Derek Glass designs the haute couture of T-shirts

by Amy Kingsley

‘“That’s the uniform: shell toes, jeans and a T-shirt,’” says Derek Glass as he stands in his sparse home office occupied in one corner by his desktop computer and its modular support.

On his feet he wears a pair of classic white adidas, neat medium-wash jeans and a royal blue T-shirt of his own design. The shoes and T-shirt are such integral parts of his fashion equation that he combined them in the first silk-screen he burned for his emerging Manifest T-shirt brand. That first small silk-screen sits on top of a bookshelf jammed with magazines, graffiti art and other artifacts from hip-hop culture.

It’s a simple profile of the ’80s-era skate shoe captioned by ‘“Classic Sole.’” Most people would see only footwear in the graphic, but those are not Glass’ targeted customers. He aims his Manifest brand at those folks interested in the sneaker as icon, the people who buy and wear shirts that advertise their influences and cultural preferences.

And the Greensboro native has found a market in the international boutiques that specialize in limited-run shirts. Stores in Tokyo, Australia and Puerto Rico carry his designs, as well as some more domestic distributors in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and recently New York. He contacts proprietors of stores that advertise in some of his favorite magazines, but some are skeptical of his southern drawl and Dixie roots.

‘“Sometimes after I tell people where I’m from I’ll hear this pause,’” Glass says. ‘“But there’s good stuff from North Carolina. I mean, Michael Jordan’s from North Carolina.’”

That said, there is nothing intrinsically Southern about the T-shirts produced under the Manifest brand. Most of Glass’ images and inspiration come from hip-hop culture, specifically the old school variety that grew out of New York’s South Bronx and eventually split into an east/west coast rivalry. Some of his text comes from lyrics penned by the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan, Beastie Boys, Run DMC and others.

One especially telling design is a tree ‘— its branches hung with names like Whodini, Eric B and Rakim, Afrika Bambaataa and others. Underneath are the words ‘“Know your roots.’” Hip-hop aficionados will likely identify every one of the dozen or so groups named on the back of the shirt. Those who only know one or two might seek the others in order to increase their musical knowledge.

‘“I’m not trying to retire off this,’” Glass says, ‘“I just like giving people what they want. It’s more educational.’”

Hip-hop is not the only genre of music that Glass listens to, and some of the shirts reflect his diverse tastes. One of his first designs was a black shirt featuring Johnny Cash’s recognizable mug over the word ‘“Sue.’” It sold out before the Cash biopic recently hit theaters, but Glass refrained from reprinting the shirts to profit from the country icon’s resurgent popularity.

Despite a CD collection that spans the Dave Matthews Band, Wu-Tang Clan and Willie Nelson, Glass says hip-hop inspires more of his images. Right now the Beastie Boys play through his computer speakers.

‘“Hip-hop is a little easier to bring to life on a T-shirt,’” Glass says. ‘“I see things when I hear it.’”

Glass’ love for hip-hop and T-shirt culture inspired his interest in designing T-shirts. Frustrated by persistent design ideas and a lack of cool T-shirts in local stores, he eventually bought a book so he could teach himself how to silkscreen. He hand-screened the first few batches of 350 in his house, but the business soon outgrew his home and he handed screening duties off to Custom Screens in Madison. The company still screens the shirts by hand in their sample department.

Eighties pop also played a role in Glass’ design career. The video for ‘“Take on Me’” by A-Ha inspired him to take up drawing, which eventually led to Raleigh’s School of Communication Arts and a graphic design career.

Two years into the T-shirt business, most of his print runs number 3,000. Glass produces nine new designs for each of the two seasons, fall and spring. One shirt of each color and design ends up folded and stacked in one compartment of a large organizer sitting in the entry way to his office.

No stores in North Carolina sell his T-shirts, mostly because of how Glass handpicks his retail outlets. The $25 price tag on an original Manifest design can also be off-putting for Greensboro residents, but denizens of the bigger cities are more used to opening their wallets wide for such T-shirts.

Fashion aficionados need not worry; a storefront for Manifest and other T-shirt brands is among the ideas Glass has for this city. The building would ideally house offices for the Graphic Collective, a graphic design business he runs with two of his friends. The Graphic Collective does branding, design and also produces static-cling covers for I-Pods in several designs.

Between his three jobs (he works full-time for adidas Kids), Glass keeps busy, but that doesn’t keep the ideas from coming. There is the old-school hip-hop station Greensboro needs and the T-shirt designs that wake him up at night. But right now it is a ubiquitous piece of clothing that is getting the Glass name out there.

‘“Everybody has [T-shirts],’” he says. ‘“It’s like a nose ‘— everybody’s got one.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at