Since the birth of this country we call the United States of America, Black Americans have shaped, influenced and molded popular culture. The influence of Black culture can be found in music, dance, sports, literature, art and most of all, fashion. Over the years, Black American culture has ushered in countless fashion trends like the popularization of Cazal glasses or the iconic Michael Jackson Thriller jacket. Not to mention, much of modern-day fashion within and beyond Hip-Hop has specifically been influenced by the black LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately, black designers and black-owned apparel brands are often overlooked.
In 2015, the New York Times published “Fashion’s Racial Divide”. In the deep diving article, it was revealed that only twelve of the 470 members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America were Black. Three years later, leaders of the fashion world like Dapper Dan and Virgil Abloh are breaking ground in new territories. However, many Black-owned and operated brands are still overlooked. In an effort to better highlight these brands and the work they do to effect change in underrepresented communities, Def Pen’s Ryan Shepard spent some time looking into some of the most innovative Black-owned apparel brands you may not know about. This week, Ryan caught up with Philadelphia Printworks founder, Maryam Pugh.
Ryan Shepard: You founded Philadelphia Printworks alongside Ruth Perez in 2010. Since then, the brand has grown and flourished. What are some of the biggest obstacles in growing and expanding this business?
Maryam Pugh: The biggest obstacle for me has been learning how to run a business on the fly rather than having a business degree. I believe that there’s a certain amount of trial and error with any business. But, I think that having a business degree would have helped me to make smarter decisions the first time instead of having to learn the hard way.
What mistakes, if any, were made early on in the development of Phila Print that taught you the most?
I’ve been very intentional from the start about growing at a pace that we can sustain. Because we have taken our time, I think I’ve avoided most mistakes. But, there are still a few things I would have done differently. Namely, learning how to account for taxes as a self-employed entity was a huge transition. I came from a corporate environment where taxes were deducted automatically throughout my entire working life. Suddenly, I had to find a way to account for these details on my own. That was a large adjustment that I knew had to be figured out if we had any chance at remaining profitable. The second mistake was a collection of apparel we released without proper credit. We quickly realized the mistake and took steps to rectify and resolve the situation. But, it was an extremely valuable lesson. It’s very important that everyone who should be compensated is compensated.
The Philadelphia Printwork’s (@PhilaPrint) Twitter bio states that Phila Print is “a social justice apparel brand and screen printing workshop.” Labels like “social justice”, “conscious” and “woke” are thrown around a lot on social media. What does the phrase “social justice” mean at Phila Print?
I think it means the same thing to everyone. From my understanding, it means holding our government accountable, being an active participant in a democratic society, interrogating your own privilege, and working to reform or dismantle systems that do not benefit all of the people.
This summer, Phila Print partnered with the Women in Re-Entry Program at the People’s Paper Co-Op to create a t-shirt that spotlights the obstacles formerly incarcerated women face. How did that partnership come about and what did it accomplish?
The People’s Paper Co-Op reached out to Philadelphia Printworks to see if we wanted to support their partnership with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund for the 2018 Mama’s Bail Out Day. Mass incarceration and ending cash bail are two things that I’m passionate about. So, I jumped at the chance. From there, one of our graphic designers sat down with the Women In Re-Entry to create a design that reflected their thoughts and feelings. That stage in the process was crucial as it’s important to “pass the mic” to systemically marginalized people rather than to speak for them. Once they settled on a design, the People’s Paper Co-op had a community print day and gave out free t-shirts at events leading up to the Bail Out and Women In Re-Entry Day. Philadelphia Printworks released the design online in parallel to raise funds for the bailout. We donated 100% of the profit to the bailout and continue to do so. Shirts were also offered as incentives as part of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund fundraising campaign. To date, we’ve raised almost $2,500 for bailouts and the t-shirts have helped to bring awareness to the movement.
“I’d like to be apart of the blueprint for organizing. I want to make it easier for the next generation to continue the work.”
What are other events and partnerships have you had in the past that you also feel were successful?
We’ve also partnered with the Chicago based youth-led organization BYP100 on a limited edition design celebrating civil rights activist Ella Baker. That sold out in 3 days. We’ve worked with the Institute of Contemporary Art of Philadelphia on a few successful events: Break the System a panel on prison abolition and Praise the Lorde a series of workshops and panels celebrating Audre Lorde. Both included live screenprinting of limited edition designs.
We’ve worked with youth programs such as the Bronx based DreamYard Art Center on a workshop and more currently we’re participating in a residency program with the Mural Arts of Philadelphia’s Artrepreneurs.
I also love that we highlight poc, queer, trans, artists in our market. This business model gives them a more equitable profit breakdown that they would find almost anywhere else.
As Phila Print nears its tenth anniversary, what’s next in store?
Wow, 10 years. I’d like to continue to build relationships with current social justice movements both nationally and locally. We’ll continue to amplify and bring awareness to marginalized voices. I hope to expand our printshop to include printmaking workshops and I’d like to begin to offer fulfillment services for other black or poc owned small businesses. Maybe even open a brick and mortar one day.
In closing, when it’s all said and done, what do you hope Phila Print’s legacy is?
I’d like to be apart of the blueprint for organizing. I want to make it easier for the next generation to continue the work. As Shirley Chisholm said, I’d like PPW to be remembered as a “catalyst for change”. And I’d love to be named among the many print shops that supported the movement during this period in time.
Learn more about Philadelphia Printworks and the work they do by visiting PhiladelphiaPrintworks.com