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From Faux Pas to Fashion Statement

When bad things happen to good celebrities (or energy companies), Y-Que is all over it.

January 23, 2002|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The T-shirt is so popular that a single store has sold more than 300 in a month. The slogan on it: "Free Winona"--a reference to Winona Ryder's December arrest on suspicion of shoplifting $4,700 worth of merchandise from Saks Fifth Avenue.

Never mind that the 30-year-old actress is free (on $20,000 bail)--it's just the items at the posh Beverly Hills department store that are not. That didn't stop T-shirt creator Billy T from downloading her image from the Web, mocking up a design, printing it on a shirt and having it ready for sale the same day the news broke.

Why are the shirts so popular? "It feels like something you can support politically, even though it's a joke," said Billy Tsangares, a.k.a. Billy T and owner of Y-Que Trading Post, a novelty store on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz that is packed with T-shirts, transvestite dolls, disco balls, incense and other kitsch paraphernalia. "I think people like that sense of radicalness against something that's rather meaningless."

Tsangares has designed hundreds of T-shirts in the 15 years he's been silk screening. Playing off the news, he said he makes about three new designs each week. Last week he threw Enron Corp. and President Bush into the mix with shirts that read "Enron--Evildoer" and "Chew First," a response to the president's recent pretzel mishap.

The 41-year-old designer had tried to combine the two by making the scar on Bush's face into an Enron logo or by twisting the logo into a pretzel, but he couldn't get either to work. "They seemed to be separate issues," he conceded.

Tsangares has made a habit of capitalizing on celebrity faux pas. Building on a tradition of T-shirt protest that began with Huey Newton in the '60s--"Free Huey!"--Tsangares created a "Free James Brown" shirt in 1989 when the soul singer was sent to prison for aggravated assault.

Ditto for Pee-wee Herman after his 1991 arrest for indecent exposure at a Florida adult theater and, most recently, Adam Ant, who last week was committed to a psychiatric hospital for waving a fake pistol at a London pub.

"These people keep getting arrested," said Tsangares, who has fun creating the shirts but who doesn't make much money selling them because their popularity is fleeting. His T-shirt fads last about three months, he estimates.

Halfway toward obsolescence, the "Free Winona" shirt is only now beginning to turn a profit but is still selling strong.

Amber Phillips, a 26-year-old office manager who lives in Silver Lake, was buying one for a birthday present last Thursday. "[My friend] thought it was a scream," said Phillips, who first spotted the shirts the day after Ryder was arrested.

The version she bought was one of Tsangares' originals--pink with a red-carpet photo of Ryder clutching a handbag. That's one of about four versions printed on tank tops, T-shirts and bambis (a single-strap tank) with either the "Free Winona" or "We Believe You" slogans.

Ironically, the image on the most popular version of the shirt isn't really Ryder but a picture from a wig ad. Tsangares tried to convince the Los Angeles Police Department to release the actress' mug shot, but it wouldn't. (Maybe the LAPD knew about the Hugh Grant mug shot T-shirt he made in 1995 following the actor's indiscretion with prostitute Divine Brown.) Tsangares, wearing his Enron T-shirt featuring the failed company's logo with a pointy devil's tail, said celebrity scandal trumps politics.

At 300 sales and counting, "Free Winona" has been his most successful shirt. But despite its popularity, no one has shoplifted one. "We keep our eye out for that kind of thing," said Tsangares. "I haven't caught anybody yet."

As for the real Winona, she is scheduled to appear in Beverly Hills Superior Court on Feb. 8. The Los Angeles district attorney's office is still reviewing evidence in the case to determine whether to charge the actress.

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