Clayton Patterson’s hand on the history of New York’s Lower East Side over the past thirty-plus years is undeniable. As an artist, filmmaker and photographer, Patterson’s unending political, cultural, and at times illegal, documentation of LES life has captured everything from drag queens and tattoo artists, to police brutality. As a gallery owner, Patterson has shown work from Dash Snow and Charles Gatewood. With Captured: A Film History of the Lower East Side, Clayton’s documentation of the last free period of the LES became a documentary. In the 80’s he became a happenstance cap-maker and his embroidered jackets and caps soon found their way to Hollywood (Mick Jagger and Matt Dillon were fans). BULLETT sat down with the LES “preservationist” to talk embroidered caps, changing culture and the struggle of the young artist.
BULLETT: I want to talk about your hats, because I thought they were really awesome.
Clayton: There’s a documentary called Captured made by Dan Levin, Ben Solomon, and Jenner Furst, which explains my history in a broad way. I started doing these books about the changes in the history of the Lower East side. One day I’m going down Avenue A and I see this shop guy making baseball caps, his name was Ben, and this was in 1985 or ‘86. I asked him if he could make me a baseball cap, and then there was a sports guy next door who had material that was used for sport jackets and could be cut up. I got some of the fabric and I did my first cap with the fabric and an iron on kind of design. I found out Ben did signatures on baseball caps with an embroidery machine- like the backs of the Savage Skulls, the street gang in the Bronx- all of a sudden I realize that he could draw designs with the embroidery machines. So Ben put drawings that I gave him on caps and we made the first Clayton cap. Industry started to leave New York and eventually he went out of business. But me and my wife Elsa were able to buy all the machinery at bankruptcy sales, and then Elsa started making the caps and got really good at it.
We were the first baseball cap to put a signature, a label, and embroidery going around the cap. We really changed the whole history of the baseball cap. We also did some jacket backs. We did some for people like Jazzy Joyce and Mick Jagger .
People found out about you because?
Well the big break was when we got into Elle Magazine, and then all of a sudden we made it into several fashion magazines. Making baseball caps kept us in line for quite a while. A lot of caps made it to Hollywood, like every time Matt Dillon would shoot a movie we would make him a baseball cap based on the theme of the movie So we kept doing it for a while and then we eventually petered out on it because we had other things going on. But being an artist, one of the things that you learn is life is a journey, and you kind of start off with one concept when you’re young about being an artist and what it entails or and then as you pursue that and life goes on, it changes how you approach your art. For a time, if I wasn’t selling paintings or I was selling hats, and I looked at them like little sculptures and that was the art. Once in GQ Magazine, Richard Merkin called our caps one of the two best baseball caps made in America.
Do people still contact you, looking for caps?
Oh yeah, I get a lot of people asking. I still want to find somebody who knows how to do the manufacturing. The world has changed so much, and it is too much work for us. We tried for a while. But now, there are so many people who have copied the idea. I’ve seen a lot that have similar ideas. We were the first brand, and the most outwardly recognizable. At that time you obviously had different clothing brands, but the baseball cap wasn’t really thought of as a design element and then the baseball cap as a design element made its way into a huge industry. We were kind of the beginning part of making that change and that trend. You know like getting a baseball cap into GQ magazine, that’s like what are you kidding me? At that time it was like cap Diesel power, or just the Yankees in the front, or sometimes they’d have a promotional hat with just a silkscreen on the front. And that’s it. And so by embroidering them as we did- and we made them in wool, we made them in cotton, we made them in different colors. I mean we made them with leather peaks. We did all that stuff first.
So how did everything wind down? Was it slow or was it all at once?
Well one way is that it got to the point where it didn’t stand out in the same way, so that was less interesting for me. I mean, before you could tell from right across the street, “Bingo there’s the cap.” Plus we just got into being really busy with other stuff; you know it was the late 80’s, we got into the politics and documented that for a couple of years. But the point is, in order to survive as a creative person and do your own thing in a some kind of way, you have to come up with something that sort of satisfies your needs, you know your ambition, your creativity, what you can do, your aesthetics, and you try and find that thing. And if you’re one of the lucky ones, you do. It’s like the period I went through with baseball caps was great, I loved it. It’s a blessing. And it’s nice to sort of go into a field and have an original contribution, and you know a lot of times when someone comes in that isn’t really apart of the business, they do make an original contribution because they know what it is they want to do and they know different parts about it but their thought at the end result is different than what’s normally there, so it creates a whole other form of originality. And so like I said there are all these sorts of lessons in this.
Visit Clayton Patterson HERE