Can a T-shirt change the world?
“This is my favorite place,” says Daniel DeSure, gesturing to the stretch of Exposition Boulevard in Crenshaw that he’s lived in and worked on for the last 12 years. Behind an olive-and-black graphic facade, the 42-year-old creative director and entrepreneur runs Commonwealth Projects, a creative agency called on by the likes of Nike, Saint Laurent, MoCA and USC to develop genre-bending installations, design books and re-imagine entire brands.
More recently this spot has also become host to a skate shop and store for DeSure’s 5-year-old side project, the zine-turned-clothing-line Total Luxury Spa that is on the cusp of becoming streetwear’s newest household name.
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After years of executing visions for others, DeSure and his partner, Hassan Rahim, launched Total Luxury Spa in 2014 as a means of more direct creative output. “There just felt like a little bit of a disconnect. Why can’t the work that I’m doing during the day speak one-on-one to what I care about?” DeSure remembered thinking. The name “Spa” was chosen to conjure visions of replenishment. “I always think of books and culture and things that we’re working on as the things that I feel filled by,” DeSure said.
The two started by creating zines for local artists who were outside the purview of gallery and museum representation. Those zines made for cheap and easy distribution — but T-shirts, they found, were even better forms of communication. “They’re a quick way to get a design out in the world and onto people who move around the world,” DeSure said.
Against black, white and tie-dye fabrics, Spa T-shirts advertise fake shows for artists including jazz musician Sun Ra and the cellist and singer-songwriter Kelsey Lu. Others feature the phrase “Crenshaw Wellness,” an umbrella term for the earnest messages of Afrofuturism, meditation and mindfulness delivered in ironic clip art fonts. “Healing plants for hurt landscapes,” reads one T-shirt. “Your worries washed away,” reads another.
DeSure and Rahim utilized Spa as a means of rejuvenating their neighborhood. The clothes are made in L.A. and designed, modeled and photographed by members of the Crenshaw community. And, to reverse the sins of capitalism, Spa gives more than it takes, infusing the neighborhood with resources, guidance, opportunity and careers. “I always think about culture as this thing that a lot of times is taken from, meaning people take the aesthetic of other people, but it’s all about how you ante into a system,” DeSure said. “There’s a way to give back to a system to actually make it better.”
He added: “When we make a Crenshaw Wellness shirt, we mean it. Wellness should be here. How do we make it here?”
Using funds from Commonwealth Projects, he opened his studio to the neighborhood for free weekly meditation classes, which are now held every Monday at the Underground Museum. He helped kick off a children’s meditation program at Hillcrest Elementary School and hopes to open another this year. In search of additional ways to be helpful, he looked to the skate park across the street for guidance: “Everyone takes care of each other there. [Kids are] being taken care of by their peers. I’ve always respected that.”
DeSure asked some of the young local skaters to share their opinions. “We would sit down and talk and just kind of chop it up,” he remembered. Conversations would cover their personal, professional and entrepreneurial aspirations, and always pose the question: What does the neighborhood need?
The first conclusion: “It’s not the easiest place to find healthy, inexpensive food.” Spa responded in a shirt dedicated to the local vegan restaurant Mr. Wisdom, which was closing. The T-shirt featured the owner’s face and borrowed language from a sign hand-painted in the restaurant: “You are entering the spiritual zone. Please turn off all radios and negative thoughts.” The shirt was bought by skaters around the globe, Vogue editors, the Kardashian coterie. Whether or not they understood what the shirt represented, 50% of the profits went to the restaurateur.
The kids, now 20-somethings, developed their own response: a streetwear, skate and juice brand called Tropics. Named for the once-tree-covered neighborhood dividing Baldwin Hills from Crenshaw, the juice company enables the young men to not only nourish their community, but also to learn and teach one another how to build a brand and run a business.
Since launching in 2015 with the help of DeSure’s mentorship, funding and office space, Tropics has partnered with Sambazon, staged pop-ups at the Felix Art Fair and the Santa Monica Airport Barker Hangar, and held public conversations with Alice Waters and the late Jonathan Gold about food inequality.
They design their own skate decks and T-shirts featuring their company’s name written in a font made out of pieces of fruit hand-drawn by Tropics co-founder Preston Summers. Next, they hope to open a permanent juice shop on Jefferson and are in talks to bring a farmers’ market to the neighborhood by the end of the year.
DeSure is creating strategies to address gentrification, economic inequality, and headline anxiety. Perhaps a T-shirt could change them. Streetwear’s power has always laid with its community, but, to date, no streetwear brand has empowered its community so directly.
“It’s our way of trying to create more balance and fairness,” DeSure said. It’s enough that Spa shirts look good and have been worn by style-setters, but, said DeSure, “our approach gets people to engage with bigger issues that we’re all reading about every day in the paper. The bigger we can make that push, the more effect it will have.”