The idea of adding letters to apparel seems ubiquitous to us today, but that was not always the case. In the recently published book Heated Words: Searching For A Mysterious Typeface authors Rory McCartney and Charlie Morgan trace the steps of a “craze” that seized the early 1970s and was to become synonymous with early hip hop culture in New York - influencing fashion to this day.

Flock letters could be customized and heat transferred with a regular flatiron, appealing to the DIY sensibility of subcultures wanting to stand out in the crowd and brand themselves. The book deals with a certain typeface favored over others, of unknown origin and still without name.

The photo that adorns the front of the book is of the earliest found evidence of the letters, on a denim vest worn by a gang member from the Seven Immortals in Brooklyn. That anonymous typeface would later make its way onto the outfits of break dance crews, DJs and rappers in the New York area and spread out into the world.

Charlie Morgan has been working in fashion for the past two decades as a marketing manager for brands like Crooked Tongues, Vans and New Balance. Rory McCartney is a creative director behind the studio Modern Construct and has, among other things, previously designed the Stone Island Storia book for Rizzoli.

TRÈS BIEN had the privilege of chatting with co-author Charlie Morgan about the book.

TB: As I understand, the process that led to the book started during your time at Vans. Was the book always intended as the end result?

Charlie Morgan: I have always had a love of countercultures, especially the visual identities that go with them. Pre internet there wasn’t much easily accessible content around those things, so you would return to the same source material time and time again and as a result obsess over the smallest of details.

The lettering had always stuck out in things like the documentary 'Style Wars', but we could never find a satisfactory answer as to what they were. It's a weird evolution of Blackletter, one of the oldest forms of type and it only appears as iron-on lettering. A friend, the creative director and designer Rory McCartney shared the same interest in the letters and so together we decided to try and crack the case and figure out the origins of the lettering.

After 6 months of research we thought we had enough information, images and ephemera to curate a show around the project. We presented Heated Words: Initial Research at the House of Vans in London. Naive I guess we thought that would be the end of it but in reality it just raised more questions. After that we set out to make a documentary but for lots of reasons that project stalled and then, during Covid, we decided to take everything we had and put it into a book.

TB: The title of the book cleverly references the technique of iron-on lettering, but where did people from the early B-boy and hip-hop scene find these letters and think to customize their apparel with them?

Charlie Morgan: In the 70s and 80s you could find iron on T-shirts all over the place, it was a huge craze. These letters were mostly found in places like souvenir shops or swap meets rather than more established sporting goods stores.

TB: What's the most odd use of the typeface you've come across during your research?

Charlie Morgan: That's a tricky one, they really did end up everywhere, we have some shots from the 80s of Joe Pesci at a parade wearing a sash with the letters on, that was pretty random!  

Heated Words is published by Rizzoli and can be bought in our Souvenir Shop.