Arts & Entertainment

‘It Was Clear That the Focus Was on Social Justice’: Rogers Park Custom T-Shirt Business on Their Unprecedented Start

Courtesy of Michael TrailerMother/son duo Renee Matsushima and Michael Trailer opened Tee Mart Decorated Apparel March 8.

Opening a small business is often an uphill battle. For mother/son duo Renee Matsushima and Michael Trailer, they welcomed the challenge as they opened a small t-shirt business in Rogers Park.

Located at 1445 W. Morse Ave, Tee Mart Decorated Apparel opened March 8, just a week before Chicago was struck with a stay-at-home order amid the pandemic.

Despite the unprecedented setback of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the duo has managed to kickstart a thriving business. While their initial expectation was to make shirts centered around holiday themes and family reunions, the reality was far different.

“With the tragic murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, it was clear that the focus was on social justice,” Matsushima, 59, said. “We picked up on that and came up with a few designs and the demand for those designs far outweighed the demand for anything else.”

Courtesy of Michael Trailer

The duo got the idea for the business thanks to Trailer’s degree in fashion merchandising. After long-time Rogers Park resident Matsushima retired, the pair decided to go into business together to pursue Trailer’s dream of owning a clothing store.

Among the restraints of operating a business amid a pandemic, they said they had to adapt greatly. The company added face masks to their merchandise as a response to community needs.

With booming sales attributed to merchandise in support of LGBTQ Pride and the Black Lives Matter movement, Tee Mart moved into a direction the owners didn’t expect — one that proved profitable.

While their initial plans didn’t include a social justice focus, the duo said they plan to maintain this direction moving forward. Trailer said Tee Mart has been an ally to many movements as a result of the collaborative aspect of the custom designs. 

Courtesy of Michael Trailer

Custom designs often end up on display in the window, with approval from the designer. Trailer said this helps Tee Mart act as an ally to causes, even when the owners aren’t directly a part of the cause.

“For any issue, we want to be a place that accepts that and [be] here for people to express themselves, regardless of if we are a part of that community or not,” Trailer, 33, said.

With Illinois’ transition to Phase 4 of its coronavirus response June 26, Tee Mart was able to open its doors after months of online-only business. Trailer said the Rogers Park community has been “on top of their game” maintaining their safety and complying with social distancing etiquette.

After posting in the Rogers Park Facebook group, 49th Ward Alderman Maria Hadden reached out to Matsushima about highlighting the business in the alderman’s weekly newsletter. Hadden couldn’t be reached for a comment. 

“The Rogers Park community has just been awesome,” Matsushima said. “Everybody made a point to come by and help and support us as a new business in Rogers Park.”

Although the circumstances have been entirely unordinary, Matsushima said the momentum from their social justice merchandise has brought them ahead of schedule. The duo is already looking for a bigger space in the area to expand the store.

“I don’t think that if everything would have went to plan, we would be as fulfilled as we are,” Trailer said. “As far as business goes, you kind of have got to roll with the punches and enjoy the ride.”

Even though it’s come with its challenges, Tee Mart has managed to survive a grueling few months for small business in America. The duo said they’ve found fulfillment in the atypical beginnings of their business. 

“When you actually put your own work into something … even a small sale feels so much better than getting your check at the end of the week working for someone else,” Trailer said.

Tee Mart Decorated Apparel is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. All Loyola students with a valid ID who shop in-store will receive a 10% discount through the end of August.

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