A few months ago, I met up with a friend who works in fashion for a socially distanced walk through Prospect Park. I noticed she was wearing a Yankees cap. Three years ago, she would have been dripping in Dries. “These days, it’s all I want to wear,” she said. I’m pretty sure she can’t name anybody on the team.
On a Zoom recently, a friend who definitely doesn’t follow fashion mentioned that he had been out buying pita bread and found himself momentarily paralyzed while looking at something pinned to the wall of the market, unable to answer a question in his head: Why do I covet this not particularly attractive T-shirt from Sahadi’s?
A woman I work with texted me a dating-profile pic in which a handsome bachelor named Matt kneels in a Fanelli’s shirt in front of a Cellino & Barnes advertisement. Gotta love a man who loves his hometown enough to steal a subway ad and pin it up in his apartment, amirite?
For me, the urge first came in the form of a vintage Milton Glaser New York Magazine logo sweatshirt, which blossomed into a deli bouquet of items from places like Nightmoves and Economy Candy. Soon I was buying $10 N.Y. hats from OK Uniform three at a time. In the fall, I started wearing a “baseball” cap from the Frick Collection. It’s a great hat, and I love it, but I haven’t even been to the Frick in years. At Christmas, I gave my son a royal-blue MoMA hoodie and then stole it for myself. What was going on? Why was I having this sudden desire to own the Russ & Daughters shirt Jake Gyllenhaal wore in the Handstand Challenge? Never more than three decades of living here had I let my closet be overrun by memorabilia.
I’m not the only one who’s succumbed to the sentiment.
“This year, I’ve definitely seen more people wearing things you can only find here,” Miyako Bellizzi told me. Bellizzi is the costume designer known for the garish, ultraprecise style of Uncut Gems, which is not just viscerally New York but New York in May 2012, and not just that but New York in May 2012 on 47th between Fifth and Sixth, plus some parts off the LIE. She specializes in the subtle microdifferences of regional dress. “Normally, I travel for work and I’m gone more than I’m here. This year, I never left, and it made me see the city in a new way,” she says. “It made me connect with the people here so much more.” Forced to remain in New York, she has been wearing a knit beanie from B&H Photo Video. She doesn’t even know where the hat came from — it just showed up in her office one day like a good omen.
A year into the pandemic, with high-fashion trends nonexistent, everywhere I look people are cloaking themselves in NYC merch — from the average citizen to the hipsters of Bed-Stuy. And not just the classic I❤️NY tees or Knicks jerseys but hats from Con Ed or their local hardware store. Unable to travel but spared the herds of sidewalk-clogging tourists, New Yorkers have been supporting their neighborhood joints, snapping up polity-branded souvenirs as if we were flyover kids on a shopping spree in a Times Square gift shop. Wearing the “Yankee fitted,” as the nonadjustable cap is known, has long been a way for people to declare unironically, “I am on Team NYC.” Repping the city by repping its establishments — forestalling their bankruptcies one T-shirt purchase at a time — has become a big part of street style.
Desus Nice, who co-hosts the talk show Desus & Mero and the popular podcast Bodega Boys, says he used to see a shirt from a local bar and think, That would be a cool thing in my collection. Since COVID, it’s gone from fashion statement to something more political: Wearing the shirt may mean saving that bar. “We’ve been through a lot,” he says. “We were hit harder than most places in the beginning, and wearing New York on our chests, it’s a way of saying, ‘We’re not going anywhere.’ Everyone is finding new ways to wear their pride for New York, like on bags and hats and pins. And when you see it, it gives you a little warm feeling. It just means so much more now.”
If this wearable city pride had a name, it would be Zizmorcore.
For about 25 years, starting in the early 1980s, Dr. Jonathan Zizmor’s ageless face gazed down upon commuters in nearly every subway car in New York City. His promise of “Beautiful Clear Skin” rang out like a prayer at a time when few things in the city were beautiful, let alone clear — least of all the design of his advertisements. The typography looked like a guy at the local copy shop had set it himself. Sometimes Zizmor was smiling; sometimes his hands were open, as if we had caught him giving a sermon on acne. Always, he wore a white lab coat and a tie. The city skyline sat like a pot of gold under his manic neon rainbow, an aesthetic chaos best described, by my mother, as ongepotchket, a Yiddish term that translates roughly as “too much.”
I cannot overstate the amount of time I spent over the years studying those ads. I can still recite his phone number: 212-594-SKIN. Visually, that era of New York — the mid-’80s to the late ’90s — had a kitschy specificity. It wasn’t “cool” like the mythic Beat era or the heroin chic of the Warhol ’70s. It wasn’t the dawn of punk or hip-hop. Like the other ubiquitous faces of the MTA — lawyers Cellino & Barnes (800-888-8888; “Don’t Wait! Call 8!”) or the AIDS PSA of Julio and Marisol (“I love you, but not enough to die for you!”), Dr. Z forms part of a repressed collective memory of when the city had a shabbier, livable quality.
By the time Dr. Zizmor stopped advertising in 2013, subway ads were sold as single-car takeover affairs for giant banks and multinational soft drinks. I would often hear people claim to be “Brooklyn based,” but, like our former three-term mayor, really they were citizens of the globe acting like they were doing us a favor just by working here. The trajectory seemed to move only in one direction, away from the affordable city of the past millennium and toward one where chipper professionals from elsewhere treated the place like a pleasure garden that needed to mold to them, as opposed to the other way around.
I often longed for the era of New York I had grown up in. Zizmor’s city. Pre-globalization. Pre-Starbucks. Where the bodegas sold dime bags and you could always find a 24-hour Greek diner that served decadent bowls of viscous, cinnamony rice pudding. Maybe there was no High Line, but my parents, schoolteachers, could afford to buy a house and see Les Miz once in a while.
At first glance, Zizmorcore may appear to be an evolution of normcore, a trend we reported on in this magazine back in 2014. Don’t be fooled. Both are about casual style, both are rejections of Eurocentric fashion trends, but normcore celebrated the anti-style style of the suburbs. It was a trend for Mayor Bloomberg’s sanitized business-class lounge of a city. The blank, nowhere-special, “one in 7 billion” ethos of normcore paired perfectly with a Sweetgreen salad delivered by Seamless to a prefurnished condo in Hudson Yards.
Zizmorcore, however, is a rejection of that urge to make every city feel the same. It is an embrace of hyperlocality. It’s “Lemme eat a slice while I sit on this stoop that doesn’t belong to me.”
Zizmorcore is about wearing merch from places that feel truly authentic to New York. One New Yorker’s Zizmorcore is another’s kitschy pabulum. It’s not relegated strictly to obvious classics like the 92nd Street Y, the Oyster Bar, or Spumoni Gardens. Its only rock-solid rule is that the thing you’re repping could not exist in the same way in another city. In some ways, it’s a perfect New York trend because it’s great for arguing about.
Zizmorcore doesn’t try to look glamorous. It’s not harking back to the Bungalow 8, Sex and the City, brunch-as-status-symbol years. It’s Howard Ratner’s midtown. It’s George Costanza’s Upper West Side. It’s Mookie and Radio Raheem’s Bed-Stuy. In that regard, Zizmorcore is selling the wildest fantasy of all: that anybody can live a regular life here. Find love, raise a family, and buy a removable car stereo at J&R Computer World.
If you’re trying to decide what is truly Zizmorian, consider the following: It’s not only about how long a place has existed; it’s also about vibes. Who started it? Who goes there now? What kind of New York does it seek to cultivate? Does it cater to some nerdy, hyperspecific niche of fandom or culture? Does it capture some fundamental quality of living here?
Some things that are Zizmorcore: a Zabar’s reusable tote. A Gray’s Papaya tee. A hoodie from Playground Coffee. Anything from Keens. Fairway. The Sanitation Department. Reading “Page 6.” Buying in bulk from Economy Candy. Eastern Athletic. Film Forum and Metrograph. Shopping at Century 21. Vintage Pearl Paint caps. Fran Lebowitz, but also John Wilson (who, incidentally, has a Dr. Zizmor ad in his living room).
Some things that are all over New York but are decidedly not Ziz: Equinox. Drybar. Shake Shack. Sugar Factory. Whole Foods. No matter how good it is, and even if it started here, a brand designed to be exported to any city in the world simply isn’t part of what we’re talking about (Cha Cha Matcha, Sky Ting, Kith, Nobu, and SoulCycle all fall into this category). High-fashion brands pair well with Zizmorcore — Mel Ottenberg, the creative director of Interview magazine, says he likes to mix it with staples like a Prada down coat and Helmut Lang jeans — but they cannot by themselves be Zizmorian.
“It’s not about having the latest status sneakers,” according to Ottenberg. He describes his perfect version of Zizmorcore as “a heather gray Russell Athletic sweatsuit you might find at Modell’s,” paired with a T-shirt from a local hardware store or pizza joint that you actually frequent. He’s always looking for something novel that another local might appreciate, like the tees from Pines Liquor Store and C.O. Bigelow he bought during lockdown.
The civic-mindedness of choosing to represent your hardware store or your fishmonger isn’t incidental, as Desus pointed out — it’s often expressly the point. Places like Merch 4 Relief cropped up during the pandemic to sell limited-edition hoodies and tees to raise money for restaurants that could no longer make rent.
This isn’t your typical hipster trend because, for the most part, it’s sincere and not exclusive to “hipsters.” Your mom and dad also look great in a Barney Greengrass fish cap. Anybody can carry a Halal Guys water bottle or wear a Scarr’s Pizza shirt. Sure, there’s something wry about wearing an MTA jacket, but the gag isn’t about appropriation so much as celebration and support. In a gig economy, the promise of a municipal-union job with a pension seems genuinely aspirational. And the subway, our lifeblood, is in trouble. Buying a Wo Hop tee affirms your support for a struggling Chinatown. If you’re wearing a Punjabi Deli hoodie, it’s probably because you love your $2 curry.
Signaling your neighborhood affiliation or status through NYC institutions, rather than, say, a Celine bag, can quickly lead to a competition for who is the realest New Yorker — especially for people who grew up here and can claim to have an original T-shirt because their parents were regulars at wherever. For certain downtown spots like the Odeon, Lucien, or Raoul’s, there’s a tinge of elitism to saying, “I actually went there back in the ’90s,” or maybe, “I know the owners.” Carrying a Citarella tote can be code for “I am the type of person who grew up eating gourmet black-and-white cookies.”
Or it can just be funny, like a guy who sells weed for a living wearing a Goldman Sachs fleece. In fact, NYC merch is often a subtle inside joke. Ottenberg recently Instagrammed himself working out in a Ralph Lifshitz T-shirt — a spoof of the Ralph Lauren logo made by Noah Rinsky, a screenwriter and bartender who runs the Instagram account @oldjewishmen. (You can be sure he posted video of Jerry Nadler and his Zabar’s bag at the impeachment hearings with the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song playing over it.) This year, as his bartending job dried up, Rinsky has been supporting himself by making merch for his account. Although old Jewish men aren’t exactly proprietary to this city, they are perhaps at their most plentiful and stylish here, a cliché Rinsky has turned into a business. When I asked him what makes New York style so recognizable, he echoed Ottenberg: “There’s a disjointedness about it that’s in no way cheesy. None of it goes together, but it all goes together great.”
Collecting the sartorial artifacts of the city was once a niche hobby for people like the obsessive Mordechai Rubinstein, a longtime New York style fixture and fashion consultant. Rubinstein was snapping up Pearl Paint caps and New York Sanitation uniforms long before most of us were even thinking about them. He says he once bought a hat right off the guy who was working the door at Peter Luger. “I love something where you can’t just see it on Instagram and buy it,” he says. “For instance, wearing an Odeon hat was cooler when it wasn’t on the menu, you know?”
People looking for local gear can turn into hypebeasts for the city by collecting its most obscure items. That kind of one-upmanship makes sense if you consider that it’s more difficult to find an original Crazy Eddie shirt than a Supreme hat these days.
Jessica Gonsalves and Brian Procell, who deal in high-ticket vintage streetwear and exclusive vintage New York items, say that customers were clamoring for their Lower East Side store to reopen after the lockdown. “We’ve always thought of the store kind of like a New York gift shop,” Procell says. Some of their most coveted tees sell for hundreds of dollars, and their collection of old niche New York tees numbers in the thousands. It includes every one of the commemorative “blackout” tees (as in I SURVIVED THE BLACKOUT OF 1977). Some are for sale, some aren’t, but if the Metropolitan Museum wants to come calling, these two have a great show in mind.
Stores like Fantasy Explosion in Williamsburg indulge the impulse to have something nobody else has but don’t take it to that extreme. Most of its tees top out at $30. The owner, Kevin Fallon, has been picking rare vintage clothes from the tristate area for the past eight years. He says that for his customers, the pride of living in New York City was always there, but “moments like these put a mirror to it and expose it in the best way possible.” He’s not interested in exploiting that at all: “Probably the best takeaway is that I get to give these things back to people who otherwise would never have had them.”
At the other end of the spectrum, an artist who goes by An Honest Living makes bootleg versions of merch for defunct institutions, like the Official Unofficial AHL x Belmont Park Degenerate Gambler ‘Eddie Mush’ Tee.™ The homages walk a fine line between humor and guile but ultimately land on earnest. That earnestness dovetails with the political moment, too.
After the murder of George Floyd and the cathartic protests in the streets, a heartbroken group of trendsetters, organized by Supreme’s Aaron Wiggs with his friends Perry Goodman and Sachiko Clyde, started a sidewalk sale in McGolrick Park in Greenpoint. What started as a few friends selling old skateboards and clothes grew to include people like Bella Hadid and Chloë Sevigny chipping in items from their personal closets. Soon, the sales had raised more than $266,000, which went to causes like Black Women’s Blueprint and Black Trans Femmes in the Arts. (Wiggs never expected that kind of money and is now meticulously documenting the donations for tax season — which is nerve-racking, he says, because he’s “hoping the IRS doesn’t do anything wack.”) The hyperlocal merch they made became a kind of secret handshake for the people who came to the sales, signaling not only neighborhood affiliation but political commitment to an equitable city. Last summer, there was nothing cooler than buying a Cookies Hoops shirt in McGolrick Park, Brooklyn.
No one embodies the current obsession with the city quite like Nicolas Heller, a.k.a. NewYorkNico. A New York kid in his 30s, Heller has become something of a local apostle, tirelessly promoting mom-and-pops hit hard during the pandemic. He loves to champion the people who make New York unique. Characters like “Larry the Pigeon Man” or “the Green Lady of Brooklyn” are as likely to show up on his Instagram as Desus and Mero or Jada-kiss. Early on in lockdown, when it was harder to go up to people and talk to them, Heller made national news with his contest to find the best New York accent. He’s a man so intertwined with his hometown he has rebranded himself as a living logo. Some of the serious mayoral candidates of 2021 have reached out to him. (He has even become a contributor to New York Magazine.)
Heller admits to wearing an “obnoxious” amount of NYC merch, which he mixes with Timberland boots and, of course, a Yankee fitted. He even made hats that say THANK YOU, DR. ZIZMOR! (Sorry, they’re sold out.)
After the success of the battle of the accents, Heller launched his Best New York T-Shirt contest in April 2020 and promised to produce the winners. Sales from the shirts exceeded $65,000, which he donated to God’s Love We Deliver and the Campaign Against Hunger. The collection hit at exactly the right moment for a population eager to show off its newfound civic devotion. Everywhere you looked, the slogan NEW YORK TOUGH flashed on LED screens.
After the summer’s protests, with Trump’s drumbeat of “New York is dead,” New Yorkers dug in harder. Community fridges popped up in Brooklyn, supplied by Bed-Stuy’s Playground Coffee and its already socially engaged, politically radicalized klatch. Fund-raisers for everything from the Emergency Release Fund to Building Black Bed-Stuy became virtual ways to help ailing businesses. Heller auctioned off two framed subway ads for Cellino & Barnes, fetching more than $5,000 (for a donation to charity). His Best New York Photo contest raised nearly a quarter-million dollars for racial-justice organizations like Warriors in the Garden, an NYC-based collective of nonviolent activists devoted to dismantling systemic racism.
This February, on Lunar New Year, Heller released a subway campaign for the ages, recruiting famous New Yorkers to record custom messages. Jerry Seinfeld, Young M.A, Bowen Yang, Natasha Lyonne, Bob the Drag Queen, and about two dozen others can now be heard across the Metropolitan Transit Authority telling us, in their very New Yawkiest of accents, to wear our masks “ova the nostrils!” Everybody involved donated their time (even Fran Lebowitz!) in what can only be described as a true mitzvah for commuters.
Like a lot of people who move to New York, I felt like a New Yorker long before I had the right to call myself one. In fact, I felt like one before I’d officially moved here. I can even recall the exact moment in 1986, while visiting my soon-to-be stepfather in my soon-to-be new city, when I thought, I may live elsewhere, but I will never belong anywhere else. I was 10, and I’d found my spiritual resting place standing outside Canal Jean on Broadway.
Was I an overly dramatic kid, drunk on the perfume of honey-roasted nuts? Perhaps. All I knew was that in Washington, D.C., where I had been living for the five previous years, no one looked as cool as the people coming in and out of that store. It wasn’t just the spring of their curls or the tightness of their tank tops I wanted to emulate; it was their confidence — the way they lit one another’s cigarettes with the end of another cigarette, the way they zigzagged around every minor sidewalk obstacle. I felt if I could only carry that black-and-white-checked shopping bag stuffed with vintage clothes up and down that Riviera of style spanning Broadway from Canal to Houston, then everything wrong in my little life would be okay.
As years go, 1987 was a rough one in New York. When we finally arrived in Brooklyn, I began my tortured life as a sixth-grader at M.S. 51. Our house was broken into, our car was stolen, and my parents were mugged in Times Square. I used to walk home along Fifth Avenue in Park Slope and scoop handfuls of safety glass from the piles at shattered bus stops. Then came Black Monday, and though my family was psychically a million miles away from Wall Street, I gathered it was very, very bad. All the headlines seemed to be about murder.
My joy at being in New York, however, was undiminished. I had already memorized the route to downtown Manhattan from our visits. Disregarding strict instructions to avoid the subway, within weeks of arriving I had convinced my new friends to sneak into “the city” every chance we could. We would steal quarters from the change bowl, buy a five-pack of the small tokens with the Y-shaped cutout, and set out to find glory under Dr. Zizmor’s watchful countenance.
I imagine that as life opens back up, some of this desire to smother ourselves in local merch will subside. I hope we’ll reenter street life with renewed sartorial gusto — free to be our own versions of the colorful characters we love to see walking around the city. It’s also likely that we’re in for some rough economic times. The tax base is shifting. Rents in Manhattan are lower than they were a few years ago. Storefronts remain unfilled. But for the people who didn’t move away, this is our reminder that the local community life was always what made it so great to live here. In the meantime, be sure to hold on to your I STAYED IN NYC DURING COVID-19 tees. You never know what they might be worth someday.
*This article appears in the March 1, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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