Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
Dana Veraldi, creator and artist behind DEER DANA, is a poster-child for John Lennon’s famous quote “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” She started off as a photographer and now celebrities like the Biebs and HOV are wearing her screen printed drawings of other celebrities. Her brand is popping up all over the retail world, and it looks like this is only the beginning. Enjoy my chat with this T-shirt designing superstar.
SHANON WELTMAN: When did you start Deer Dana?
DANA VERALDI: I started making shirts in college in my screen printing class my senior year and decided to draw from my pictures, because I was a photo major. I mostly took portraits of my friends and family. I drew a portrait of my friend Jackson based on a picture I had taken of him and then made the screen and was making prints on paper when I decided to make a few T-shirts. I ended up printing like a dozen T-shirts, bringing them to NY for the weekend. Jackson lived in NY and was a DJ at the time, and it was his birthday. We all wore them as a surprise for his birthday party that night. That was the first time I made T-shirts. At the time I had Deer Dana, which was a website with my photos on it.
SW: Oh okay.
DV: It was a website I already had to share photos with my friends and family, sort of pre-Facebook/myspace/[laughs] other ways of sharing photos back in the day. After graduating I moved to NY, I brought a few screens with me, I was making shirts for my friends. It was just a fun hobby. I got an internship working for a photo producer, thinking that was what I was going to do and really didn’t like that commercial type of photography. So I was making shirts, printing them on my own the first couple years, in my apartment in Bushwick. Which was like… I’m not a good printer, there were ink stains all over the carpet. It was crazy times, but it was fun and it’s helpful that I know how the process works because I can be really specific with my printers now. I know when I’m making the designs what will and won’t work in terms of screen printing, because [my shirts] are all screen printed. The first shirt I sold was of Lil’ Kim, when she was in jail. It said ‘Free Lil’ Kim’, it was sold to Pat Fields in NY and that was actually while I was still in school. I printed them on tank tops and sold 20 shirts or something.
SW: How did you reach Pat Fields?
DV: A friend of mine had put me in touch with a buyer there. I remember having to layout the line sheet. I took a lot of graphic design classes, so I liked using Illustrator and InDesign, so it was fun for me to layout the line sheet, though I didn’t even know what a line sheet was at the time. So I laid out a line sheet and said ‘I can print this design on these different styles of T-shirts’. I worked at American Apparel at the time so I somehow got cheap shirts. I think they gave me a wholesale account easily because I worked there.
SW: That’s convenient.
DV: Yeah! It was never a business plan, it was just for fun, I ended up selling a few to a store and then I continued to make them and then a friend of mine, Agnes, wore the shirt to a photo shoot when she was being photographed. That was the first time I got major press. She was in Time magazine, on the cover and she’s wearing it twice in the magazine. Someone said to me, ‘you should probably sell them because *she* is going to wear them,’ so I just ended up calling it Deer Dana, since I already had the website. And then for probably a year or two the website was photos and T-shirts, very art-y, not really an ecommerce site. More of a paypal link to T-shirts.
SW: I think I remember that…
DV: Yeah, it was an inbetween site. It was cool. In 2011, my friend Kevin decided he wanted to help me make it more of a business. He had just finished grad school and he invested in the company, helping me make it an LLC. Then we redid the website. At that point it became a full ecommerce website that still has a lot of creativity and personality behind it, it’s just my photos aren’t on it anymore. We did more proper photo shoots for a lookbook, the ecommerce pictures. Before it was just whatever we had around, photo-wise. I’ve always had other jobs and I still do other side jobs. I worked for Theory for two years ending last July, consulting on their social media. Because [Deer Dana] is a small company and I don’t have any PR/sales people that work with me, I end up having to do all of that work myself, which is good and bad.
SW: That’s a lot of work!
DV: I also don’t ever know how much money I’ll make, which is why I’ve had other jobs, always.
SW: That’s smart. The way you’re presenting yourself seems like you don’t need anything on the side. I know that compliment doesn’t help you pay your bills… but your face to the world is just… I didn’t know what to expect of this. I thought this [your studio] was going to be four times as big, with people running around… and you’re doing all of the printing here.
SW: So you don’t print anymore, what companies do you go through?
DV: Friends of mine from MICA print the shirts. Alex Dondero, do you remember him?
DV: He shares a studio in Williamsburg with Emily Johnson.
SW: Ah, yeah, Look…?
DV: LQQK Studio. My friend Max works there too, who didn’t go to MICA, and this kid Mike Cherman. Before I had this space, I had a desk there. They’ve printed now for me for about three years.
DV: I asked Alex to come help me once, because I was doing a three color print on my kitchen table.
SW: Which one was that?
DV: It was of DJ Cassidy, who’s a friend of mine. He wanted to be wearing a pink jacket and a red bowtie and then the black outline, so it was three colors. I was trying to line it up with… no real way of doing it properly. I was stretching shirts over a photo print box, like a 20 x 30 inch, throwing the t-shirt on top and just squeegeeing them. I asked Alex to come over and help me and he just laughed and said ‘I’ve *got* to print shirts for you, this is crazy.’ The proper way to do it is to screw down the screen, use transparencies to understand the alignment. He is a true printer who studied printmaking, he’s a great printer. He started printing for me. I had a desk in their office for awhile, which was fun. I think it drove them crazy a little bit, because I was constantly like ‘Why aren’t you printing my stuff? Let’s print more of mine.’ [Laughs]
DV: [Laughs] ‘Let’s do experiments with *my* designs.’ They obviously print for other people too. But it’s been great! Because they’re friends and they’re VERY good printmakers. Sometimes things are late, but the quality is great. Things being late and every once and awhile, a shirt being messed up, is in the nature of hand-printing too. So they’re printed now, by LQQK Studio.
SW: So, you never imagined it would go this far essentially, until you had a friend say, ‘Do you know what you’re sitting on top of?’
DV: Yeah I mean, it was always… I like drawing, I love photography, that’s what I studied. I still love photography. The drawings and T-shirts are a fun way for me to share what I’m making with people because everyone wears a shirt, whether it’s at the gym, to bed, to go out, to the beach… know what I mean? The T-shirt was something I could share easily with people. I probably didn’t make money for two years because of how many shirts I gave away, and I still just give away shirts. I like to give them away to people, because it’s like… why make them? They are priced a bit high but it’s because of all of the work that goes into them. The shirts are shipped from California, printed in Brooklyn, driven to SoHo and then we cut all the tags out… there’s a lot of love that goes into the making of each shirt, which is why they’re kind of pricey. I didn’t imagine it would become what it became. I remember people along the way telling me, ‘oh it will go away eventually, it’ll fizzle out, it’s a trend.’ The people that we choose to portray are people that have long standing iconic personalities and characters that aren’t trendy… they’re just cool forever.
SW: Other than the collaborations, how do you choose those people?
DV: They’re all people that I like, some more than others. Some of them are for specific friends, like the Dolly Parton shirt I made for Jordan Hancock who went to MICA, because he loves Dolly and has a few Dolly tattoo’s. We made that for him.
SW: Was that on your website?
DV: It’s not for sale right now but we have it. I can print you one.
SW: I would love that. I love Dolly Parton.
DV: I like the Dolly shirt, it’s cute.
DV: They’re all people that I find fascinating for one reason or another, or Kevin who is my business partner also has input, but together we decide. The last one we made was Tina Turner which was fun to do, the next one we’re doing is Riccardo Tisci, the designer of Givenchy. We also pay attention to the type of people we’re doing, we don’t want to do all fashion icons in a row, so we draw different people. Some don’t sell at all, but we make them for special people. I drew the famous Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz for my family, because they all went to Notre Dame, but I think we’ve sold one. But it’s fine, because I was happy to make them. And then others sell better.
SW: What’s your best seller?
DV: The one that sold the fastest was Larry David. And then the best seller overall is Basquiat, the second best seller was Sade.
SW: Ah, that’s a nice drawing. I’m surprised so many people are huge fans of her. She hasn’t had anything out in awhile right?
DV: I feel like she has a cult following, where if you like her, you LOVE her. You’re proud of it, which is why then you’d want to buy a $60 T-shirt to wear.
SW: That’s true.
DV: People I feel that sell the best are people who have cult followings, not just in between/fake fans. Basquiat too, because Jay-Z wore it people are like ‘Oh!’ and dress like him. Larry David too, has a cult following. It’s interesting, it’s all over the place. Then there are people I just wouldn’t draw… Taylor Swift, people have asked for Lady Gaga, I just wouldn’t do it. I always think about the fact that we have to keep the integrity of the brand. Part of the reason it has it’s personality is because of the people we’ve drawn.
SW: Frida Kahlo, Basquiat, Picasso, then you have Lagerfeld too. Yeah, everyone you’ve chosen is very eye-catching name dropping but not on a flash in the pan kind of way.
DV: Yeah, it’s funny because even like, my stepmom probably knows two of the people I’d draw. [Laughs] The average person wouldn’t know. Except say, Obama or Tina Turner, that’s another big one. The average person doesn’t know who Yves Saint Laurent is, or Sade, or Grace Jones. They’re all pretty niche people.
SW: Yeah, sad…
DV: But then you’re proud *you* know who it is!
SW: That’s so weird, not to go on a tangent, but that’s the weird thing about being an artist, you’re just so connected to different creative people. You’re like ‘Oh yeah, I know what that designer looks like’, your average person is just like ‘I wear that.’ But no, someone made it.
DV: Yeah they have no idea of the process.
SW: When you collaborate with these big companies, how does that affect your creative control and process?
DV: For the most part I have creative control in terms of how it’s printed, the number of things it’s printed on, the layout. The Gap was my first big collaboration and I wasn’t even aware that they might change the color of the T-shirt or the drawing, which they did in the end, and I don’t think it was as strong as it could have been. It was a really interesting experience for me to go to the Gap headquarters, two years out of college and just have a folder of drawings that they were interested in buying, it was really cool. Looking back, [laughs] I definitely didn’t get paid as much as I should have, but I learned a lot from that experience. I learned that in the contracts that I’ve signed and sent over, we have to include that we need to have all creative control of the artwork, where it’s placed on the shirt… the shirt it’s put on. I think in the end, we would have sold more, but we didn’t make a percentage of sales, I just think of it as an object that exists out there with my name on it. It could’ve been a little stronger. So, I’ve just learned over time, working with different people, to have more creative control. It’s tricky, it’s a drawing, you can be bias one way or the other, but I include one edit in the custom design fee and then additional edits are billed.
SW: That’s nice.
DV: It’s been fine, most people are pretty human about it and upfront about art direction from the beginning if they want. They have an idea in their heads of what they want it to look like. We’ve collaborated with cool brands, most of them have come to us, which is pretty lucky. It’s been really fun. When it’s a more corporate [project] you obviously get paid more, so it’s nice to do something but within your own artistic limits and then see it. Like the Burger King design we did, it’s very much a Deer Dana drawing but it was for Burger King, it was funny. The people there are nice to work with. They only printed 500 shirts, it was for a list of specific people. Influencers and celebrities to have, so in the end it was cool to have people getting Deer Dana shirts. The collaborations have been great, there’s not one that I would complain about really other than the Gap one, just not enough money, but at the time I was like ‘$300! Wow!’ [laughs], really just naive about the whole thing.
SW: You had to learn.
SW: For the Saks Fifth Avenue design, where it’s the cross streets, was that your idea or was there an art director saying ‘Draw this in your style.’
DV: That was our idea, it was based on a shirt that I had made a couple years prior, of the cross streets of the Chateau Marmont, that hotel in LA that’s iconic. A friend of mine loves staying there and was like we should make a shirt of Chateau, and I looked it up and the beautiful building and said ‘let’s make it really vague. Let’s do the cross streets of Sunset and Marquis, and if you know what that means, than you know, and it’s cool.’
DV: So, it was done through Theory but then they showed the Saks people. I said we could draw your flagship store on Fifth Avenue and then we can do the cross streets, and it looks cute because it’s very NY too, like the green street signs.
SW: That one is really good. How big is the Deer Dana team? Is it a team or is it just you?
DV: Kevin is my partner, he works full time for an art director. At the time when he became my partner, he wasn’t working full time, but for the last couple years he’s worked there. He helps in an art direction sense, he helps me to choose who we are gonna draw and source inspiration images. Sometimes he has an idea about a typeface to use, layouts, he helps with the look books and terms of production like casting, location, photographers. Then the layout of the look book, he helps with collaborations in the same way. He doesn’t work out of the office with me but we try to meet one or two nights a week and then a weekend day to work together. I have two interns now, one is in high school, she’s getting high school credit. She comes Wednesdays. Oliver comes one or two days a week, and then I have an assistant who is a paid employee. She comes one to two days a week. We have a good little team, but it’s not a full on team with employees. Then a friend of mine, I pay to maintain my website, he’s a paid employee too.
SW: Okay, that sounds functioning.
DV: It’s a good setup for now. At times I wish I had more help but at the same time, I then lose some control. Like, ‘Ah! I should do everything by myself!’ Like when things get messed up, but it’s good for now.
SW: I get that, I needed an intern for some project and found myself like ‘No! This way, this way..’ , I’m just like, there’s no point to you being here. [Laughs]
DV: I’ve learned, because I’ve had a few interns. I’ve had one or two interns since 2010 and you just learn what they’re good at and what they want to do, and then that’s what they do. I mean everyone can pack a shirt in an envelope, but other than that you just learn what they’re good at. It sometimes takes time, but everyone is good at something. [Laughs]
SW: Aww… that’s so patient and nice. [Laughs]
SW: What celebrity would you love to see wearing one of your shirts?
DV: Oh! Well, Justin Bieber I was really excited by, he was the first celebrity to wear my shirt, and I love Biebs. Still love him. I also love Jay-Z, who’s another big timer to wear the shirt. I’d love for Larry David to wear his own shirt. [Laughs]
DV: Which I don’t think will ever happen… [laughs] or maybe Jeff Garlin can wear Larry David’s shirt? That’d be really cute. I should figure out how to send him one.
SW: Yeah! That’s a great idea.
DV: Obviously, I’d love Beyonce…
SW: Mhmm. Would you draw her?
DV: I think she’s too beautiful. I tried to draw Cindy Crawford and ended up just doing her lips. She looked like a Disney princess or something. [Laughs] You have to have some kind of irregular thing… or like glasses, that sort of thing, for the structure of the drawing. Who else do I love? I love Chrissy Teigen who’s John Legend’s wife. I sort of have a weird obsession with her… [laughs]
DV: Who else do I like? Jennifer Lawrence. Jonah Hill just wore one, which is really cool because I love Jonah.
SW: How do you find out that celebrities are wearing your shirt? Do you get emails? Your interns, is it part of the thing they do, to tell you?
DV: No, half the time I’ve gifted them. Given it to a friend to give to someone. Like with Justin Bieber, my friend was working a shoot with him and I was like ‘Justin loves Lil’ Wayne!’ This was 2010 I think or 2009. I was like, ‘Give him a Lil’ Wayne shirt,’ and he ended up liking it and putting it on and getting photographed in it. That part I didn’t know was going to happen, my friend Greg was like, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be able to give them to him, but we’ll see.’ They ended up listening to Lil’ Wayne on set and at lunch it was a perfect time for him to say, ‘My friend made this…’ I knew that Justin was going to get the shirt, but I didn’t expect to get a picture of it. With Jay-Z I didn’t even know he had the shirt, because someone bought it for him from Opening Ceremony. Seeing that was so weird. Celebrity pictures are on the internet so, when someone sees them, they send it to me. Like the Jay-Z one, I was babysitting and the parents were at his concert that night, which was funny.
SW: That’s crazy. [laughs]
DV: It was so weird. I was like, ‘Why am I sitting here with sleeping children? Why am I not at the concert, when Jay-Z is wearing my shirt?’ My friend texted me and said, ‘I think Jay-Z is wearing your shirt. My friend just said he saw him in it.’ I was like, ‘there’s no way…’ and then suddenly all the press came out, of him riding the subway. So it was all really publicized, that moment, which was just surreal for me. Then I almost couldn’t accept it was true that he was wearing it. A lot of times on our e-commerce models, we shoot them in white blanks and often photoshop them. I was like, ‘Someone must’ve Photoshopped this…’ I couldn’t believe it was true until I saw the video and him moving in it. ‘Wait, this is real, this is so weird.’ It was just a crazy moment for me. I find them by people sending them, Jonah’s picture was a paparazzi picture from last week.
SW: Yeah, he’s walking a dog or something.
DV: Yeah, a friend of mine sent me a link to it. I don’t know if I would have found it otherwise. I don’t really peruse people.com very often, but I feel that I have enough of a network of friends and people that if people see it, they send it over. But maybe I’ve missed some.
SW: Ending on a random note. What are your top three, only three, favorite 90s tv shows?
DV: Oh boy, okay… definitely Full House. Not Friends, I hate Friends. Probably Alex Mack. What was that show that was on Nickelodeon? It was about camp?
SW: Salute Your Shorts?
DV: Yeah, I would go with those three. They’re all a bit juvenile I guess… [Laughs]
SW: I mean, we were growing up, so…
DV: I also liked Wonder Years, but I know I’m only allowed to say three. [Laughs]
SW: [Laughs] You can switch one out.
DV: Okay, I choose Wonder Years, Alex Mack and Full House. [Laughs] It wasn’t that hard of a question.