Meet the Vintage Dealers Who Source the T-Shirts Issa Rae Wears on 'Insecure'

We spoke to Kiyanna Stewart and Jannah Handy of BLK MKT Vintage on how sourcing vintage T-shirts for Issa Rae on HBO's 'Insecure.'

Issa Rae Insecure Vintage T shirt Blk Mkt vintage
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Issa Rae Insecure Vintage T shirt Blk Mkt vintage

Kiyanna Stewart and Jannah Handy started BLK MKT Vintage in 2014. As vintage and antique lovers, they wanted to create a shop and space for Black memorabilia. They started selling at different artisan markets and fairs around the New York City before shifting to Etsy, launching their own e-commerce, hosting stoop sales, and eventually opening up their own store in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn last year. 

The T-shirts Issa Rae's character, Issa Dee, wears on Insecure have always been important to the show and when costume director Shiona Turini joined the third season, she maintained that and looked to BLK MKT Vintage to provide vintage T-shirts that connected with Issa’s character. We spoke with Stewart and Handy about how they find these pieces, their significance, and if appearing on Insecure has impacted their business.

What was the first piece from Black Mrkt Vintage that appeared on Insecure?

Jannah Handy: On season three Issa wore a United Negro College Fund T-shirt that said “A Mind Is A Terrible Thing to Waste.” Issa had it on in one of the most pivotal scenes of the season. And so it was great because Shiona doesn't really give us a heads up if they're using stuff. So we're watching and it’s a surprise to us. It's the bombshell of Lawrence coming back, and, we were like, “Oh shit, that's our T-shirt.”

Can we talk about some of the stories behind those T-shirts?

Jannah: They all came from different places. That UNCF T-shirt was gifted to people who donated to the organization. It was funny because with that shirt in particular, once it appeared on the show someone from UNCF contacted us asking if we had another one because they would love it for their archives. 

A lot of our T-shirts come from the ‘80s and ‘90s and they remind me of meme culture today. Those messages of Black pride or messages of Black is beautiful are memes you would see on the timeline, but we didn’t have Facebook and Instagram back in the ‘90s. And so people would wear their messages literally on their sleeve. When we see certain ‘90s shirts, it really harkens back on being able to see our younger selves in some of these pieces. 

What about the other pieces Issa’s worn?

Kiyanna: Issa wore a Sisters T-shirt from the ‘90s and after she wore it, Shiona sent a picture of a friend or colleague’s family, and everyone was wearing that T-shirt. And so it was just so cute to see this whole family of around eight people wearing the exact same shirt. And so I just love that there are these moments where folks can literally connect their own histories with what they're seeing on screen. That's the power of working in production and behind the camera. The team at Insecure is doing a really, really great job and we're grateful to be part of that storytelling. And another fun fact about the NWA T-shirt is that Issa bought that one after the episode. A lot of what we do with Shiona is rental based. So that one didn't even come back to our collection.

Are these T-shirts hard to find?

Kiyanna: They are. But I think it's specific to this industry and this field, and so a lot of folks have no idea where to start. There's a network of shops like ours, and not specifically like ours, but antique shops, vintage shops, thrift shops. There are clothing collectors. There are book collectors. Were are kind of clued into this community of folks. And not everybody advertises that they're selling, but we know folks who have things. But it starts with a little bit of research. And so folks are typically asking how can they find limited edition books. You can buy them from book collectors or buy them from bookstores. Go to your local thrift store and see what you can find on the shelf. Look online to see what kind of resources there are online.

There's definitely a market for vintage clothing specifically for Black imagery on vintage clothing. Some of the music stuff, like Jannah was mentioning, music, film, the black cultural iconography, and there are a lot of people who do not look like us that are very interested in collecting these items. And so yes, they're hard to find, but I think you just got to do a little bit of work.

Jannah: But you also have to know what you're looking for. And so there are folks who are looking for the LL Cool J tee from the ‘90s and are willing to pay $900 for it.  But those same folks who may be at Rose Bowl or in Thailand or Japan who are looking for some of these things, they may not pick up on the fact that right next to that LL Cool J shirt is a National Society of Black Engineers T-shirt. They may be just looking for the thing that has monetary value. We're looking for those things that someone can say, “Well, I was a part of NSBE. My dad was a part of NSBE and I had this tee.” It’s something a little bit more sentimental that is off the beaten track and you have to know what to look for.

Does Shiona give a lot of direction?

Jannah: She usually just asks, “What’s new?”

Kiyanna: With Insecure, we're fans. We watch the show. And so it's not just sending samples off for something that we're not particularly connected to. We're both really invested in the story and what the characters represent and what the show represents. And I feel like we know Issa. We love Issa's character. And so when Shiona hits us up, she's like, “All right, I'm pulling for Issa.” I'm also thinking about what Issa does. I'm thinking about what she might be buying, what she might be able to afford, who she wants to wear. Thinking about her working as a nonprofit and kind of working in education, a United Negro College Fund T-shirt, that just makes sense. I think that's an interesting connection. So we're often thinking about the show. Luckily, we've got context and investment, and we're just trying to make some of those connections so that other folks feel connected.

Do you sell any of these T-shirts online? 

Jannah: That's actually changed. Because of sizing and we don't take returns, we didn't want to sell clothing online. And so for us, once the shop opened, we had a whole clothing section in the store. And so that's how we were selling our tees, letterman jackets, and sweatshirts. But now with COVID and having to adapt and overcome, we've started to put out T-shirts online. And we're getting such a positive response.

How much are they on average?

Jannah: It varies. You can go from $20 all the way up to about $650.

Have you all thought about producing your own T-shirts that harken back to these graphics or these or anything like that? Or are you strictly interested in original vintage?

Kiyanna: Well, true vintage is our focus. We collaborated with a social justice screen printing company out of Philadelphia called Philadelphia Printworks. We did two collections of T-shirts and sweatshirts called Reclaim Black. And the premise of the collection was in two drops for two years, we were basically reclaiming Black history through imagery of Black people, historical figures, places and spaces. And so we reimagined Fannie Lou Hamer's campaign poster, and Shirley Chisholm's campaign poster, Juneteenth T-shirt. There are a bunch of different designs. And so that is the only apparel collaboration that we've done up until this point, but we're really interested in reimagining in general. So that collection is still being sold online.

But I think it’s really cool to find the original. It has more of a story when you can see the age and the patina of it. And then you can almost go on a flight of fancy and imagine, who did this belong to? What was its story? It actually survived, and it gets to add to my personal story. So I think that's cool in terms of getting original pieces.

What’s selling well right now?

Jannah: A lot of HBCU gear is going. It is flying. I would say our Greek apparel, too. Specifically Black Greek paraphernalia. And I'm a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated. And so it gets a little hairy when you do Greek paraphernalia because you want folks who are part of that organization to wear the gear. But I think one really cool thing about it is that it's really scarce because people will pass things down or give things to their prophytes or younger members in their organization. So when we find items that are Greek related, those things go, and they go really, really fast. Outside of apparel, our books are flying. And we are used to that, but I don't know. I think people are inside, and yeah, folks are looking for a book.

Have you all seen any uptick in business after appearances on Insecure?

Kiyanna: I think folks don't know what they don't know. And so every time we're able to share that items made it on screen, whether it's Insecure or it's a BET commercial or whatever it is, it makes the connection. Folks see it's not just your shop. Y'all are not just selling things, but you're also in the business of prop rental and production. And so it's great because it expands people's ideas of what we could do. And then I think creates for more possibility. I don't necessarily see an uptick, but I think it definitely has led to other projects just because folks know it's a service that we offer.

Jannah: And they get to see how to use the vintage in a different way. I do think one uptick that I've seen is that sometimes we'll get more tags of people wearing vintage tees. I think one other thing that I think is really cool about Shiona's choices is that there are a lot of TV shows right now where you see everyone has on that Prada tracksuit or that Gucci sneaker or something that is really high end, clearly expensive and that is exclusive. The thing that I appreciate about when people use vintage is that it's accessible. You can go to any thrift store and potentially find something like this. And so I think that signals to folks, "Oh, I can dress like Issa with the stuff that I have in my closet, or I can dress like Issa and go to a thrift store and spend five bucks and just have a really cool vintage T-shirt."

Kiyanna: It also reminds people that they've got some of these things. These things are at grandma's house. They're in their mom's closet. They're in their dad's storage unit. And so I think it's encouraged a lot of people, even outside of apparel, to really think about what they already have. And it's possible that our work and Shiona's work is shifting the way that they think about their own belongings and what's been passed down to them. That's the power of the work. We've got some of this stuff already. And if we don't have it, we've had it. We have access to it. It's about us reclaiming it.

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