Monday, December 17, 2012

Worn Free's Steve Coe

Steve Coe at Food + Lab in West Hollywood


At Food + Lab

7253 Santa Monica, Blvd., West Hollywood 323-851-7120

Steve Coe is not someone who enters a room without much notice. From his tall stature, unruly mane of curly hair and jovial, outgoing personality, the British transplant definitely turns heads. But in most circumstances, what initially draws one's eye to Steve is his T-shirt. For over a decade, his apparel companies – Bogus, Worn Free, Special Lucky Winner and Lost Propertee – have produced shirts that have appeared on the likes of Ryan Gosling, Jennifer Aniston, Keith Urban and Eddie Vedder, in fashion magazines, on TV shows and in shops all over Los Angeles.

The day we meet at one of his new dining discoveries, Food + Lab in West Hollywood, Steve wears a dark blue tee from his Special Lucky Winner label, emblazoned with colorful flying animals, exactly the kind of unique design his brands are known for. His friend, a noted "picky eater," recently took him to Food + Lab for the first time, and with their expressly organic, nitrate- and hormone-free, carefully sourced ingredients, it's easy for practically anyone to be happy with what they select from the menu.

Mother-and-son team Esther and Nino Linsmayer are at the helm of the eatery, which has a second location in Silver Lake, and most dishes come from recipes honed from Esther's years of culinary training. She, and her Organic Curried Chicken Sandwich, is one of the reasons that Steve so enjoyed his initial visit to Food + Lab.

"I met [her] the last time I came here and said 'This is good,' and she said, 'I know, I made it,'" laughs Steve. "I like that, when you actually see who creates the food or makes the recipes."

Food + Lab is a bit east from where he lives, but Steve frequently goes to Jones, which is just a block away. He also likes to go to Greenblatt's Deli and sampling tacos from various trucks around the city.

"Food in L.A. in general is incredible, especially the Mexican food, the sushi, the Korean food, the Vietnamese pho here is nuts. I like El Compadre, probably more for their Cadillac margaritas than the food, but I love it. I like the Katsu-ya in Studio City because I used to rent a place from Gail Zappa that was right next door to it, a little house behind this animation studio, so I used to go there a lot," he shares. "I lived in New York for a year, and I've been in L.A. for about seven years. It's easy, not in a bad way. There are so many things you take for granted here. The weather's great; it's sunny every day. Where I'm from it rains all the time, so even if you just pop out for half an hour, it's like you're on holiday. You can be at the beach in minutes. I don't like the fact that there's not much street culture, that's the only problem with it. It doesn't work as a city the way that cities normally work. It's more a collection of small villages."

As I sip some of Food + Lab's homemade Southern Mint Iced Tea, Steve enjoys a cup of coffee and their Beloved Hard Boiled Egg Sandwich with farm-raised bacon, watercress and aioli on wheat bread. After he takes a bite, he unconsciously lets out a "mmm," so it's obviously hit the spot.

"Cooking's a very creative thing. I always wanted to be a chef growing up. My best friend and I always wanted to open a restaurant. I did my work experience in kitchens, and it's seriously hard work. Doing design and photography is much easier, you don't have to get up so early in the morning," he laughs. "My granddad was a chef in the army. He was one of those people who was good at whatever he did. He could draw incredibly, took amazing photographs and cooked in the army."

Steve's grandfather instilled a love for photography in him, as well as a keen ability to trust his own eye and artistic instincts.

"He was a massive influence on me. One of my earliest memories was in the darkroom. I was about 4 years old, and I remember him showing me this blank piece of paper. He dipped it into this stuff, and a picture came out. I thought, 'It's magic' and was transfixed from then. I was 11 when he gave me my first camera and started to explain photography. What was great about it and what I found invaluable was, for him, my eye, how you see things and take the image, was much more important than the technical aspects. Those, you can learn. I learned in a free environment where I could just go crazy and I had someone who could develop my photos for me. Unfortunately, he died when I was 12, but for that year I remember taking a hell of a lot of photos, and I just carried on with it."

Growing up, Steve's father was a musician, so the art form was a fixture in their home.

"There was a bit of everything. I remember the Beatles a lot and the Stones," he says. "The first concert I went to that I bought tickets for, I was 15, and it was either a Bob Geldof solo gig or Paul Weller – I can't remember which one was first. I was a big fan of the Jam growing up, so I've seen Paul Weller a bunch of times."

Young Steve used the four walls of his bedroom as an outlet for his burgeoning love of imagery and design.

"I had the little room in the house, and it was packed with loads of shit, literally wall to wall photos, posters and records. I just crammed as much stuff in there as I could," he reveals. "I was a big Jimi Hendrix fan when I decided to learn to play the guitar. I'm left handed, so he was a real hero for me. I used to have the Axis: Bold as Love album cover, which I love. I've always been fascinated with album covers; it's such a lovely form of communication. Sometimes if there's an artist that I don't know but I like their cover art, I'll buy the record for the cover. Half the time it works out well, and the music's good, too."

He continued to explore photography and other visual art forms as he moved on to college and beyond.

Food + Lab's deli case
"When I was at university I took Animation and Film, and you could take photography as a side thing. I just wanted to be in the dark room, so I took it. I used to come out with some crazy stuff. The teacher would say, 'You're doing it all wrong,' and I would be like, 'No, I'm not. This is what I wanted.' That's the magic of it, you don't have to necessarily be very precise unless you want to take photographs of food or products. If you just want to make crazy images, you can do what you like. I got into super 8  as well when I was at college, so I used to do a lot of stop animation and make weird little films. Then I worked in television, and they kept trying to put me in a technical path rather than creative, which I didn't like, so I stopped doing that and did photography. I did photography for about two-and-a-half years, and some magazine saw what I did and thought I did it with a computer even though I didn't. So they gave me Photoshop, Illustrator and an iMac to see what I could do on a computer. I started messing around with computers, and for good or bad I started doing more computer-based designs."

Thus, Steve began doing graphics work and tinkering with different design concepts. His friend was a screen printer and asked him to do a few designs.

"Unbeknownst to me he was ripping them off and selling them in DJ magazines as slipmats and whatnot, and then one of my friends who was a DJ showed me. The experience made me realize that I could do this stuff and people would buy it," he shares. "Another friend of mine, we started doing a film project and took our money from working on that and put it into a T-shirt company called Bogus. The concept behind Bogus was the shittest ideas that we could possibly come up with would be the ones that we would [turn into shirts]. As a design, it couldn't take more than 20 minutes to come up with and could only be done once, no retakes, and it was put on a shirt or it was lost forever. We used to sell a lot to places like Urban Outfitters. One shirt said 'Don't Give Me Any Drugs,' another said 'Jehovah's Fitness.'"

Steve also worked as a photo archivist, cataloguing images of iconic celebs, and in the late 1990s, was struck with the idea for Worn Free while watching Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke. He was drawn to Chong's 'RORER 714' top in the film, and thought it would be cool to be able to buy clothes like actors wore in movies or musicians wore on stage or in photos like the ones he had been archiving. In 2005, he launched Worn Free with Kevin Casey, a label that reproduces T-shirt designs worn by legendary musicians, such as Bob Marley, Frank Zappa, Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon and many others.

"What's great about Worn Free is that everything we do is attached to a photograph, so I get to talk to some really amazing old-school rock photographers, like Bob Gruen, Kate Simon and Roberta Bayley," he says. "It's nice hearing their stories and seeing the photographs. I could look at photographs all day, It's one of those things that I've always been a bit in love with. That's the great fun about it. It combines all of my favorite things into one job/hobby that I get paid for."

Each Worn Free tee comes with a photograph of the specific artist wearing the same shirt as a tag designed to look like a backstage pass.

"The backstage passes are real expensive to make because they're a satin material and only certain printers can print them properly. It's not necessarily the most practical thing, but it's just a nice add-on to have for the shirts," Steve tells. "We're doing some now that are postcards or recycled cards, depending on the customer. For Urban Outfitters, we found that with the way they fold the shirts, the backstage passes got crumpled easily. So, we're doing theirs on cardboard because it keeps the image more pristine."

Steve's latest venture is called Lost Propertee, established as an outlet for pretty much anyone to see their shirt design ideas come to life.

A Worn Free John Lennon shirt
"We wanted to open the forum up to the public, but we didn't want to do it where you'd have to be a designer. We were just interested in people's weird ideas. You send us your idea, we get one of our illustrators to draw up a T-shirt and then we pay you for whatever shirts we sell, or you can double the money if you want to turn it into T-shirt dollars and buy other shirts on the site," he says. "The thing is, most everybody I've met, even my mum, has got a T-shirt idea that they want to make, and now they can."

Before parting ways, I ask Steve to share what he thinks some good holiday gift ideas might be from Worn Free:

"The Muhammad Ali robe is just the perfect thing. Everyone puts it on, raises their fist and does a champion's stance. We've got some great photos of people doing that. Lil Wayne wears one of our robes every night he goes on stage. When he does his encore he comes out with the Muhammad Ali robe on."

"The best thing we're doing at the moment is a Holiday Stocking Filler. We just send you a random T-shirt for $15, and it's nice because it really is random. We give out great designs and crazy old stuff that we haven't sold for years."

"There are so many different artists that we have on the label that it's just about finding that present that's personal. And that's the other thing that works out with Worn Free: You're not just wearing a Stones or Pink Floyd T-shirt, you're wearing something that was personal to the artist who wore it originally. There's some great background stories to a lot of the shirts, especially with John Lennon. The Working Class Hero shirt is based on a song that he wrote, You Are Here is part of his and Yoko's philosophy on life about living in the moment. We can really retell those stories with the shirts. If you're a fan of John's then you'll know that little bit of background already, and it's almost like a badge of honor. It's great to be able to work with icons like that who break so many boundaries and borders that everyone associates with."

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