East End locals have been repping New York Sunshine silkscreened t-shirts for years, but what was once a small local brand has since grown into an internationally recognized fashion and art line. We caught up with Southampton native John “Sunshine” Margaritis and his right-hand Luke O’Connor to get the scoop on all things New York Sunshine—from the places they’ve been (like popping up at Art Basel), to the places they’ll be (any NYC’ers up for basketball on a barge?).
So tell me a bit about how you got started.
Sunshine: (To Luke) …how did we get started?
Luke: He’s been making t-shirts for like 12-13 years.
S: Yeah kind of like just as a hobby, I made them in high school. My dad’s friend had a silkscreen factory for doing art prints, but we did some clothing with him and I sold them at Flying Point and stuff when I was younger. But the last four years it’s been full-time—it’s not just for fun, it’s our job. Well it’s still fun…but its our job.
Do you have any sort of formal background in fashion or art?
S: I have zero fashion background. Just growing up and liking clothing and liking sneakers and shopping in SoHo, I’m always looking at what everyone’s wearing and whether I like it or not. Art school-wise, I went to the School of Visual Arts for a year and a half and dropped out, then the New School/Parsons for half a semester then dropped out. I don’t really like a classroom setting for anything. And I kind of like learning through trial and error, just kind of doing it and seeing what happens.
So you’re not still using your dad’s friend’s silkscreen factory I’m assuming?
S: No, four years ago, our first year, we had everything manufactured in China. Then we realized we wanted to do it in the states and we moved it to California. And this year is the first year it’s all made in New York, which we’re excited about. I’ve always wanted to make everything in New York, but the whole clothing production industry can be kind of secretive and we had a hard time figuring out the right people and factories to link up with. Last spring we met someone who pointed us in the right direction, and now we can finally say all our clothing is made in New York.
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Do you guys still have a presence overseas?
S: Yeah, we wholesale to a bunch of stores in Japan, Paris—pretty much all over.
Did you always plan on taking the brand further than New York?
S: Yeah, I mean, there’s a store called colette in Paris, it’s one of my favorite stores in the world. It’s a store I’ve always wanted to be in in some capacity since the first time I went there. So when we got in there with the clothing it was really cool. And then, we showed the clothing line there but at the same time we got to hang all the hoops, all the art we had been working on too, which was super amazing.
Despite having a global presence now, your line is primarily influenced by your experience growing up on Long Island—tell me about that.
S: Yeah, I mean, we try to keep that balance between the beach and the city. When I first started I always thought it was so interesting having Manhattan and SoHo and that whole scene, but also being involved out East with the ocean and the whole surf thing. So that was kind of like a weird mix or juxtaposition of those two worlds that we try to incorporate.
L: They’re both major influences.
S: We try to keep a nice balance. And that’s where the basketball side and the very black and white gritty thing come from. I think it’s unique to New York in the sense that there aren’t too many places with big cities and oceans like this. And by keeping a real New York City feel to it we stay away from getting too surf and being labeled as a ‘surf’ brand. I just want it to be a New York brand.
Are you bringing back the “black and white gritty thing” this season?
S: This season the line is pretty colorful, and we pretty much have a full menswear line. We just went full-blown, super colorful flowers and, I don’t know, we kind of got sick of the black and white thing a little bit and I was like, “Fuck it we’ll just do like super beachy…the opposite.” It’s still cohesive and shows a story, but it’s just a little bit more colorful.
So it sounds like things change season to season depending on the vibe you’re going for – how would you describe the first few years of NY Sunshine, when you were like selling locally, compared to what the brand is now?
S: Well I mean I didn’t really know what market I wanted to be in, in the sense that when you first start making something… like, I’d be happy to sell at Zumiez, you know? Actually Zumiez isn’t a good example cause we’d actually be making money if we sold at Zumiez. But we sell at stores like colette in Paris and Barneys in Japan, and I like to keep a balance in the sense that we also sell at more local surf shops, but it has to be a right fit.
L: There’s more direction now, each new line and art series is there to tell a story.
S: Yeah, we’re always working on the vision and zoning in on where we want to be. And being able to have our own space like [the Surf Club] in Southampton, it’s nice cause I can display it the way I want to as opposed to handing it off to someone else.
A photo posted by Sunshine Surf Club (@sunshinesurfclub) on
I feel like I’ve seen on social media that you guys have been doing a lot of, like, labor-intensive construction? Tell me a bit about the New York Sunshine team and what you guys do.
S: Well we started a team…
L: The Install Team!
S: The New York Sunshine Install Team. Yeah I mean my dad…another thing in my life is my dad’s a builder—he builds houses but he’s also a master craftsman cabinetmaker. So maybe in the last 2 years he kept saying, “Just give me something to make, if you can think of it I can build it.” So then we just started kind of coming up with concepts and ideas of things. The first thing was the basketball hoop with the wave photo behind it.
L: He took the backboard off of their driveway basketball hoop and then figured it out from there.
S: Then we started making them for real, to sell. My dad would make the wooden backboard and then we’d cut the Plexiglas and—he’s just really good at making things. So Luke and me come up with the concepts and then we execute them together, and it’s awesome. I mean he’s awesome, he’s a builder and he builds homes, but he’s also a full-blown artist that’s never done anything art-wise—or he has, but very on the low—so a big goal of mine would be to make a bunch of art with him as he kind of stops building houses and we start dabbling in the art world.
So I’m gathering you’re of the “dream it and do it” mentality?
S: Yeah, I kind of get like—I don’t know, I think of an idea and then I’ll kind of let it sit with me and then I’ll feel like I have to just make it somehow. We always kind of present these random ideas to people. The glass basketball is one of the most recent things we worked on. We just found a glassblower in Long Island City, and he’s used to building chandeliers and lighting and we’re like, “Can you make a glass basketball?” And at first they always say, “What the fuck are you talking about? No.” But we’ll kind of show them what we’ve done in the past and how it relates or whatever. It was just an idea that we had, to make a glass basketball and have goldfish swim around in it, It might just sit on a bookshelf and end up not being much of anything, or maybe we end up making 40 of them for a wall or something. It’s kind of just something we did for fun, and we’ll see if we can make them.
So this has clearly become more than just a fashion-based brand.
S: Yeah, we’re kind of bouncing between the art and design world, and fashion, just to kind of be working on more than one thing at a time and be able to switch it up and not get stuck in this fashion thing, or the art thing. We designed a space in Miami for Art Basel this year for the second year in a row. We did this big wavy art installation, and then we displayed a little line that we did in collaboration with that art installation. So we were able to mix the art and fashion thing for Art Basel, which was right where we want to be.
A video posted by Sunshine Surf Club (@sunshinesurfclub) on
Did your success in Miami influence you to consider opening a store in New York City?
S: I would love to, it’s just so expensive, but I would love to do something. We were able to get a hook up in Miami through someone we met out East at surf lessons, which is where we make a lot of connections. If we were able to get hooked up a little bit in New York it’d be awesome, but we would have to sell so much stuff to make it work. Which would be a lot of pressure, but the amount of people that would see it and the amount of eyes on it in New York would be totally insane, so it goes both ways.
What’s next for you guys?
S: Probably bankruptcy! (Laughs.) Showing this next line is going to be big, we’re doing this big cement box that I think stands alone as a piece of art—it’s huge and weighs like 4,000 pounds—and having a model wearing our new line and interacting with it. It’s that mix of art and design and fashion that we want to do. We’re also trying to put a basketball court on a barge for a summer basketball league in the city. We would be designing it, which I think would be like the coolest thing to happen in New York in a while. I think it would be nuts.
We just want to be creative and live creatively and do all that sort of fun stuff if it’s for ourselves or helping others—you know, we’re down for whatever. As long as we’re having fun.
Where can we find you this summer?
S: This summer we’ll be out East. I’ll be at the Surf Club at 28 Nugent Street in Southampton, Luke does full blown surf camp and surf lessons like 16 hours a day. And I’ll be in the city a little bit if we can get that basketball-league-on-a-barge thing to go, but for the most part yeah, we’ll be out in Southampton.
Is there anything I missed or anything else you want to add?
S: Well Luke’s single if you want to give him like a shoutout, or put his number, maybe. That would be awesome.