We sit down with Russ Gator and Daniel Savory of heritage brand, TSPTR to get their thoughts
on integrity, compromise, and the world’s most famous cartoon beagle
‘I’m not quite sure when we started to feel like a brand, but it all started to feel very real when Nike sued us,’ jokes Daniel Savory of TSPTR. It’s a candid response to a throwaway question, but one that’s very much in line with the brand’s general attitude towards the industry. Historically-driven and subversive by nature, TSPTR have made quite the name for themselves by merging a lofty sense of cultural heritage with an uncompromising design ethos.
It’s an attitude that goes a long way to explaining the brand’s name. TSPTR serves as an acronym for Truth, Symmetry, Pleasure, Taste and Recognition. ‘They’re the five design principles of American modernist and architect, Louis Sullivan,’ explains Russ Gator. ‘He was the father of skyscrapers, and a firm believer in the idea that form follows function. We’re inclined to agree.’ For TSPTR, it’s clear that function boils down to a garment’s ability to tell a story. Narrative and context are paramount, and TSPTR have both in spades.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little: For a fuller picture of what TSPTR really stands for, we have to rewind an hour or so; to before we sat down with Russ and Dan on the leather sofas of Somerset House’s spacious lobby. We have to start at the beginning; to eagerly following Russ back and forth along the galleries of Somerset House’s latest exhibition: Good Grief, Charlie Brown!
The ongoing exhibition aims to bring together Charles M. Schulz’ original Peanuts cartoons with work from a wide range of contemporary artists and designers who, like TSPTR, have found inspiration in the much-loved cartoon characters. Over the past few years TSPTR have dedicated themselves to merging design with visual storytelling. United by mutually creative backgrounds and a shared appreciation of vintage clothing, both Russ and Dan draw inspiration from a melting pot of cultural signposts to create a common aesthetic and a clear message. Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip is one such cultural signpost.
To attend Russ’ talk was to dive head first into a vast ocean of cultural theory: ‘Aesthetics are important for any brand, but the cultural and historical narratives behind them are what really matter.’ In that sense, there’s a serious and significant philosophical overlap between Schultz’ work and that of TSPTR. As Russ explains: ‘Schultz was, first and foremost, an artist. But he was also the man behind the most heavily syndicated characters in history. Peanuts strips were printed in most US newspapers; they had the ear of the whole of the United States. So naturally, there was a commercial aspect to Schultz’ work.’
‘Obviously,’ Russ continues, ‘commercial art has its pressures; Schultz knew all too well that he was only as good as his last cartoon. It’s easy to relate to that position. But despite those pressures, Peanuts entered into the cultural lexicon like nothing else before it. And I mean that literally: Phrases like “good grief”, “security blanket” and, of course, “Happiness is…” simply would not exist without Peanuts. Such is Schulz’ cultural impact.’
Impact is an understatement. As Russ made clear over the course of his talk, the 60’s saw a sudden and serious politicisation of Schulz’ famous illustrated beagle, Snoopy. ‘Almost overnight,’ Russ retells, ‘Snoopy became a symbol of the military’s growing discontent and disillusion, as opposed to a mere totem of blind patriotism.’ Just as Charlie Brown and the gang became a vehicle for understated, implicit social commentary on topics like gender politics and civil rights, so too did Snoopy become the symbolic vessel for the US military’s acerbic wit and cynical banter. Not only did Snoopy appear on a myriad of military-issue garments, vehicles, and field equipment, but he also became a presidential candidate. No mean feat for a cartoon beagle. ‘Snoopy was such a big hit with Californian electorate,’ explains Russ, ‘that the state had to make a law against the election of fictional characters.’
In honouring the legacies of numerous subcultures and social subversions, TSPTR offers a very different take on the concept of heritage: ‘As the many important messages of Snoopy and the gang eventually became diluted and super-commercialised, the real grit of Schultz was lost to many. That’s kind of where we, as TSPTR, come in.’ Subversive and subliminal, TSPTR’s Peanuts-inspired tee shirts, sweaters and pendants serve as a reminder of both Schultz’ socio-political engagement and the significance of just what he managed to achieve during such a pivotal moment in world history. ‘Schultz’ legacy is a testament to the idea of social commentary within one’s power. It’s about maintaining a personal sense of integrity whilst also understanding that once a product is out there, it will have different meanings to many; it will become all things to all people.’
And that brings us back to the leather sofas of the Somerset House lobby, where the conversation has drifted from Peanuts to the building of a brand. TSPTR is, first and foremost, a spectacular balancing act: Russ and Dan tread the line between the creative and the commercial with unflinching deftness and enviable agility. More than anything, though, their brand serves as a heartfelt nod to a shared past and a passionate exploration of American counter-culture.
And these are the said same values to which the duo adhere when asked for their own advice on the building of a brand. ‘Conceive. Build. Protect.’ Says Russ. ‘Absolute commitment is a must, obviously, as is being prepared to do it for next to nothing financially. I mean, initially, at least. Maintain integrity in what you’re doing at all times; but understand the value of compromise.’
‘And while we’re at it,’ adds Dan, ‘understand that the UK market is a fickle thing. By and large, big businesses are less likely to go out on a limb for a smaller brand, or else they’ll want to dilute the hell out of it just to make it safe. So, follow hearts, not trends. Cancel out bullshit with genuine passion. And if you’re getting sued by Nike, who knows, you’re probably on the right track.’EJ
Words by Will HALBERT
Image Credits by PEANUTS & TSPTR