Stanley DeSantis was a college student when he printed his first T-shirt, a drawing of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz casually writing the words "Surrender Dorothy" with the back half of her broomstick. He eventually sold enough shirts to cover his tuition—paying for school by selling T-shirts was still possible in the 1970s—and it took him less than two decades to become one of the biggest names in novelty tees.
"I think what I am recognized for in the industry is for taking the humorous T-shirts to the gift-store level,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “At the time, they were sold in truck stops, or as fashion tees, but I melded the funny T-shirts into a fashion statement. Before, T-shirts like that were never sold in department stores. I remember, when I was trying to sell ‘Surrender Dorothy,’ calling Bloomingdale’s from my little apartment in New York and they said, ‘T-shirts are over. You couldn’t put a thing on a T-shirt that we would ever buy.’ ”
Bloomingdale's was wrong, obviously. By 1994, DeSantis' eponymous business was pulling in more than $18 million a year—around $31.5 million in today's dollars. He acquired the licenses to print shirts featuring some of the biggest draws of that decade, like Beavis & Butthead, The Simpsons, and South Park. And although Stanley DeSantis died in 2005, he still may be one of the hottest designers of this whole year.
A couple of weeks ago, Corbin Smith, a 27-year-old vintage T-shirt collector, offered an ultra-rare DeSantis fit during a live-streamed auction for The Virtual Flea. It had been printed as a promo item for the 1992 release of Disney's Aladdin, and featured a massive illustration of the animated Genie, which wrapped around both sides of the shirt. The opening bid for the auction was $1, and Smith had cautiously optimistic expectations for what the final sale could be.
"I was hoping it would reach at least $2,000," he told VICE. "You know, that was just wishful thinking at that moment, but just watching it start from a dollar and go all the way up to $6,000, like, that was just unreal. I started crying on live, because it was just a moment that I would never forget."
No one will forget where they were when they heard about the $6,000 Genie shirt, especially since six grand is about what you'd pay for a 10-year-old Toyota Corolla. The jaw-dropping sale was a solid return for Smith, who bought the shirt from Kyle Taitano for $500 in February. "I had two of the same [Genie] shirt, so I decided to part with one of them," Taitano said. "I sold the size large to Corbin, who also traded me a rare Cartoon Network Cow and Chicken T-shirt that I would estimate to be worth between $600 and $800 in today's market."
If it seems like today's market is more about mid-1990s memorabilia than it used to be, that's because it is. Time is passing at a terrifying pace, and 90s kids are now old enough to feel nostalgic for cartoons and comic books that came out when Bill Clinton was president.
"I feel like we're seeing a lot of new trends develop, especially when it comes to Marvel-related T-shirts and TV-related T-shirts, basically the non-music shirts," Patrick Klima, the founder and owner of WyCo Vintage said. "Once you're 20 years out, that's when you start seeing a lot of interest. Those kids are at the age where they've got some expendable income and they're starting to reflect a little bit on their youth and trying to maybe recapture some of that, or just have that feeling or that connection. The Aladdin shirt could be a perfect example of that."
Kerri Barta and Jason Yolkiewicz, the co-owners of Los Angeles boutique Hellhound Vintage, echoed that assessment. "There has definitely been a shift with this new generation coming into the scene," Barta told VICE. "They are more into 90s and Y2K, big sizes and a lot of kid-oriented culture like Disney stuff and kids' movies."
Hellhound sold the same Stanley DeSantis Genie-print shirt in February. They declined to confirm the final price, but said that it went for the "high end" of what that tee was selling for at the time. (Barta added that they donated a portion of the sale to an animal sanctuary. "With so much money floating around, I would love to encourage people in the scene to consider giving back in some positive way, when they can.")
It seems like "the high end" for Aladdin merch, DeSantis designs, and 90s memorabilia in general could just be getting higher. A different, equally obnoxious Genie shirt has been listed for $3,000 on Grailed, and for $1,500 on Poshmark. A "very rare and cool" Genie tee recently sold on eBay for $999. Meanwhile, eight bidders battled each other for a DeSantis T-shirt from The Mask, which sold for $1,400.
In the hours after the $6,000 Genie auction, Kyle Taitano posted a picture of his other Genie shirt on his Insta story. "Sure enough, I was DMed by a serious bidder and negotiated to sell it for $4,700," he said. "Prior to that, my biggest sale was $1,200."
But the Genie shirt is just the latest, and perhaps the most bonkers, example from a vintage market that has been heating up for years—now reaching a boiling point of unprecedented valuations. "The Nirvana 'Heart Shaped Box' shirt was the reigning grail before this Genie phenomenon," Barta said. "Justin Bieber wore it to the AMAs in 2015, and the price went up to $500 immediately and it's been climbing ever since. It sells for $2,000 to $4,000 right now, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see that price point keep going up. Even reproductions are going for $500, which is crazy to me."
Barta said that there are currently "a ton" of shirts that are selling for upwards of a grand each, including those that rep 90s bands like Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, and The Fugees, Disney and Marvel shirts, and tees that were released as movie promos.
"I really don’t consider the DeSantis genie tee to be worth $6,000 just because of one auction, but it definitely pumps the value way up," she said. "It was already culturally relevant, but now it has this status from commanding such a high auction price, making it instantly legendary within the scene."
The fact that the Genie shirt sold during a widely viewed online auction could be one of the biggest factors in its four-figure price point. "That Aladdin [piece] is a great shirt, it's got a great print, and a cultural significance," Klima said. "But when these auctions are on Instagram, it's a whole other thing. [The watchers] can see your name, and they see you bidding versus another guy. It's a little more personal than being an anonymous bidder on eBay. It's very pressure-driven."
He added that it's not unusual for vintage T-shirt buyers to focus their attention on one particular style, brand, or fandom. Several years ago, the must-have tees were Harley Davidson shirts that could be ID-ed by the blue bar across the Champion-logo tag. "They were all going for $500 or more and, at the time $500 for a vintage shirt was a pretty good amount," he said. "I think right now, we're just seeing a little uptick, where some of these shirts are definitely going to see new prices. Overall, the market is hot, and it's neat seeing people pulling stuff out of their closets that you haven't seen before."
Smith says he's absolutely still in the game, buying and selling 90s shirts, although he declined to specify the Grails he's currently trying to find. "I'm definitely grateful for what happened [in the auction] and I still can't believe it, to be honest," he said. "I think it'll be a long time before the average shirt is $6,000, but as long as these memories live on, the prices will rise. And the memories live on forever."