Thirteen years after founding beloved streetwear brand Mishka, Mikhail Bortnik is returning to his roots by getting hands-on in the design game once again. While Mishka is known for its skater punk weirdo aesthetic—with clothes often featuring images of bloodshot eyes, references to punk songs, and nods to cult classic sci-fi and horror films—Bortnik aims to create something a little softer with his new brand, Psychic Hearts.
To start, Psychic Hearts' logo is three cartoon hearts in a row. Its colors remain in the pastel range, aside from the staple black T-shirt and velour track suits (both punctuated with splashes of pink or sky blue). And whereas Mishka became a massive international operation that is now sold at stores like PacSun and Zumies, Psychic Hearts pieces are handmade with fabrics from Manhattan's garment district and sold online and in boutiques like Extra Butter in New York and Jugrnaut in Chicago. This is all a good thing. Bortnik feels like Mishka went in a direction he didn't intend it to, and his new project seeks to rectify that both through design and scale.
"For me, Psychic Hearts is very non-confrontational," the streetwear designer told me during a recent interview. "It's very soft, it's fuzzy, it's warm, it's gentle. Our color is pink." In other words, the premier collection, which officially dropped in early May and will be adding a third round of designs in early November, is possibly a Bizarro Mishka, or even its foil. Psychic Hearts is still true to what its founder is known for, though—there will continue to be T-shirts with obscure reference points, as well as original, colorful graphics. As Bortnik says, it's for the same people who once wore Mishka, but no longer want a shirt with FUCK on the sleeve. I spoke with the designer and entrepreneur about his new brand, his current attitude towards Mishka, and the cyclical nature of fashion.
VICE: What was the initial spark that inspired you to start Psychic Hearts?
Mikhail Bortnik: I think that Mishka went in a direction that wasn't necessarily where I would have envisioned it to go or that I wanted it to become. Mishka is in Zumies, Pacsun, and places like that. We started as a boutique brand, and a lot of the stuff we used to do was more niche and weirder. When we left that world and went into the mall/store world, I feel like we alienated people. I always wanted to stay in that [boutique] world because it was where we thrived. We could have grown. It would have been slower, but it would have been satisfying.
What do you hope to do with Psychic Hearts that you weren't doing with Mishka?
I realized when I started Mishka that I was designing mainly for myself. I was shopping at these [streetwear] stores, but that was at a time in the mid and late 90s when we'd still be seeing Tupac and Biggie shirts—that was just kind of a big vibe with streetwear. I started designing things that fit more in line with my own taste, stuff like horror movies, punk, indie rock. It was a bit difficult getting stores to want to infuse that in, but once Mishka started getting into stores, I saw that there was an audience of kids gravitating towards it because nobody else was really doing it like us. So I kind of realized that while I'm designing for myself, I'm not the only person who's into stuff like this; there's an audience for it.
Can you describe the mood or vibe you're trying to get across with the new collection?
Mishka's streetwear has bloodshot eyeballs across everything. For me, Psychic Hearts is very non-confrontational. It's very soft, it's fuzzy, it's warm, it's gentle. Our color is pink. There are hearts in our logo. It's twee, it's sentimental. For me, it captures both the mood of Sofia Coppola films and Gregg Araki films—that sort of sexual ambiguity and also a kind of twee-ness. That's the world I want it to inhabit. But I don't want to do lookbooks with porn stars, I don't want to do shirts that say "fuck off," or like things like that. I'm sure sometimes I'll veer off into that just because of my nature, but a lot of this brand is about the stuff that I gravitate towards and how I feel about my personality.
Who do you see wearing it? Do you think it's the same people who were wearing Mishka?
I think it is. I noticed that there are a few people who've already found Psychic Hearts who were like really old Mishka fans from like way back. And they're older—they're probably closer to my age and have kids. I think that they're kind of the ones who early on aligned with what we were doing with Mishka, people who'd see a Mishka design with a certain reference and be shocked to see that reference out in the world. And now they're seeing that again and they're kind of gravitating towards it.
But I try to be as inclusive as possible in everything that I do. So whoever finds [Psychic Hearts], whoever likes it, I feel should wear it. There definitely have been a lot of girls who gravitate towards it—that's not really surprising to me because of the graphic aesthetic, and I kind of like that girls want to wear men's clothes, by all means. And if men want to wear clothes with pink hearts on it, by all means.
What's your design process like? Do you start with fabric or construction?
Usually stuff like that will come hand-in-hand. For this coming collection, we're going to do these sherpas with a long collar band. I wanted that fuzzy kind of material and I just think we were debating whether it needed to be sherpa or a teddy bear/Elmo-y kind of thing. Sherpa is more wearable than, like, a muppet, so we ended up going with sherpa. That design came from looking at a Teenage Head album cover. One of them was just wearing something and I was like, "I want to remake that."
How big do you hope the brand gets this time around?
I don't think about it in terms of how big can it get. That was kinda of what Mishka was, and, after a certain point, I wasn't doing what I wanted. It was so far removed from what it should be or what I wanted it to be or what it was succeeding at that it just wasn't as fun for me.
I know that a big part of Mishka's aesthetic is nostalgia, but the brand was created in 2003 and nostalgia means something different in 2016. What type of references are you going to be using for Psychic Hearts?
Right now, it's been a lot of 80s and 90s indie rock and indie film references. I feel like because of the internet, everything's out there and people can discover it, so there's a wider audience for a lot of the stuff we're doing. The audience that understood those references were never shopping and buying things in the streetwear sort of vibe. I think it's different today.
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