Dead "SOL PRISON"
This is one of our own tees that I’m obsessed with. We did a collab with Clay Arlington for the New York and LA Art Book Fairs. The collab was called “Brain Prison” and consisted of a radio show, book release, t-shirt, and a fake art show poster titled Prison Sculptures. The concept was designed as an ode to Solomon "Sol" LeWitt. We featured Sol’s geometric shapes layered over a speaker graphic and called the mixmash “Cone.” Clay Arlington is one of my favorite artists and so is Sol LeWitt so this was special.
Zorlac Skateboards x Pushead
This tee is from a skateboard company called Zorlac. I love the way the graphic looks and is deconstructed. Pushead did the Metallica and Pantera covers but he also designed this graphic. When I bought it, it was brand new, but I just wore it so much, so it looks shredded. The more it fucks up, the better
Arthur Bray specializes in stories about fashion and music. He's the former Managing Editor at HYPEBEAST and currently Editor-At-Large at Crepe City Magazine. His work has also appeared in 032c, FACT Mag, and Highsnobiety.
- Interview: Arthur Bray
- Photography: Arthur Bray, Richard Brookes