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You’re Being Watched | Exploring Toronto’s Sub•Label | #LocalLove

by Hannah Berney

Have you ever had the feeling you’re being watched? If you’re a tech-head in Toronto you may have noticed a strange pupil popping up in the strangest places- on hats, the backs of hoodies, or stretched across the front of crop tops. There’s no need to be paranoid- just open your eyes and follow the pupil as we check out the newest monochromatic clothing line to grace the Toronto music scene- Sub•Label.

Last weekend, I was lucky to be invited along to a Sub•Label pop-up shop, appearing in a rave hosted within Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer, and got the chance to talk to Daniel Spatafora, the head of Sub•Label itself. Spatafora, known as ‘Spata’ to his friends, has been selling the main designs of the Sub•Label shirts for over four years now, seeing the creation of the brand in Canada and operating it from a distance after moving to L.A. Now that he’s back in Canada full time, Spata has thrown himself into his apparel. He has taught himself how to sew, buying his own sewing machine to stitch on his own labels and hem tags, along with printing his own designs. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing.” He tells me as we drive to the church. “I’m a stupid perfectionist… it’s a lot of work.”

After arriving at the church, Spata immediately busies himself with the setup. From the tub, he produces a lime green Styrofoam head and a hot pink skull, placing a bucket hat over the former and a beanie over the latter. Spata eyes a row of lockers behind the table and starts hooking hangers into the slats, making an impromptu display. Clothes start appearing from the tub: t-shirts, tank tops, long sleeves, hoodies, hats, and a single Sub•Label flag, which is promptly hung on the balcony overlooking the pews. Spata wasn’t lying about himself- he’s definitely a perfectionist. He folds and refolds shirts, stepping back, observing, and readjusting. It’s a passion for his own product and a desire to curate that comes across in his constant fine-tuning of the table.

photo of sublabel booth
Myr at the Sub•Table | Photo via the Author

“I try to have something new at each event,” Spata tells me. Tonight, it’s the Sub•Label beanie, placed upon the pink skull. The last event saw the premiere of shirts and hoodies treated with bleach, creating a darkly trippy tie-dye effect. Constantly refreshing your brand with new content may seem tricky to some, but inspiration abounds for Spata, although putting it into effect isn’t always easy. “I’m always thinking of shit… my eyes are always open. If I have an itch to create, I look in my phone, my notes. I always have a note with ideas. But ideas don’t really mean shit- it’s about execution.”

There are three main designs of shirt available; The “Toronto Techno”, a slick record-inspired design that shows the city’s skyline within the records label, the CN tower prominent within. Next, the “Nobody Listens to Techno”, paying homage to the now ironic Slim Shady refrain from ‘Without Me’. Finally, the classic “Sub•Label” design, the name curved around a dot, evoking the image of an eye that no doubt inspired the “Follow the Pupil” #hashtag that’s been rising through Instagram steadily. But why the pupil itself?

“So originally, I had created the word ‘Sub•Label’ around a record, like this.” Spata points to the “Toronto Techno” design. “And then, I just randomly- instead of making it a circle, I just brought them in. And then I noticed that the word ‘Sub•Label’ around that dot created an eye. It uses negative space. So I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s fucking dope.’ And obviously, pupils are so intertwined with rave culture.”

The Sub•Label Pupil has now become an icon in Toronto house music circles. “It just became a thing where people would go to events, and see the pupil, and they would just take a picture of it or a video, and then I just started encouraging that more. And then ‘Follow the Pupil’ was born. It’s sick, it’s legitimately like a little community.”

Spata also notes that one of the defining features of the Sub•Label brand is that the logo is always visible on the back of each product. “The reason is when you’re at these events, you’re always looking at the backs of people’s heads. When you’re waiting in line, when you’re in the crowd, when you’re waiting for the bathroom, whatever; you’re always staring at the back of people.” It’s an observation that only a Raver entrepreneur could find something marketable in, and frankly, it’s kind of brilliant. It’s not the only realization that Spata has capitalized on; seven years ago, he had been at Veld and Digital Dreams, at the peak of bright neon tank tops and fluorescent tones. He foresaw the darkness coming- for clothing, at least. “Everybody was, you know, ‘Put your fucking hands up’ in 2012, and now they’re at Coda. I got in at the perfect time.”

The final defining characteristic is the “Est. 199X” that appears on every piece. “I view the ‘X’ as a placeholder,” Spata explains to me, “Because nobody really knows when Techno came to Toronto, but it’s roughly in the early nineties. And the majority of the people that I know in the scene were born in the nineties. So the ‘X’ spans the whole decade. The other thing is that other brands will say, ‘Established 1995’, or whatever, but I feel like Sub•Label is never established. It’s always changing.”

And what changes are in store for Sub•Label’s future? “It’s evolving all the time,” Spata says. “Honestly, I see no limit. I can do whatever the fuck I want. Nobody can tell me I can’t do shit. Whether it’s events, merch, artist management… I don’t even know, the possibilities are endless. Because of social media, if you have a following and a community… there’s nothing stopping you.”

You can check out the Sub•Label storefront here, and keep up to date on their Instagram here.

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