What does one do with a jacket from junior high that is way too out of date for even the hippest hipster? How do scraps of plaid shirt, novelty t-shirts, or leather bombers find new life again? Reformed School has the answer. A Chicago brand that uses eco-friendly materials and vintage apparel to create one of a kind bow ties, apparel, and home goods.
Founder Peter Gaona shares how a stylish need became a socially conscious brand of representation, messaging, and a little schooling, for those who happened to miss a history lesson or two.
THS: Talk about this idea of upcycling and how you came to use old materials to create completely new things?
PG: I started my business with the bow ties. I hadn’t planned on doing it as a business. I wanted a denim bow tie for myself. I saw them and couldn’t afford the ones I liked and the ones in my price range were just kind of meh. So I bought one at a thrift store. I cut it up and saw how it was made. I had a pair of bell bottom jeans that I was not going to wear anymore and a pair of leather pants. I started taking them apart and mixing the components. I made bow ties out of those materials and started wearing them to places and people were like, ‘make me one,’ and it took off from there.
I was a dancer for a long time and took classes with a seamstress to make dancewear for men. Because there were not a whole lot of options and so I knew how to sew a little bit. I had stopped dancing and went back to school to study Performing Arts Management at Columbia College. During my first semester, we had to take a class in entrepreneurship and pitch a product. I did not pitch the bow ties but started making them on the side during that time. It taught me a lot. It was a great way to learn how to start a business without a storefront. I researched online shops, pop-up markets, and other non-traditional ways to sell handmade goods.
It was a side hustle for awhile, even after I graduated, but was growing and growing. It grew out of me always wanting something unique, different from what I saw in the stores, and a little bit more limited by using repurposed materials.
THS: How many bow ties would you say you’ve created?
PG: It’s been a few hundred already. I would say around 500 by now. Earlier when I started making the bow ties, I was featured at Shop Columbia(the university’s retail store). To be sold in the store you have to apply and have your product critiqued. Once they started carrying them in the store, the guy who does the upholstery for the college gave me three or four boxes of stuff. The same thing happens when I meet people at trade shows or markets. There are a ton of bow ties out there. How do I make them original and unique to the brand? By using repurposed materials, it really encourages people to buy it on the spot, because the next time around it could be gone.
THS: So out of those 500 plus bow ties, which ones were your favorites to make? And what are some of the other things that you have tried using scrapped materials?
PG: The kid’s ties are really cute. The one I loved the most is the Peanuts Franklin bow tie. If you look, for options for kids of color, there aren’t many things out there. The representation is so necessary. I even made one for myself. I did hair bows too, but it didn’t work out. I’ve also done dog collars and had it displayed on a stuffed dog, people immediately assumed all the bow ties were for dogs so I stopped doing that as well.
THS: It’s so interesting to see how much you were spot on with your business. It seems like the conversation on upcycling and sustainability has become even more relevant. People are asking themselves how they can be more sustainable. I think it’s going to become even more of a demand in the future.
PG: I also think too, speaking for people of color, its something we have always done.
I think things that become more trendy, become more in vogue with white women is something we have always done. You think about food now. Scraps, its very in trend, using what you have. It’s like, we have been doing this forever. Growing up I wanted things like Guess and Girbaud jeans. Instead, my mom would make us go to the thrift store. And now, it’s like the thing to do.
THS: So explain the transition, or expansion rather, from bow ties to statement pins and pieces that say things like I Am a Man or Ain’t I a Woman.
PG: With all the shootings happening here and across the country, I just wanted something to wear that could make a statement. So I did the “I Am a Man” poster from the 1960’s on a denim jacket that I had from high school and started wearing it. Everyone said I should add it to my collection. When I started with the, I Am a Man, the conversation about Transgender bathrooms was happening. I had one interaction where someone said, ‘Oh, I am a man. That’s so funny.’ I had to tell them, ‘No, it’s not.’ So it was schooling people on where it came from, and the history behind. And it wasn’t just white folks who did not know where it was from. It was a lot of people. It’s like, what schools did you all go to?
THS: Exactly, who was their history teacher!
PG: Right! How have you not seen this? This is a part of American history. When I did the Aint I a Woman pieces people would be like, ‘I love Maya Angelou!’ I have to tell people that it was actually Sojourner Truth. I found out during my research that statement may not have been in her original speech. The research now is that she spoke Dutch until she was seven years old so she would not have spoken in a Southern dialect. They supposedly have the text of her original speech and said that phrase wasn’t even in there. They said a white feminist may have retold the speech and added it in to make it more believable. It was really interesting, but her original speech is still known as the Ain’t I a Woman speech.
THS: Where do you source the recycled goods and vintage pieces?
PG: Finding the felt that I used happened organically. I was trying to figure out how I could keep it within my theme for Reformed School and found a felt that was made from 100% recycled plastic bottles. It is an eco-friendly material that is also machine washable. I started making more of the pieces using other jackets in my closet. I would also incorporate artists like my friend David Anthony Geary who makes buttons out of vintage Jet/ Ebony magazines and started styling them with the buttons. I also started making sweatshirts which are a blend of recycled plastic. I use a few companies like Threads for Thought who use recycled materials. They also practice good working conditions, and their workers are paid living wages. I still wanted to find a company based in the U.S who makes eco-friendly fabrics and found Royal Apparel in New Jersey.
THS: You have a lot of pop culture references in your work, which of these are most influential and speak to you the most?
PG: I feel like I am trying to do new items all the time. I feel like the I am a Man piece speaks to me the most. I have been doing it in other languages(Spanish and Arabic) because it talks about the same thing. That we are all fighting for the same civil rights. From the Muslim ban to the Wall to DACA, they all fit together. I also don’t think it’s just about a man and your gender, but mankind.
THS: I’ve seen the pins you’ve done of Maxine Walters to the reference of bloody shoes from Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow, so it’s interesting where you are drawing inspiration from when you create these.
PG: Yeah it’s about keeping it light and keeping it fun. Keeping people in engaged in conversations. Who would have ever though Cardi B would be the first Afro-Latina on the Hip-Hop Billboards? I think a lot of my stuff starts conversations of where it came from or what it is. I recently started doing pins for the Schomburg Research Center in Harlem. My first pins for them were the Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye pins as well as some my t-shirts too. They asked me to do a Schomburg pin, I had no idea who he was. Just from the name, I thought it was a rich Jewish man who donated some money. After doing some research, I found out he was a Black Puerto-Rican man who started collecting art, books, slave narratives, and all sorts of historical materials that amounted to over 10,000 pieces. He became a curator, and his collection was purchased by New York Public Library and became a permanent branch.
THS: Wow! That’s amazing.
THS: It looks like you feature a lot of your pieces at markets. Why are those so important to your business and which ones are your favorite?
PG: AfroPunk is the best. Even though I am working it. It’s the people you meet and the conversations that you have. Coming from dance, people react to your work and see it as inspiring. Getting that same feedback from the work that I am doing now, and to see it still touching and speaks to people—it makes you know that you are doing the right thing.
THS: What’s the difference between those conversations, where the audience is black and brown people, and say conversations that are had at shows like One of a Kind?
PG: I think it’s the same thing. You’ve made that part of their life special, you’ve made that moment special. They tell you things like, ‘I am not a fashion person, but I got so many compliments.’ It makes you feel good that you helped make someone feel like their best. It is good too because a lot of markets don’t have a lot of menswear, so they are always looking for that.
THS: The statement messaging that you have on your pieces also stands out at those types of markets too.
PG: I feel like finding markets that are also geared towards black and brown people are also harder to find. One of a Kind I didn’t do this year. With the ties, it was fine. It was a great show, but I feel like I have plateaued there. I also feel, with the new items that I have added, that the target audience is not at One of a Kind. They don’t really advertise on the South Side or the West Side, so there are very few people of color there. There are other black artists, but there is not enough black art. I had a pretty interesting experience last year.
THS: What feedback did you get about your pieces?
PG: There were some women there who were kind of looking at it and throwing it. I had to walk away for a bit.
THS: So, it was the way it was handled.
PG: Yes. I mean, its funny because white people will ask me all the time, ‘can I wear the I am a Man shirt or Aint I a Woman.’ I think as long as you know what it means to you and are behind that movement—like Black Lives Matter. We need allies in the movement. And if you are wearing it because its trendy, then no, I wouldn’t want you to wear it. But, if its something you really believe in, and as a white person, you can really explain that, connect with that, and want to wear it, then yes. That movement(civil rights in the 1960’s), would not have happened without white allies and our movement today would not happen without allies from all over.
THS: That sounds like a much different experience than say, maybe someone shopping with you at Hyde Park Handmade.
PG: Right. Hyde Park Handmade is one of the better markets I do here. It’s small. It’s local. People get it. I don’t have to do a whole lot of explaining.
THS: Why have you made Chicago and specifically Bronzeville the base for Reformed School?
PG: I think Chicago will always be home base. I do love New York. The energy there is different. They shop differently too. Going to handmade markets has opened my eyes as to the amount of work that goes into what people are selling and the quality, as opposed to a retailer. Paying for people’s time and peoples craftsmanship—It taught me why it’s expensive. I want to split my time more between traveling and doing some other markets across the country.
THS: Where do you see fashion as it relates to Chicago going in the next five years? How is the creative community here in Chicago helping you grow your brand?
PG: I would possibly do a store. A collaborative space where we can host pop up shops. I think there’s a lot of room, especially on the South Side to keep it for us. These are our businesses and locally owned mom and pop shops. I think a lot of what made Chicago and places like Hyde Park, and places like the Silver Room, for instance, is that you could not find it anywhere else. It’s not like going to shops on Michigan Avenue and having the same options in Water Tower. It’s about making it a destination.
As people continue to reinvest in this community, I hope a lot of those spaces continue to become available in the South Side area. As I talk to other artists and creatives, we discuss how the studios and spaces that are needed are pretty much nonexistent on the South Side, at least outside of Pilsen. There are a few old CPS schools and places like the Shuzle building that would be great to rebuild. I want to be around for that.
Reformed School is continuing to make recycled materials upcycled statement pieces, that not only catch the eye but spark the conversation about history and culture. You can find Peter at local markets across Chicago selling his socially conscious goods all year long. His latest pieces can also be found on the Reformed School website.
Love this interview with Reformed School? Be sure to check out the previous Behind the Seams interview with Hoda Katebi.