How the after school t-shirt brand turned international creative
1 May 2017
When images of your work catch the attention of Nike’s art directors, buyers at Colette and get pinned on mood boards around the world, you know you’re doing something right. For Long Island native John “Sunshine” (a high school nickname) Margaritis, this has been his ultimate testament of success.
John and a few of his close friends and family are behind New York Sunshine: the fashion-meets-art collective who are famous for their immersive installations. Exploring a space where fashion, surfing, basketball and art collide, each of their installations acts as a living canvas for building their streetwear brand.
“When people used to say it was a surf brand, it would drive me nuts. They didn’t get that we’re from New York – it was about the juxtaposition of surf meets city,” Sunshine tells us. Back in high school, he convinced a family friend to let him use his silkscreen factory to print some graphic t-shirts. Selling them at a pop-up surf shop in Southampton during the summer, he didn’t exactly plan for his high school side-project to evolve into the creative force it is today.
Speaking to Sunshine in his Tribeca apartment (conveniently also home to one of New York's best kept secrets, a rooftop basketball court), it’s clear he isn’t about defining what exactly New York Sunshine does, either. Rather than building a scalable business or selling t-shirts, it’s about keeping him and his crew excited about making things, an approach that seems to works well for them.
Alongside Sunshine and his longtime friend and partner Luke, NYS is made up of a group of friends who get involved as much as they can alongside their full-time jobs: there’s Cory, a painter and landscaper; Henry, a chef; Fardad, a designer: Sunshine's dad Bert, a carpenter and builder.
“My dad is a major artist in disguise. We wouldn’t be able to do the build outs we’ve done without him,” Sunshine tells us. “Last year, I really wanted to shoot an underwater wet lookbook and was thinking of ways to control the surroundings. I knew from trying to photograph people in the deep end of a pool that lighting was difficult. So I explained to my dad what I wanted to build: a cement tank with glass panels that would create cool lighting effects and allow me to photograph while I’m not submerged in water.”
Weighing at over 4,000 pounds without water, the One Ton Tank became an immersive (literally) playground for shooting their 2016 spring/summer collection on models and friends as they jumped inside of it. Unsure of what to do with the tank afterwards, they emailed the Watermill Center, an art collective space in Southampton, offering to put it in the woods on their grounds. Little did they know that the center was just about to put on their summer benefit gala, fittingly themed around water and concrete, which landed them a ton of press and exposure.
Getting attention through doing art projects hasn’t been a one-off occurrence for the gang. Last winter, their Hoop Dreams guerilla installation during Miami Art Basel go everyone talking. “For me, putting that basketball hoop in the ocean in South Beach has been our most exciting project,” Sunshine says. they loaded a 300 pound basket ball hoop into a black van and backed it up over the South Beach boardwalk.
“It was a rainy night, it was heavy, there were security guards everywhere because there was a private event on – it was kind of intense! We sandbagged it and drove home all wet,” he reminisces. “Going back the next day, it was really cool to see people interact with it. I like art that’s not too intimidating. Seeing a kid throw a football at it was the coolest thing to me.”
Even though their basketball hoop installation lacked any hint of branding, people started uploading photos to Instagram and tagging New York Sunshine in it. Then, something happened that Sunshine has been dreaming about his whole life: Nike called up asking to collaborate on some their design and installation work.
It’s not that Sunshine’s growing success has come easy, though. Without any fashion experience, Sunshine and his gang have learned about what it takes to build a brand on the fly– and by never backing down. “The first time I walked into Colette in Paris, I thought it was the holy grail of retail. I thought, if we continue to do this New York Sunshine t-shirt thing, this is where I’d want to sell,” he says. So they started persistently emailing the buyers at Colette. “At first, we didn’t even know we had to create a lookbook. We would just email and say, hey check this out! And then one day, the order form came back filled in. “Looking back, that was definitely a milestone,” Sunshine says. Their Hoop Dreams series ended up being installed in Colette for three weeks.
NYS have learned that when it comes to modern retail spaces, experience trumps pushing product. With their High Tide installation, they set out to build a wave-like mirage out of wooden shelving and a gradient of graphic t-shirts. First they tested a smaller version in the Hamptons, they then transformed the concept it into a much bigger installation during Art Basel Miami in 2015. While t-shirts didn’t fly off the racks, the installation got them plenty of coverage and led to a collaboration with VLONE and Asap Bari the following year.
“It really was more of a testament to how retail should work nowadays. So many big name stores are so uninteresting. They never change and have the worst shopping experience. Very few people do a good store concept and good clothing,” Sunshine says.
Having spent his youth coming into the city and hanging around Madison Square Garden (because, basketball), Sunshine’s creations capture an essence that is quintessentially New York– as does his relentless hustle:
“There is no five-year plan. It’s about doing whatever keeps us creative and doing cool stuff. It’s about developing multiple creative outlets and seeing how things pan out,” he tells us. “What would I be doing if I wasn’t doing this? I’d probably be surfing more, going to Mexico on surf trips and making ends meet. Or I would work in a deli in the city making sandwiches. Or maybe I would have gotten a job with Nike.”
Words by: Lisa Roolant