Back in high school, I used to skip senior events to go to an abandoned building by myself and paint up a wall with graffiti," says Enrique Mastrapa. "I went to Overtown one day and did this mural of my tag name in big block letters. Then one day I was watching TV at my friend's house, flipping through the channels, and I see this girl in a music video on Telemundo with her hands up on a wall, singing, and it was my painting behind her."
Mastrapa is a 22-year-old urban fashion designer from Cutler Bay.
He and Greg Morales, also age 22, are talking about their business, Abstrack Clothing Company, while grabbing a bite on South Beach. They wear shirts that clearly show how street art has influenced their work. Loud, vibrant colors depict the stony faces of "fallen soldiers of hip-hop," complete with splatter effects and the aerosol feel of graffiti. Morales's tee is a tribute to Big Punisher, the Bronx-born Terror Squad member who died of a heart attack in 2000, while Mastrapa shows off green skulls and crossbones in a geometric pattern.
In the past year, their designs have attracted some big names. Terror Squad founder Fat Joe was featured on the cover of The Source wearing one of the duo's creations. KRS-1 is another customer, and Shaquille O'Neal recently commissioned a few pairs of their painted Nike Air Force 1's.
Indeed, the custom-clothing trend has hit so hard that Nike is taking cues from artists like Morales and Mastrapa, releasing shoes with clear plastic toes, plaid patterns, screaming patent-leather hues, and more. "We designed this shoe with this spider web design on the toe and were selling it on eBay," Morales says. "And a year later, Nike came out with a shoe almost exactly like it. The Web was even in the same place."
The two say they're more flattered than outraged at the copycatting. After all, they use the company's shoes for their designs.
Then a street vendor approaches and tries to sell us CDs from a local independent label. "That's the same way we started out," Mastrapa says. "Going from barber shop to barber shop with suitcases of our shoes and shirts."
Back in the beginning, he explains, he lived in a two-bedroom with his cousin. "I would have five or six shirts lying to dry on each bedroom floor, three to four on each bed, anywhere they would fit. The whole place would be fumes. Most of the time, we'd end up not sleeping for two days, just living off the Little Caesar's diet, getting delirious. Actually we lived off that diet for at least twelve months."
Suddenly he pauses, smiles, and bursts out laughing. "If you don't love the struggle, you're not going to get no love for what you do."
The conversation is interrupted when a straight-faced, tall, light-skinned black guy carrying a boom box and wearing a huge white Wu-Tang T-shirt comes marching through the throngs on Ocean Drive. "Even he bought one of our shirts," Mastrapa says.
No lie. The man goes by Radarukus, and he's an old-school member of the Wu-Tang clan. The tattoos on his forearm prominently advertise this. His shoes are black patent-leather low-tops with a picture of a pile of cash etched onto the upper. "Yeah, I saw these guys at the Flamingo Towers," Rada says. "They said check this shit out. The shirt was banging it had Big L on it so I picked one up on the spot. I'm a fashion motherfucker. I don't give a fuck what it is." He gives a little smile, revealing a serious gold grill covering his bottom row of teeth. "I like what these brothers is all about; they're doing something fresh. This is the real hip-hop shit.... I'm just waiting for these motherfuckers to come up with a Wu-shirt."
"We'll do that, just for you guys, though," Mastrapa says. "Only for you guys to wear."
He's hustling. Years of that behavior have landed Abstrack Clothing in stores from Overtown to downtown to South Beach. Among the locations where their stuff is sold is Philly in Miami (1059 Collins Ave., Second Fl., Miami Beach), which is right around the corner from where we sit.
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This particular store yesterday attracted hip-hop all-star Pharrell Williams of Neptunes fame, says owner Damon, who didn't want his last name mentioned. It carries custom-designed AF1's from more than ten different artists, which sell for between $180 and $1000 a pair.
When I walked in, a bright-eyed, athletic, six-foot-four man was asking the owner about placing an order. His name: Jeff Greer, and he's a professional basketball player now between teams. He has played for Strasbourg in France's Ligue Nationale de Basketball. "Custom clothing is off the chain," he says. "It's the meshing of graffiti with fashion. You can go to New York, and they'll have some different shoes, but those in the window there," he says, pointing at the colorful display of hand-painted shoes, "they don't have those."
Morales and Mastrapa have made treks from Harlem to Atlanta to get a grip on where the style is coming from and anticipate where it's going. "We're trying to bring the real feeling back to hip-hop, not just be clones of what's selling like everybody else," Mastrapa says.
The next stop for these guys is Vegas, where the MAGIC Marketplace, among the world's largest fashion industry trade shows, is scheduled August 28-31. Among the items they plan to show: women's pumps, which they've recently begun customizing. The designers are excited about the event but also a tad anxious. "At this show, we could get half a million orders," Morales says.