Two decades ago, I designed a shirt—we soon started calling it The Shirt—that mixed ideas from my favorite tourist-destination T-shirts to create an ode to my favorite city: New York City. An actress wore it on The Tonight Show, and the next day people everywhere knew my name. It’s the kind of story that, looking in from the outside, makes it seem like it just takes a little bit of luck to become an overnight success.
In actuality, I had been living in New York, in a tiny walk-up shoebox that was advertised as an apartment, and working long hours for little more than minimum wage in the fashion industry for two years before this moment. There was nothing overnight about it.
I had made it to New York and had landed my first real job in fashion. My tastes were very different from those of the designer I worked for, but I needed to learn about how to build a brand with a strong foundation from both a business and a collection perspective.
Two years in, I had designed a five-piece collection. This little capsule included a silk blouse with a cummerbund permanently attached, a denim tuxedo (the pants were low-rise with a slight boot-cut flare), a basic T-shirt, and The Shirt. The “look book” itself? Expensive green iridescent paper with metallic binder clips. It had 10 shots in the whole entire thing.
By day, I worked. By night, I worked too. While I didn’t have the capital to produce anything outside of my five-piece collection, I did have enough money to make a few versions of The Shirt. The cheapest option was to buy the existing tops and make them my own. My inspiration was that escapist energy of a tourist beach T-shirt—think of those acid-washed neon tees available up and down the Atlantic coast or those island-style tanks customized with fringe and beads, which I had fallen for during my first trip to the Caribbean. I wanted to take that energy and make it cool, make it about my new home. I had been cutting up and knotting T-shirts since my dance-class days back in middle school, so taking a tee from basic and boring to meet-me-at-the-barre with a trusty pair of scissors was second nature to me.
Whenever I had the chance, I would play around with different techniques of cutting, tying, and customizing the T-shirts. I really tried everything: asymmetrical necklines, asymmetrical hemlines, asymmetrical sleeves; cutting sleeves off, tying them back on, cutting them shorter. I couldn’t afford to let any shirt go to waste, so if one came out a little odd, I’d keep playing around with it until it worked. (Some would get cut and reshaped, getting smaller and smaller, so many times that I was worried I’d have to start a kids’ line.) I wore one myself and gave them away to a few friends.
One of the people I gave a T-shirt to was my then friend, now sister-in-law, Stephanie. She’s just one of those people who can wear anything and look amazing. One night in Los Angeles, Steph threw on the shirt with a pair of jeans and a blazer and went to dinner with her friend Jenna Elfman. Jenna asked if Steph could get her a shirt. Of course Dharma of the early aughts hit sitcom Dharma & Greg could have a shirt! I was such a big fan that I sent it to her the very next day. It was September 9, 2001.
It was around this time that I was introduced to a publicist who had just started out. A few weeks after meeting, he asked if I wanted to participate in a small group show of emerging designers that he was curating. The answer was a big, resounding yes. At the time it felt like a big deal. The show was on September 10, 2001.
Early the next morning on September 11, still on a high from the show the night before, I went to a fabric seminar to learn about cotton. It seemed like just another day. Before the presenter even took the stage, the organizer ran in, so upset, and announced that there had been an attack on the World Trade Center.
The 9/11 tragedy rocked the city, the country, and the world.
But New York and New Yorkers are nothing if not resilient. After a few weeks, despite the devastation and heartbreak, people were continuing to come together and starting to find new rhythms in that new normal. My fashion show felt like it had happened in another lifetime.
In early October, my phone rang. It was Jenna Elfman’s assistant calling to let me know that Jenna had filmed a segment for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She had worn the I Heart New York shirt that I had customized for her on the show. It was going to air that night. It seemed surreal. I couldn’t let myself believe it until I saw it with my own eyes: a white T-shirt with the iconic graphic that I had slashed, snipped, shredded, fringed, knotted, tied, and sewn back together into the ultimate tribute to the city that the whole world loved.
The Shirt was truly an homage to the city that I had idealized and dreamed about from afar. It had welcomed me, my dreams, and my crappy old suitcases with its inspiration, palpable energy, and endless possibilities. The 9/11 tragedy broke my heart, but I was grateful I had created something to celebrate my new hometown, even if it was as trivial as a customized tee that banded people together and lifted their spirits.
The morning after Jenna wore The Shirt on TV, I woke up to a ringing phone and an inbox full of messages. For the first time in my life, people wanted to buy something that I had made. I had to pinch myself more than once. A day later, all of the popular gossip weeklies ran shots of Jenna from the show, and the demand grew tenfold. I needed some I Heart New York shirts, and I had to start customizing them fast.
I rode all over the city—to Times Square, through Chinatown—to every tourist kiosk, buying as many T-shirts as possible: five for $80 here, two for $30 there. Twenty for $100 at one memorable stop. I honestly believe that I have bought more I Heart New York T-shirts than anyone else in the entire world. I scanned, saved, and printed every mention that I got in any magazine. I had made a list of the boutiques that I thought were incredibly cool, and then I printed out my line sheets and press kit and hand-delivered them to each store. A few shops placed orders or took a few shirts on consignment. Every time I got a new order, it felt like another piece of the puzzle falling into place.
In order to make sure that these pieces didn’t just sit on the racks and that people actually bought them, I had postcards printed with a picture of The Shirt and the addresses of where it could be found. I was one of those people who would stand in Union Square for hours passing out postcards to college kids and tourists. Most people blew past me; some people asked me if I knew the designer. It didn’t feel good to see my name trampled on the sidewalk at the end of the day—I ain’t gonna lie—but all of that promotion worked, because my stuff sold.
It wasn’t until four years later that I designed my first handbag, the Morning After Bag, a.k.a. the MAB, and my business actually took off. But The Shirt was the start of Rebecca Minkoff as you know it today.
From Fearless: The New Rules for Unlocking Creativity, Courage, and Success by Rebecca Minkoff, published by HarperCollins Leadership.