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Printing a catchy saying on a T-shirt is a time-honored American tradition, but Rebecca Sgan-Cohen somehow makes it seem fresh. The candy-colored tees in her Rebecca A line, each stenciled with a fun-but-evocative phrase (“I’m a very complicated child,””Just a phase”), have appeared on Japanese television and the cover of Time. She spoke with Babble about making wearable word art for five-year-olds. – Gwynne Watkins

Is there a back story behind the phrases on the shirts?

Michael Sgan-Cohen, my father, was a painter and often incorporated words into his paintings. When I graduated from college, I began making paintings of my own with stenciled words and phrases on them. One weekend, I stenciled a T-shirt with the words “disgruntled ballerina,” essentially replacing the canvas with a T-shirt. I began wearing it around and was constantly asked where I had gotten it. “Disgruntled ballerina” was the first shirt I ever made, and to this day it remains one of my best sellers.

So what shirt is the best seller?

“I may be short, but I’m a genius.” Period. For some reason, people love that shirt.

Are there any T-shirt sayings that you considered printing, then rejected or discontinued?

I once made a shirt for kids that said, “I don’t care if Bert and Ernie are gay.” I think it sort of freaked people out and I stopped making it, although I still kind of like it.

What’s the process of creating your T-shirts?

For the first year that I sold shirts on the street, I wasn’t silk-screening, I was individually stenciling every letter on every shirt late into the night and then going out the next day and seeing if the shirt would sell. This gave me an enormous amount of creative freedom because I could try out an idea for a shirt without the commitment of creating a silk-screen intended for mass production. Once you make a design and take it to the silk-screen studio and pick it up, you want the assurance that your money and time was spent on a lasting idea. But back then, I would sort of play around more. Once I made a shirt that said “I’m a fish” and someone bought it.

When someone walks up to you, do you know instantly which T-shirt they’re going to buy?

I have to say that it’s usually the opposite. Someone will be walking along, let’s say a little ten-year-old girl, and I think to myself, oh, she’s probably gonna like “Stop staring at my unbelievable cuteness,” but then she’ll be looking at the shirts and say, “Oh, I love this” and she’ll be holding “Polite conversation can be boring,” which I consider sort of sophisticated. And I’ll get such a thrill from the unpredictability of things and the supreme intelligence of children.

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