Retrofit Republic: Finding a Style of Their Own
Retrofit Republic is a sustainable style and vintage retailer in San Francisco, California that recycles and curates used clothing. The small business, run by an intimate team of three, offers commercial and personal styling and shopping, wedding and bridal services, and aesthetic support for special events. Their carefully selected clothing collection features vintage pieces as well as pre-owned and refurbished garments and accessories that represent diverse lifestyles. They look to complement the many shapes and sizes of their customers through different forms and expressions of beauty. Through fashion, Retrofit aims to express beautiful narratives about communities of color and engage community activism and social justice.
Co-Founders and Executive Stylists Julia H. Rhee and Jenny Ton tell ALIST the story of how Retrofit started with a yard sale.
Over two years ago, friends Julia and Jenny moved to the Lower Haight neighborhood of San Francisco to work in the non-profit world. Faced with the space limitations of urban dwellings, they cleaned out their closets to make room for new beginnings. The popularity of their small yard sale sparked the idea to create a vintage clothing and styling shop committed to the vision of doing good and looking good.
Jenny started thrifting at a young age in order to find clothes for herself. In an immigrant, working class family of six kids, necessity was the only reason to own or buy anything. Not wanting to let people know she got her clothes from the local thrift store, she found creative ways to conceal the true nature of her hand-me-downs.
Similarly, Julia also grew up in an immigrant household. Her parents worked full-time and she spent a lot of time with her grandmother, who gave her early lessons in sustainability. “My grandmother reused, recycled, and reduced everything. She wore the same pants for 30 years!” says Julia.
Jenny caught the bug for grassroots organization in middle school when she participated in a protest at Baldwin Park against the police department’s treatment of immigrants. When she attended college at the University of California-Berkeley, she began to connect her upbringing in a disenfranchised neighborhood with socioeconomic and racial disparities. Her passion for social justice work, particularly around organizing Southeast Asian youth, was linked directly to her awareness of gaps in resources in lower-income communities of color. For Julia, her political identity revolved around her coming into her racial and ethnic identity. “I grew up in a predominantly white environment and did whatever I could to fit in. It wasn’t until these women of color came into my life that I realized my experiences weren’t isolated. There was a historical condition that validated my experiences of racism. When I started college in New York, I went from being unable to tell people I was Asian American to being so proud of my identity,” said Julia.
Daniel Tran joined the Retrofit family a little bit later as a graphic designer. He also grew up in a large immigrant family, and from elementary school to junior high, he helped his family at a flea market. “We’re really fortunate to have Daniel come through,” says Julia. “We were blown away by his work as a designer. When you start a small business, you’re doing it yourself. Daniel really boosted the brand by making us look really professional.”
Linking With Their Communities
Retrofit’s business model is based upon socially responsible foundations and initiatives that support lower-income populations, communities of color, and the LGBTQ community. They work with a wide range of clients, including community members, personal friends, and hip hop and performance artists. They also style fashion shows for non-profit organizations.
“It’s exciting to be able to link with our community. We wanted to have a fashion company and still do good at the same time. We’re fortunate to have a strong and large community of organizers and people working in the non-profit sector. It’s important for us that in selling vintage and pre-owned clothes, we make sure style is always affordable in our community,” says Jenny.
To show support for the community, their Fall 2011 Community Heroes look book featured local leaders in a variety of fields and representing many different identities. Another recent Retrofit community collaboration is with Thick Dumpling Skin, an initiative by Lisa Lee, writer and publisher, and Lynn Chen, actress, to highlight diverse body types and lifestyles for Asian Americans. The joint project, Real Bodies Manifesto, is a photo-shoot and look book focusing on real people with real bodies that represent the Asian American community in terms of body size, skin color, and heritage. “We teamed up with them to reclaim space for Asian American women. So much of the media gets to prescribe how we’re supposed to look and talk. All the models we use are people of color. There’s a shortage of good-looking people of color and good-looking Asians that are represented. Growing up, there was a trauma of not having Asian Barbies or Asian GI Joes or Asian American role models in media or politics. We see more of it now but we’re trying to make up for lost time,” says Julia.
Retrofit has more projects on their calendar that will be both creative and engaging. One of them will be a queer wedding styling look book in response to current legislation and the political discourse around LGBTQ communities. You can stay updated with them by visiting their website at retrofitrepublic.com or if you’re lucky enough to be in the Bay Area, you can book a complimentary styling session online to check out their incredible collection and talent firsthand.
Summer Weddings And Such
Another project they recently finished was a summer wedding and engagement look book. The team is looking to grow the wedding area of their business.
“That’s one of our favorite opportunities to style, because we work with clients on a close [and] personal level,” says Jenny. “For the look book, we launched a contest looking for a couple that was engaged, who identified as people of color or were multiracial. We wanted to show how beautiful our community is and there’s not a lot of opportunity to promote people of color in that way. We’re really excited because it’s a family engagement look book. Usually look books spotlight the couple, but our winner had a young son and the bride was 5-months pregnant. It was an inspiring way to highlight the beauty of motherhood by showing her curves and her beautiful belly.”
Daniel was extremely excited about the opportunity to design the engagement look book and share the couple’s story visually. He says, “When people think of weddings, they think of just the bride and the gown, but our approach is very unique in that there’s a story of the family and the couple.”
Daniel is also working on a new stationary line for weddings, called Aria Stationary, with his partner. He brings Retrofit’s sustainability model to his invitations as well.
“I’m designing an invitation for our friend who is getting married at a bookstore. I used brown bags as the paper material and with the type, there’s a newsprint aesthetic,” said Daniel. He is in the process of shooting all his sample work and putting together a website so he can launch the company in the fall. There will be 20 different designs that are all very typographically driven.
Asian Pacific American Vagina Monologues
Retrofit constantly looks for new opportunities. They are attentive and intentional in ensuring that their projects and collaborations are aligned with their communities’ and their business’ values. As members of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), both Jenny and Julia took part in the Asian Pacific American Vagina Monologues this past spring as a way to celebrate Asian American women. Not only did Retrofit sponsor the show and helped outfit the performers, but Julia served as the Executive Producer and Jenny directed the video for their public service announcement. When the show debuted, there was a packed house at San Francisco’s Castro Theater.
“It was a such a powerful experience,” says Jenny. “It was my first time performing on stage and …it was amazing to share the space with so many talented women. When you put it all together, the entire production was just magical. It’s a great way to bring visibility for women and girls…and an all APA cast? That’s not something you get to see often.” “One of the great advantages and privileges of being your own boss and small business owner is that we never have to choose between what we love to do and the communities we ally ourselves with,” says Julia.
For more information on Retrofit Republic, visit their website here.
To see more pictures from our exclusive photoshoot with Jenny, Julia, and Daniel, click here.
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