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Rock Star Fashions, Without the Douchiness

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]

Almost everyone has once wanted to dress like a rock star, but most people realize how absurd they look in leather pants and sequins. Wisely, then, Hollywood-based clothing company Worn Free sticks to the safe bet: T-shirts, all made from designs previously rocked by Hall of Famers like Bob Marley, Elvis, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin and Joan Jett.

Under the wrong aegis, the idea could devolve into Venice Beach kiosk kitsch. But the brand, founded by British expat Steve Coe, offers tasteful curation and a sartorial backstory with every re-press. Worn Free has carefully cultivated licensing relationships with the artists or their estates. And there's something to be said for sporting a replica of Kurt Cobain's "Grunge Is Dead" shirt or the very-based "Jesus Looks Like Me" tee once worn by Deborah Harry.

"I came up with the idea for Worn Free while watching Up in Smoke, 14 years ago," Coe says on a rainy Friday outside Kaldi Coffee & Tea in Atwater Village. He's wearing tortoiseshell specs, a black pullover and blue jeans -- less rock star, more rock historian. "A character wore an 'Aurora 714' shirt that I wanted, and I thought, 'How cool would it be if you could buy what you saw on television or film?"

Out of the 17 million would-be million-dollar ideas cooked up during Cheech and Chong movies, Coe may be the only one to actually execute his stoned vision. Respect due. Of course, he promptly forgot about it.

"A few years later, I was working late and Hardcore, [the 1979 film starring] George C. Scott, came on. There was a girl in the film wearing the same shirt as [in] Up in Smoke and it retriggered the idea," the Essex-born Coe says. "It's like reverse product placement. Whereas companies hire models to make their clothing look cool, someone has already made the shirts look cool."

 

It would be corny if the enterprise revolved solely around hero worship. But the Joe Strummer shirt, for instance, doesn't boast a generic photo of the former Clash guitarist. Instead, it riffs on a shirt Strummer once wore promoting Dread Control, the radio show of obscure reggae star (and Clash producer) Mikey Dread. Last April, GQ named the shirt one of its "8 Tees You Need."

Will Smith has donned a "Float Like a Butterfly" tee from Worn Free's Muhammad Ali line, a rare divergence from its music-related licensing.

The credit belongs mostly to Coe. Speaking with him, you sense a deep love of the music behind the merchandise. He describes his ideal day as digging through a rare photo archive of rock and reggae shots from the '70s, or soaking up stories from the families of the deceased greats. One day, he dreams of licensing apparel worn by Fela Kuti, and he rhapsodizes about his latest musical discoveries: Pakistani icon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and '70s Thai funk.

Since launching in 2005, Worn Free has opened satellite offices in London and Chicago, while manufacturing is done in Rancho Dominguez and Mexico. The company originally sold to mostly small boutiques but has begun popping up in Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom. And each shirt sold arrives with a brief explanation of its genesis.

"There's a lot of graphics that we don't use because they have to stand alone. You don't carry a hang tag around saying, 'Oh, John Lennon wore this,' so it has to be cool [by itself]," Coe says. "The people who wore these were tastemakers in the first place, so they had their own style that remains stylish today. The logos and the music stand the test of time."

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