Illicit can't seem to catch a break: from the suicide of brilliant co-founder Martin Emond, to the pillaging of its work from rock stars and backstreet rip-off artists, to the failure of its US partners. So the 15-year-old fashion label and K Road institution found a new voice and a new hip-hop market, though the joke, says Steve Hodge, remains the same. Now the US is calling again. By Florence Noble
Steve Hodge and I sip herbal tea and munch on wine biscuits in the back room of Illicit, his clothing and graphic design company on K Road in Auckland.
While slightly reluctant to talk about himself, Hodge says his first connection with art began on a school exchange programme to Virginia in the US. “I met people who were into the Grateful Dead—Deadheads and people like that. It was the artwork that turned me on: Rick Griffin and Frank Kozik and Coop, and the psychedelic artists from the 60s. I got in a lot of trouble over there.”
That trouble saw Hodge depart Auckland Grammar in the fifth form and find work as a labourer. He used the money he saved to open a poster store named Space Your Face in K Road’s St Kevin’s Arcade. The store attracted a number of artists, including well-known locals Martin Emond and Simon Morse who had recently returned from illustrating comic books and album covers for Misfits singer-songwriter Glenn Danzig in the US.
Emond and Hodge started making posters together. Soon, realising that posters were hard to sell, they put the images onto t-shirts and Illicit Clothing was born.
“He knew I was a bit loose,” says Hodge, “so he was like, ‘If you’re going to work with me you’re going to have to straighten up and fly right’.”
Hodge listened to Emond’s advice. He took Emond’s images, printed them onto t-shirts and got clothing shops to sell them. “I was good at selling things—getting the label going, I suppose.” (Hodge ends most of his sentences with a modest “I suppose” or “you know?”)
The pair moved to LA in an attempt to promote Illicit Clothing and Emond’s artwork in the US. It was an ill-fated venture: Emond suffered from depression and, although he was reasonably successful at the time, he took his life in 2004.
“I think when you go to a town like LA and everyone is talking you up and telling you you’re great and ‘we’re going to do this’ and ‘you’re the guy’, it really took its toll on him after a while, ” Hodge says sadly.
“Instead of just saying ‘no’ like most people in New Zealand would, it seems that Americans love talking and saying they’re going to do something and then eventually don’t. He grew tired of it.”
Hodge decided to find other artists to continue the Illicit brand. With each artist influenced by different styles, the Illicit brand changed with them. “Marty was the king of stupid phrases. The ‘Dodgee mother fucker’ t-shirt has been one that has sold the entire time we have been here. He loved white-trash America and that’s why those Yanks love it, but down here very few people understand his artwork.”
Damian Alexander, the singer for Blindspott, took over the design work and moved Illicit Clothing in a completely different direction—to the hip-hop crowd. Ghostface Killah, The Deceptikonz and many other hip-hop acts started to wear it. Hodge started sponsoring fighters in the kickboxing circles, and Maori and Pacific Islanders began to sport the brand.
“We used to be this emo punk label crossed with rockabilly, and now we have a new artist, Aaron Kerr, some of the style will change again,” says Hodge. “I still get emails from the old customers saying ‘you sold out’ and ‘this is bullshit’. None of our old stores would even look at what we do now.”
A previously unnoticed man sitting at an Apple Mac swivels his chair around to us, overflowing with a sudden lava of words. “There have always been a lot of hidden and dark jokes in our stuff, though,” he blurts. “It takes a few seconds to work out what it says, but the viewer feels they’ve actually gleaned something from it. A little sting in the tail, or a twist.” This is Willi Saunders, the first artist to walk into Hodge’s St Kevin’s Arcade poster store and who now also designs for Illicit.
“We did a t-shirt recently with a pitbull on it,” he says. “It’s a piss-take. You don’t buy a t-shirt with a machete, wear a skull bandana and think, ‘Yeah, this shows everyone how hard and tough I am.’ The feeling is more like, ‘Look how ridiculous this is! There are these two pitbull terriers with ‘Bow Down to the Bow Wows’ on it.’”
Saunders thinks that newer labels, influenced by Illicit, miss that humour. “They’ll have a t-shirt with a machete on it saying, ‘I’ll kill you, motherfucker.’ And they wonder why it won’t sell. No one wants to wear that. Hodge agrees: “There’s always a bit of humour there, or else it would be stink.”
Hodge takes me around the shop to look at his t-shirts and hoodies. “Love thy Haters. New Fu#k’n Zealand,” says one. “Illicit. Low Friends in High Places,” says another, as well as, “Guns for Show, Knives for Pros,” and “ILL” with a switchblade on it. “It’s about not being serious about this,” says Hodge. “We’re just printing a t-shirt.”
A matter Hodge does take seriously: Illicit has been copied more than a few times. “There’s always someone knocking it off,” he says with his face screwed up. “We’ve turned over market stalls in South Auckland before ... They’re pretty good at it.”
The most well-known Illicit copycat is pop artist Pink, who appropriated images by Emond in her music video, ‘U and Ur Hand’ in 2007. “A guy from Rolling Stone asked her about it and she said, ‘I’ve got a book by Martin Emond and I really like his characters,’” says Hodge. “She didn’t ask or thank us. To just do it without asking is a pretty big kick in the nuts.”
Illicit is a family-owned business. Hodge’s father previously ran a jean manufacturing company, which introduced him to the world of clothing. Hodge is aware that his family relies on the success of his brand. This drives him, and so does the buzz he gets from seeing his clothing on people— even if the person is a contestant on the “lowest common denominator” US reality television show Daisy of Love.
Hodge says that it took about five or six years to get Illicit successfully up and running in the States. The label had clothing in large chains such as Hustler and Hot Topic, but in 2007 the recession hit and almost overnight, its US partners went under, taking the accounts with them.
Then about a year ago, The Sharpe Company approached Hodge, asking if it could represent Illicit in the US and look for licensing opportunities. It brokered an even larger clothing line deal with merchandise company Cinder Block, who loved Emond’s artwork, especially his character Switchblade, and began a twoyear deal with Illicit to develop a new range as well as the Switchblade range.
I ask Hodge what he would be if he were not the man behind the potentially very successful US clothing label Illicit. “I wanted to be a policeman,” he says, “but now that I know what I know, I think that’d be a real stupid idea.” I suggest he could become a policeman later on, and when he catches people wearing his t-shirts … “Bust every single one of them,” he interjects. Is that his secret plan? “Yes, to bring down all my friends,” he laughs. Hopefully his friends have as much of a sense of humour as Hodge thinks they do.