Mega-Modern Festival Style: Design Your Own Shirt with Pop-In Designer and Nordstrom Salesperson Shawn Serven

Word to the wise: If you can wrangle an invitation to Shawn Serven’s Seattle apartment, do it. Especially if you’re a fan of exuberant pop culture, candy-colored craft supplies and postmodern fashion libraries. And especially if you’re into all of those things yielding spectacular DIY fashion projects.

Serven, a Seattle-area native who trained in fashion design at FIDM in Los Angeles before returning to the Northwest to really study fashion (and style, and behavior, and social science) as a sales star in the via C department of our flagship store, is one of those people who can’t not create magic wherever he goes.

The first thing he ever made, at the ripe old age of 16 or so, was a jumpsuit for a performer with the name of Lady Gaga. Ever heard of her? A friend brought him backstage where he presented his offering in person, and now the two of them are buddies, hanging out doing what friends do whenever she’s in town.

See what I mean? Charmed.

And then this happened:

This image courtesy Jesse Codling

As legend has it, Serven found a vintage motorcycle jacket at a local thrift shop and bought it for a song. He began adding color and illustration to it sort of randomly, the way a street tagger might doodle on the side of his apartment building. Some time passed, the leather got more and more colorful, and he woke up on Halloween morning and decided to go to work as a sort of badass graffiti version of Miley Cyrus.

Well, Nordstrom’s director of creative projects, Olivia Kim, another of Serven’s famous and amazing lady friends, saw him—and it (the jacket, that is)—and his fate was as good as sealed. Especially after he serendipitously discovered a petite version of this biker staple on his next thrift run and colored it in with her in mind.

Needless to say, she was pretty thrilled.

Before he knew it he was scouring junk shops and vintage racks for more raw moto material while his apartment morphed into a full-scale production studio. He all but bought his local supply store out of Molotow paint pens and took a few meetings with Kim and her staff and buyers, and when Magic Hour, the current nouveau festival-themed iteration of our Pop-In shop series, debuted, the third jacket he ever made sold on the very first day.

As I write this post, about half of the 25-jacket collection that he submitted has already sold out.

Handpainted jackets by Shawn Serven are currently available at the Magic Hour Pop-In in Seattle and Bellevue, WA; call 206.628.2111 or 425.455.5800 for help purchasing

Inspired much?

Yeah, we thought so.

Serven’s one of those open-book creatives; he shares his tools, tips and inner process as freely as his play lists, and of course we made note of everything here so that you can make a T-shirt—or anything else—in the style of Nordstrom’s mega-modern take on summer festivals.

What you’ll need:

—A garment. If a vintage leather specimen seems intimidating, start with a basic T-shirt. Too basic? How about a pair of jeans, a tote bag or a denim jacket?

Paints. Serven loves those Molotows we mentioned above, but he also recommends Delta brand Ceramcoat paints at Joann, and he says that when he can’t get a fabric paint in the color he wants, he’ll use white fabric paint as a base and add regular acrylic paint in his desired shades. If all else fails, go to your local craft or art supply shop and ask about their acrylic and/or fabric options.

When working with thin materials like T-shirt jersey, place a piece of cardboard underneath the surface you’re working on to avoid bleed-through.

—A fixer or two. Where would we be without Aqua Net? Serven says the all-purpose spray works radically as a fixer for T-shirts. It seals in the paint and sort of holds the style much like it does when sprayed on your coif. If you’re working with leather or denim, you’ll probably want to “set” the paint a little more purposefully; Serven recommends a first layer of the dependable hairspray followed by a layer of spray-on canvas fixer. Talk to your art supply dealer to find the best one for your project, but keep in mind that a flexible product is key. You may not find a fixer made for clothing or wearables, but products made for canvas and other nonrigid surfaces should suffice.

After the fixer is sprayed, the paint is more or less set but not necessarily permanent. Serven recommends hand washing for T-shirts and denim, and says that he tells people who buy his jackets not to stand around in the pouring rain in them.

Okay, so those are your materials. Next up, you’ll need somewhere to work—but Serven’s small space makes a big argument for using what you’ve got. “I like seeing everything,” he says as he surveys his surroundings, and if you have a house full of sly cultural references and cutting-edge resource material, you probably feel the same way.

When it comes down to it, all you really need is a flat surface. The leather required significant dry time, but a cotton T-shirt customized à la Serven will be dry in the space of a Gaga album, so you can make a studio just about anywhere.

Speaking of Gaga tracks, the #1 secret to Serven’s aesthetic is his synesthesia, which Wikipedia defines as “a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway,” and which the artist and designer himself defines as “lucky.”

In essence, he sees music. Miley and Britney and Rihanna and Marina and the Diamonds come through the speakers in shapes and color, and that’s what ends up on your back. During the time it took to make the T-shirt you see here, a Spotify set went from Old Mariah to Kanye and back again, and as you might imagine, those differences in tone, harmony, beat and vibe create different shapes and colors. And some pretty-all-over-the-place illustration.

More from Serven on inspiration and activation:

“Creativity is not endless. You have to use it when it comes, and if you don’t have all the right materials when it’s there, you just have to do the best with what you do have. I tend to either have a million ideas or none at all. When that happens, I just go to bed and usually I get the next idea in the morning.”

“I don’t believe in mistakes. About 80 percent of the time what I had planned on doing doesn’t happen because of something better and unexpected that I couldn’t have planned for.”

“Trust yourself. Take the initiative, and just jump in.”

“I’m all about balance. I pair everything back to black and white.”

“Who am I kidding? I love color.”

“I like the idea of being a perfectionist, but if I start to go about a project that way, I end up not liking it at all.”

“You have to respect the inspiration. Don’t take it for granted or it could go away.”

“Some of my favorite designs came from ‘mistakes.’ Once I spelled a word wrong and ended up having to make a triangle shape over it. I didn’t know what it was going to become, but the next day it became obvious to me that it was a slice of pizza.”

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that in addition to his freethinking and willingness to go where the day takes him, Serven is also a trained designer and gifted illustrator. Scroll back up to those fashion sketches taped up next to Miley. They’re his.

“I like things to look raw, and I prefer a more worn-in, lived-in look,” he told me. So don’t let your lack of technical ability stop you.

For the shirt shown here, we browsed his place until our eyes landed on this Rizzoli tome and we stole the title wholesale. You could do the same with lyrics, book quotes or snippets of conversation with a friend. Serven says he’s been really into text-based designs lately, and some of his later jackets were almost all words and phrases.

The final stage of Serven’s shirt-making process is a sort of unmaking. He gently snips at the collar a bit, and cuts and stretches the bottom hem for a more lived-in look.

The best thing about this sort of #yolo approach to T-shirt design is that there are no wrong answers. Add a friend or three to the mix and that truth becomes even more evident and easy.

Color, craft, improvisation and a sense of humor? They’re all friends with you. Invite them in.

Follow: Shawn Serven on Instagram

Shop: Pop-In

Shop: Men’s T-shirts | Women’s tees

Check out Nordstrom’s How We Roll festival tour

—Laura Cassidy