Who says bands don't wear their own merch? Kings of Leon wearing Barking Irons shirts, scarves, and jewelry.
I will always remember my first concert. It was Madonna, in San Francisco for the Who’s That Girl Tour back in 1987. I wore black lace gloves and strings upon strings of plastic pink and white pearls and an official tour tee which my dad bought off the merch stand. Even though it’s paper thin and full of holes I wear it to this day. It’s one of my most prized possessions because it holds a memory, it’s a badge that says I was there, and of course it looks fucking cool. Screw Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic (and the bands that let them—we’re looking at you The Misfits) for shilling band tees as a simple fashion statement. It should be so much more than that.
I still buy band t-shirts all the time, as well as searching for old ones (thanks Etsy for eventually throwing up that Cars Candy-O tee), but it must be said: not all band merch was created equal. Enter Barking Irons, the NYC-based design company founded by Michael and Daniel Casarella, who currently create high quality apparel for another set of brothers (and a cousin), arena rockers Kings of Leon. You won’t find a boxy poorly printed shirt hanging from their stalls. Each piece is super soft, well cut and thoughtfully crafted. (I’ve been living in the AHA SHAKE pale grey sweatshirt all summer, inspite of the heat. It's also in my humble opinion their best record.)
With designs pulling inspiration from New York City’s history, the brother founded Barking Irons in 2003. Soon after Barneys agreed to stock their fledgling label after Daniel delivered samples to the department store in a paper bag. Michael describes ethos of Barking Irons as being about storytelling.
“It’s about passing something into a new medium and putting a unique spin on it whether its music or history or folklore,” he explains. “Our instrument is apparel design and we like riffing on old standards.”
Aside from their ongoing collaboration with Kings of Leon, the brothers are deeply entrenched in the music world, not only in terms of their design influences, but they’ve also created pieces for The Walkmen, Sean Lennon and The Ghost of a Sabre Tooth Tiger, Justin Townes Earle, plus a project last year with Roger Waters and Wilco.
Read more about their work and their relationship with the Followills—which all started with Caleb Followill cursing them out—plus Barking Irons are giving Noisey readers 20% off any KOL merch with the use of the code below on this website. Tight.
Noisey: When you launched with a line of t-shirts in 2003, you initially incorporated the history of city into your t-shirt designs. It was also a particularly fertile time for the city in terms of music. How did that affect you and did any of that bleed into your work?
Michael: Absolutely. Music was always our secret weapon when it came to designing and coming up with a point of view. If you came into our studio there was always music blasting—it is essential to our creative process. At that time I think we were really into indigenous, raw New York stuff, like the Ramones, Stooges, Strokes. We were deep into the raucous history of the old Bowery so that stuff just seem to connect past to present.
What was your reaction like when Barneys agreed to stock your pieces? Did you actually deliver the t-shirts to the buyer in a paper bag?
Yes, my brother delivered our first samples in paper bag and didn’t think anything of it at the time, but its funny to us now. We were thrilled obviously; we were so green though I don’t think we got what it actually meant. Kinda like when a band first gets signed—we felt like we made it! But there was still so much uphill left to go.
Can you talk about the stories behind a few of your earlier designs?
We have always tried to practice storytelling through our designs, whether it was t-shirt graphics or a more structured garment. We would read something cool and then transmute it into our medium. So, in the early days we pulled a lot from Low Life (by Luc Sante) about the gangs of New York era; all rough and tumble like, with colorful names, Slaughter-Housers, Dead Rabbits, and the Plug-Uglies—they all sounded like cool band names to us. The counterpoint to that was we were also really into Walt Whitman, who was also kinda rough, but had a calming, ethereal, tone and message, like he was above all the clamoring. We drew a lot of designs from those two sensibilities.
What sparked the idea for getting into more bespoke merch for artists?
Honestly, the monochromatic t-shirt (which is 95% off all our shirts) is totally inspired by vintage rock tees from the 60s and 70s so we always thought we could make killer band merch. In the early days we did a one-off t-shirt for Modest Mouse and we were totally psyched. As we got better and better at making t-shirts we noticed that music merchandise was still stuck in the 90s, like nobody was actually DESIGNING it, from the fit to fabric to artwork, it was just cut and paste jobs. We thought we could do much better and it was exciting to my brother and I because we both love being around music.
How did you get involved with the Kings of Leon and why did they appeal to you?
We started Barking Irons in a dingy basement when the two of us did all the screen-printing, folding, bagging, tagging ourselves, we wouldn’t have got through it if it wasn’t for Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak. Those albums were pumping us through loooong shifts. We loved their energy.
Then in 2008, we hosted a small party on the Lower East Side that the band came to (we were so pumped!). At one point Caleb came up to us and asked if we could get the DJ to stop playing shitty disco. We couldn’t control the music at that point in the night. He cursed us out and we’ve been friends ever since.
How collaborative is the process between you guys and KOL? What are they like?
The process varies, when we first met with them about designing for them we had them all in our office with a case of beer and we pitched them our ideas and hung out, they liked everything we showed them. The guys are super cool, but they all have very distinct tastes and sensibilities. For our part we try to gather as much info about what they are into at the moment or what inspirations lie behind the record. It’s amazing; in the old model band merch was slapping the album art on a t-shirt, we are so thankful that that is not what they want from us. They treat this as a creative process unto itself and it extends outward from the record. Sort of like the way liner notes used to be for LPs and CDs—more visuals to devour as you take in the music.
Who would you love to partner with in the future?
Beck could be cool. We’ve always been fans of The Strokes. I think it would cool be could do something different for hip-hop too.
Who are you listening to at the moment?
War on Drugs, Alexander, Justin Townes Earle, and lots of old grimey blues.
I know you brought out those gorgeous wool riding jackets last fall—which are beautiful but what else do you have in the pipeline that we should keep our eyes peeled for?
The Barking Irons collection has been rather quiet the last 2 years while we have been focused on other things. In the coming year we are putting a lot more into rebuilding our own collection and will have a lot of our own new product coming in.
Despite two busted ribs from a tour bus accident drummer Nathan and the rest of the Kings of Leon are back on tour throughout Sept and October.
More music and fashwannnnnn:
Isabel SK, the Designer Behind the Lil B Clothes, Has a New Collection Inspired by Tennessee Rap
We Talked to the Guy Who's Worn a New Band's Shirt Every Day for 1,000 Days