T-Shirts with a Multicultural Message

Magdalena Santos, owner of Magdalena Concepts (Photo by Aleksandra Slabisz for Voices of NY)

The screen-printed T-shirts from Magdalena Concepts start a conversation. Made in Brooklyn, the designs Magdalena Santos makes are inspired by cultures from around the world, including Latin America and Europe.

“No two T-shirts are alike, because every time you pass ink through the screen the print comes up a little bit different,” says Santos, the owner and designer of Brooklyn-based Magdalena Concepts. She uses water-based ink to print on T-shirts, pullovers, onesies and totes. Each shirt goes through her hands, which, she says, allows her to control the quality of each single item.

Santos, a graduate of literature, languages and the arts at New York University, creates two new collections, about 4-5 new designs per year, but they often take months to develop. Each is well thought out and thoroughly researched. One of the most popular ones is Frida Kahlo’s unibrow-swallow from the artist’s self-portrait. “You don’t necessarily know right away what it is. From far away it looks like a weird bird, but Frida people know,” says Santos.

She recently took interest in the mosaics of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. “It took years of training for those craftsmen to be chosen for this job and decades to execute them. I did one design, but I looked at the photo of one mosaic for years before I put it on the shirt,” says Santos. Her other designs are more conceptual – for instance, Frederick Douglass is pictured in the “American Virtues” series, in which she pairs underrepresented American heroes with classical virtues, or her series on women-kings. (Douglass represents Fortitude.)

A design inspired by the Alhambra (Photo by Aleksandra Slabisz for Voices of NY)

She has an image of King Frida on a T-shirt, and plans on printing images of King Hatshepsut and King Jadwiga – a figure from Poland’s history who she learned about at a Polish history class at NYU. “Jadwiga was a queen but she named herself a king. Culturally we are used to the label ‘queen’ for women, and women call themselves queens. But you start to think of the gender roles and start asking why queen and not king,” says Santos.

What she likes about her T-shirts is that they start a conversation “about feminism, history, art, independent designers, local shopping or whatever else.” Besides, a good T-shirt creates a community. “Jeans and a T-shirt – that’s every American’s uniform, but I don’t necessarily want to make T-shirts for everybody. However, I think everybody should ultimately love what they wear,” she says.

Santos was born and raised in New Jersey, in a family of immigrants from different parts of the world. Her mother immigrated from Poland, while her U.S.-born father’s family roots are in Puerto Rico. She grew up surrounded by a lot of Polish artwork. “My mom came here in the ’70s and was very nostalgic for anything Polish, so she collected things that reminded her of Poland. I remember those really awesome woolen weavings we had on the wall, very interpretive,” says Magdalena, who used to spend vacations with her relatives in Poland. It was her Polish aunt who taught her to paint with oils, when she was 12.

The influence of the Polish culture can also be traced in Santos’ designs. One of them is a folk decorative pattern that she prints on T-shirts, totes and onesies. “It is a really cute and baby-friendly graphic motif,” she says.

However, Magdalena Concepts’ most popular item is the series of “International Brooklyn” shirts. These prints refer to Brooklyn in various languages: German: “Ich bin ein Brooklyner”, “Brooklyn” in the Solidarity font, “Hello Brooklyn” in Arabic or “Brooklyn is my motherland” in Russian. “Some 60 percent of Brooklyn households speak a second language at home. You can live in Brooklyn, but be from somewhere else and be equally authentic in both,” says the designer, who is married to a Brazilian. In addition to speaking Polish very well, she has made Portuguese her household language.

An array of screened T-shirts – and a onesie that says “Hello Brooklyn” in Arabic. (Photo by Aleksandra Slabisz for Voices of NY)

Santos is an artist at heart but with a very strong entrepreneurial background. Her Polish-born mother, who got a master’s in English upon immigrating to the U.S. and planned to be a university teacher in Poland, ended up building a respectable cleaning service she has been running for 28 years. Her grandfather in Poland had a barber shop and her great-grandparents were farmers. The grandfather on her father’s side had a vacuum and sewing repair shop. “So I am a third generation of entrepreneurs of some kind,” says Santos. She runs her business with her husband Alexandre Santos, who takes care of logistics and is Magdalena’s chief advisor and most avid supporter.

They started printing shirts in 2010, out of their Brooklyn apartment. Then, when the baby came two years later, they moved the workshop to Gowanus, where they neighbor with Brooklyn Art Space. It is where they now make hundreds of T-shirts and onesies a year. Santos currently has one full-time assistant and a couple of dependable freelancers she engages in the production process when demand spikes. With her business growing each year she keeps her eye on a bigger studio space, possibly a storefront.

So far she sells her products online, on Etsy, through her website magdalenaconcepts.com and also, under her brand name, through independently-owned boutiques like Trunk in Dumbo and others throughout Brooklyn. She also does custom orders for schools, nonprofits and other small brands, with whom she works to create designs they need.

Most recently the designer took part in a winter sale at the Patagonia store in SoHo, organized by Project JUST – an organization dedicated to helping consumers make better choices and reach for items that are responsibly and transparently made. “Magdalena made a perfect fit for us. She makes sure she knows the entire supply chain of her T-shirts and employs sustainable practices in every step of production, including the safer and healthier water-based ink,” said Natalie Grillon, Project JUST co-founder and CEO. “In this sense she is unique on the New York market. Magdalena has designed each print herself, she sketched it and handprinted it onto each shirt. I think this is truly a labor of love,” added Grillon.

Although there are many independent Brooklyn brands that print T-shirts, and many – like she does – that focus on ethical manufacturing and eco-conscious production, Santos hasn’t so far found anybody who deals with the same subject matter. “I kind of like to say that I make graphic tees for grown adults. We usually think about graphic tees as being juvenile, but they don’t have to be. They are comfortable self-expressions and we should be allowed to have that at any age,” she says.

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