Words – Justin Howard @Jthnomad
Povertees is a new fashion brand that takes the concept of cause-based clothing to a whole new level. Where instead of giving a hand out, they give a hand up to homeless in Los Angeles, by employing homeless women directly in the creation of the collection. The boys behind Povertees, Tyler and Hughie, came up with the idea after working for a few years with the homeless of Skid Row, where they discovered the hunger of the homeless to rise up out of homelessness.
Povertees – A Fashionable Cause
JTH – Povertees has been around for two years now?
Hughie – We are about to hit our third year. Povertees really started longer ago then that. It started back in 2007, my co-workers Tyler, he is my best friend, he started it. He transferred to Hope University from Pepperdine, which is where I meet him. He told me this idea he was starting and he knew how to sew from high school. He would buy women’s jeans from Ross and then taper them down into skinny jeans. He said “I know how to sew and I think pockets are going to be big.” This was back in 2007. He thought pocket tees were going to be big, so he taught himself how to make a shirt. He wanted to sell them and to use the money to help someone else. So he did just that.
I met him and joined Povertees in 2009. It really started with him going down with a group of his friends and meeting homeless people, right outside Skid Row. Closer to the Fashion District. They would bring them food, clothing and blankets. They just talked to them.
Tyler always says it quickly became apparent in the beginning that these people valued their relationships more then the handouts they got. They valued the community more than anything else. That is what kept Tyler going back down there. Most of these people are chronically homeless.
JTH – Is that because they are experiencing mental illnesses?
Hughie – In most of them, there was no sign of mental illness per se. Some signs of mental or psychological trauma. It was usually in most of the people I talked to, ‘I had a good life, I was married and I had kids. I had a good job and one thing kinda fell apart after the other. Then I turned to alcohol, I was on the street. Or I turned to ‘this’ when I was on the streets. Then I met these people and I have been here ever since.” Because they do find a sense of community down on the streets. Which I think a lot of people don’t realize. I didn’t realize it until I had worked with the homeless for a few years. So that is why it can daunting for the chronically homeless to get up off the streets.
JTH – Because they lose their families.
Hughie – They lose their families and they become isolated. How they navigate such a broken system. But as we spent time with these people, we would take them to rehab programs when they asked. Taking them to the DVM so they could get their IDs, so they could get housing. Taking them to court if they needed it. But we did it in a way, truly trying to respect their autonomy so that when they asked we are just there to support them. We are available, we will still hang out with you, but we are available. As all that transpired, we graduated from college. We went through that period ‘what is the point of anything? what is the purpose of life?’ I was working three jobs as was Tyler.
JTH – The questioning phase. It sounds like you guys were miserable.
Hughie – Yeah, we were barely doing anything from Povertees. Because it was just the two of us. We decided that we might as well give it a shot. I made the personal decision, I know twenty years from now I am going to regret more if I didn’t give this a shot than if I gave it a shot and it completely failed in a year. We decided just to do it. We held a fundraiser back in Orange Country with my social network of friends, family. We raised eleven thousand dollars, so we quit our jobs and moved to LA on that for two people to run a non-profit organization. Let me tell you what, that isn’t nearly enough money to do any of the above. That was in June of 2013, since then it has been us trying to hone in our brand identity. Really kinda nail out what our mission is, and what our impact is. All the while still trying to grow what we are doing. That leads us to today where most of our closest friends are off the streets. Once that happened we asked ourselves ‘Do we keep going back to the streets? Trying to make new friends? Spending years and years to do that? Trying to gain their trust? Or do we try to do something that is more necessary and truly needed?’ That is when we came up with the idea of social enterprise.
Now we provide jobs to women who are getting off the streets of Downtown LA, who are getting off the streets and transitioning out of homelessness. They work directly alongside us in-house making the clothing, doing order fulfillment, customer service, and event sales. We give them that opportunity while working within a supportive community. What most people don’t realize is that when a woman, or a man for that matter, is in transition out of homelessness, their situation is so very very volatile. They need flexibility and their need a supportive community. We aren’t only giving them a pay check and a job, we want them to feel like they have a space where they belong.
They can be confident, they can be themselves. We also help them attain permanent housing. We help them figure out any types of programs they need to ascertain to enter. If they want to go back to school we try to implement a way that they can be successful in that. Povertees is not the dream for these women. But it is a leg up. That is the goal for us.
JTH – You are giving them the skills they need to survive and thrive back in society. When you give someone the tools, and teach them how to use them, 90% of the time they will take it to heart. They will fly.
Hugh – Yes. We make all of our own clothing in LA we make all our own shirts. We cut and sew from start to finish. When working with these various factories throughout LA that we monitor to make sure they have fair wages, ethical practices and conditions. As we worked with them, it gave us an insight into what that environment was like. What a factory position can be like. Obviously we want our own factory that is totally integrated from top to bottom. All the productions made there and it is run mainly by men and women transitioning out of homelessness. That is a big goal for us.
At the same time, it isn’t just with factories, it is really with any position around the world. So much of the job becomes monotonous work, it is dehumanizing. So we are doing our absolute best to make sure the positions we offer, providing a humanizing spot for these women. Also to shed light for other companies that we can provide humanizing work for people. Our new push is that we now do wholesale. Say your a company and you need t-shirts with your logo on it. Screen printed or anything like that. You give it to your employees and your clients. We do all that stuff now in Los Angeles. We do because we want businesses to know to that they can support social enterprise, by buying the shirts they are going to buy already but be selective who they buy it from.
JTH – You are showing companies and factories out there that they don’t have to have these dehumanizing jobs. The old factory model just doesn’t work anymore, we are to much of an open society, we are too egalitarian as a culture. We want to be humanized. It doesn’t matter if it is social media, or work, they all want to feel alive. What I got from what you just said is no matter if you are now doing wholesale, the people you employ are feeling like they are contributing in a meaningful way.
Hughie – That is what we want people to notice. So many non-profits have a very small amount of donors that give a lot. We want to have a broad base of support. We want the artist who maybe can’t donate money to work with us in our community art collective, summit designs that we will pay they for and they will get exposure. We want to be the company that buys five thousand shirts a year, but they just want to a little bit more responsible in the way they buy them. We want them to know they are providing jobs and opportunities over hand outs. We want the donors who have money. We want students, both young and college age to know they can be part of it. Whether it is raising their voice, sending in notes that are kind to our employees. It is the little things. We can all be a part of it which is why our tag line is ‘Life Sewn Together.’
I think a large part of that is our supply line, we have found the most amazing factory. We love working with this group so much because they take care of their employees so well. They have received all these awards. Even working with them and letting them know that are part of our supply chain is having a direct impact on the opportunities we are able to provide.
JTH – Which in turn encourages them to keep doing what they are doing.
Hughie – Exactly.
JTH – So talk to me. You walk a very interesting line between charity and fashion. When people think of people making clothing they don’t think of charitable enterprises. They think of little Mexican ladies serving hems all day. Tell me what your reception in the fashion world has been. Walk me through how you found your niche in that area.
Hughie – You know we are still small in comparison to a lot of groups. Usually the response I get when talking to people in the fashion industry is they applaud the effort. I have been told to my face ‘that’s an uphill battle.’ We make everything in America, we source everything here. We do it to provide living wages for people. And is there some truth to that statement? Probably. It doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. I think when Tom’s first started, we started to see this new spotlight on cause based clothing and product. Obviously Tom’s model is the one for one. But for us, when Tyler first started going to LA working with the homeless, it was for us to learn from them. 100%. As we spent time with them, we realized providing hand outs within our community wasn’t going to work. These people wanted opportunity and needed opportunity. Again within a supportive community. How we kinda fell into our niche was realizing providing jobs for people is absolutely massive. Absolutely massive. Helping them attain permanent housing is absolutely massive. So doing both those things is really important to us. Plus understanding the idea that people are always going to buy shirts, and if we can provide quality products be it wholesale or retail. Honestly it is a win-win. We kinda over time realized it and we believe it. That is what we push for now all the time. You are going to buy a shirt come to us!
JTH – Are you wearing Povertees right now?
Hughie – It is. This is one of our new colors. Technically tri blend. We have a number of colors coming with our new line. Super excited. Tyler, our CEO & Founder, he does all our creative direction. A lot of the new line is inspired by color palette of Matisse. Just ‘cause art is huge inspiration in what we do.
JTH – A lot of the time when I talk to people working for charities they speak of getting ‘burnt out’ from simply doing too much. You guys went directly from college to Povertees. Tell me a success story. Tell me a moment where you guys didn’t know if it was worth going forward, but you had an awakening moment…
Hughie – I can tell you there have been a number of moments when the funds are just low and I am laying awake at night counting every penny and every dollar. Where is it and how long is it going to last? Where is the money going to come from? It is absolutely frightening because we are doing this as responsibly as we can. But being in a start up the money comes in ebbs and flows. Sometimes months are huge and sometimes months are not huge. There have been a couple moments like that. I have had to ask myself is it worth going? To put up with this type of stress? It is taking a toll on my body. Physically. For Tyler and me both. Physically it has been draining to us in a lot of ways. To me I have to remind myself of a few things. One is that I left three other jobs that I hated to pursue this which has been my dream. Two is that I have a responsibility to everyone that has donated to us to go until every single penny is gone or until something happens physically where I can’t work. Most importantly, I believe we are creating something that can be beneficial. With that I believe there is a responsibility to the men and the women who are trying to get their feet back under them. We are providing a space for them to help themselves. So I don’t know if there has been ‘one’ moment but there have been lots of moments. What do they say is the difference between a successful person and a non-successful person is? A successful person has failed more times then the other person has tried. I am not saying I am successful, but that concept of we are literally constantly learning.
JTH – As a start-up you have to be constantly aware of what works and what doesn’t work. Where is the money going and how can you meet your deadlines? You have to be your own boss and employee all at once.
Hughie – Are far as success stories go I have two that I want to share that meant a lot to us because of the time invested and the circumstance. The first woman we hired, Q is her name, she couldn’t get Section 8 because the system was so compacted. She couldn’t get low-income housing and all that stuff. She found this one program that got her housing but the situation was really bad. She needed to find housing immediately and I basically spent a whole week working on it full-time. I kept calling everyone getting closed door after closed door. Honestly I felt like I was slamming my head against the wall, getting no answers. I realized how compacted the system is for people trying to get off the streets. Because she wasn’t mentally ill or an addict. So she wasn’t considered highly vulnerable. Even though she is the perfect candidate to provide housing to because she wants to get off the streets. She is hungry for it.
It ended up being one of those things where we both kept at it and then we got the call she got a place. I remember how excited she was when she got there and I helped her move in. How grateful she was that in the midst of all this hardship we were able to make it work.
The last one is the most confusing thing. Our oldest homeless friend, for some reason his name on his birth certificate and his social security card are different. He doesn’t have an ID right now and he can’t collect SSI which gets him housing without an ID. He can’t get an ID because his birth certificate and his social security card don’t match. So huge problem because you go to one department and they tell you to talk to the other department. So through hell and high water, after two years of working on this. Two years… Finally with the assistance of Public Counsel, an incredible group that provides legal aid for non-profits and individuals. We just found out his judge has approved it, so he can get his ID, collect SSI and get housing. He is our longest and oldest friend. Tyler worked on that for two years.
JTH – What blows my mind is that these are things that could literally be fixed by the press of a button.
Hughie – It is truly unbelievable at times.
JTH – It sounds like you guys are very enthused, excited yet very realistic about what you can do.
Hughie – We are very excited. We are in the process of hiring on two more women part-time which is extremely exciting. We are starting a new program that is looking at seasonal positions for these women. Much more of a transitional job for them. I mean if we like them and they like us, we want them to stay longer. We are just looking at a 4 to 6 month turn-around time. Nothing is set in stone, we are just looking at things. We want to provide more opportunities for more people and go from there. I am excited about the future. Every month brings its own challenges and victories. I think the important part is having a vision you believe in, a community of people around you who believe in it and who are willing to sacrifice to bring it into reality.
Follow Povertees www.Povertees.com