By Ben Joravsky
It was a bolt of creativity that inspired Alvin Rogers to create Pe-s-Me-nz-Pe-s, a men’s clothing line. And it was the patient tutelage of Jim McKeown, a retired businessman, that helped him set it up.
Over the last six months, Pe-s-Me-nz-Pe-s, which is run out of a drab office in a drafty northwest-side warehouse, has become a favorite fashion line among rappers and hip-hop artists. It’s also the latest success story to emerge from the little-known business program McKeown teaches at Hull House’s Uptown branch.
“I’m very proud of what Alvin’s accomplished,” says McKeown. “I like to think I had some hand in his success.”
Eighteen years ago, a successful clothing line was the last thing Rogers would have foreseen for his future. He was then a west-side teenager harboring dreams of fame and fortune playing jazz saxophone. But within a year of graduating from Prosser High School he was the married father of a baby boy, and he knew such dreams were unrealistic.
Instead he graduated from Roosevelt University with a degree in computer science; by 1989 he was working as a computer programmer for Allstate Insurance. “It was the most conventional lifestyle you can imagine,” he says. “There I was, commuting every day to my job in corporate America. Believe me, I had no business in corporate America. But I needed the job so that’s where I was.”
A day didn’t go by when he didn’t feel out of place. “I wore the corporate outfit–Dockers pants and Polo shirts. I’m the kind of guy who wants to do things my way, and that’s just not the way it goes in corporate America, which is more conducive to the fall-in-line personality.
“I was able to do some creative things. I set up a program where inner-city kids could come in to get training. It got a glowing write-up in Allstate’s in-house magazine. My bosses kept telling me, ‘Alvin, this is great. But you’re doing everything except programming.'”
The idea of designing and marketing his own line of clothes came to him while he was commuting to work. “I started with the idea of T-shirts,” he says. “I was always a good artist, always had an eye for clothes. I pushed the shirts to a few stores and had some success, but that kind of fell out. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had no plan, no sense of my market. There was so much I didn’t know.”
In 1993 he enrolled in the Hull House business development program. “This program might be different than what most people associate with Hull House,” says Lorena Alfaro, coordinator of business development at the Uptown-based agency. “It’s not about social service. It’s about economic empowerment and self-sufficiency. It’s a course for people who want to start their own businesses but don’t know how.”
It’s taught by McKeown, who brings in lawyers, accountants, and business executives to provide assistance for the students. Over the years they’ve had a few success stories, including Mike Skowronski, who founded Anywhere Mini Golf, a portable golf game.
“I can relate to the students,” says McKeown, who once owned a manufacturing company. “I started my own businesses on a shoestring and I was successful enough to put eight kids through college and marry off five daughters. I have experience to share with the younger folks. A lot of class is less lecturing and more talking as equals and sharing a common journey.”
To McKeown, there was nothing immediately noteworthy about Rogers. As McKeown saw it, it was his duty to dispel the illusion that success is routine. “I tell the students there are two main principles to business–you must understand your market and you must conserve your capital,” says McKeown. “You don’t want to overextend yourself. You don’t want to enter the business world without a plan. It’s really very simple–if you run out of money you’re dead in the water. You have to know how to manage risk.”
The course was much more difficult than Rogers expected. “Midway through the course I sat down with Alvin to have a talk, as I do with all the students,” says McKeown. “I suggested that he not go on. It’s not that he couldn’t do it. He just wasn’t doing what had to be done.”
Rogers says he didn’t have enough time to handle all the work. “I was working at Allstate and trying to sell my products and take the class,” he says. “I decided I needed more time. I came back a year later.”
By then he had a sharper idea of what he wanted to do. “I wrote a mission statement asking myself, what are you in business for, what is it that’s going to drive your business, who are your customers, what are his or her likes? I decided that I wanted to create a certain look that reflected a certain viewpoint or outlook. The kind of clothes I design are upscale but casual. I know that sounds contradictory but it’s not. You can wear them to a nightclub or restaurant or to work.
“I want the pants to be a little bigger, so you can feel a little more relaxed. That’s going to be key in the next few years–feeling relaxed, looking relaxed. You can see it happening already in corporate America, where they have one casual day a week. I wanted natural fibers, like cotton, and soft colors–blues, oranges, heather, or lime greens. I designed a logo and came up with a name that says we’re about more than clothes. It says we should try to introduce some entrepreneurial ideas to our community, so we’re not all about killing ourselves or dealing with drugs.”
His business plan talked about linking his clothing lines to rap groups and hip-hop artists and then crossing over.
This time McKeown was impressed. Rogers was named the top entrepreneur in the class. Hull House arranged a $10,000 start-up loan. A few months later he received a conventional SBA loan.
Earlier this year he moved into the warehouse. Soon he was flying across the country, presenting his clothes at trade shows. As he predicted, his early success was among the hip-hop crowd. He became friends with the late DJ Pink House, who introduced him to artists and bands. He sold to JCPenney, Carson Pirie Scott, and the Rochester Big & Tall shops. “We did OK with JCPenney but I think we were a little too sophisticated for the line they’re trying to sell,” he says. “I’ve had better success with Carson’s and Rochester’s. We’re in four Carsons, eight Rochester stores, which is a big breakthrough. They’re not known for hip-hop clothing. We’re also in about 30 specialty stores throughout the country.”
Despite his success, he’s starting to run into some resistance from buyers who don’t want to become too closely affiliated with a “black” line.
“The traditional salespeople don’t work with me–they’re either selling for upscale or ethnic stores,” he says. “Well, I want to end that. Some buyers conclude whites won’t buy a hip-hop line and that’s all there is to it. I don’t see it that way. I’ve seen how music moves people. We’ve crossed a lot of barriers in music. Why not in clothes?
“America’s painted us black and white–there’s no place in between. Why can’t a black fashion represent a look for white people too? I think I can present a look that’s fashionable to upscale, hip-hop, and the white kid on his skateboard. I want to break through, but it’s a struggle. Everyday I stay positive. I got my mission, I’ve got my plan. I’ve got the things I learned at Hull House. I’m going to break through.”
Lisa Alvarado Gets Her Due
Lisa Alvarado was putting the last touches on her Thanksgiving turkey when the check arrived.
You might remember her from last week’s story: she’s the poet in Pilsen who had been bugging the Randolph Street Gallery for the $1,500 they owed her. For over two months Randolph’s operators either ducked her calls or refused to explain why they hadn’t paid the final half of the $3,000 grant she needed to stage her multimedia show in Pilsen.
“We were having Thanksgiving on Wednesday because we had things to do on Thursday when Laurie Kerlin called,” says Alvarado, referring to the gallery’s business manager. “She said she had a check for me. I said, ‘Call my attorney.’ I’d heard it all before and I didn’t want any more runaround. She said, ‘No, really. I can hand-deliver it myself.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’
“Well, a little while later the doorbell rang and there she was, standing on the front step shivering in the cold and looking like a major hand-whipped puppy. First thing I did on Friday morning was to call their bank and make sure they had enough money in their account to cover it. I’ll be able to do a truncated version of the show in late February.”
Late last week Randolph Street officials announced that they had overextended themselves by purchasing their building and that they would be closed for a few months in order to get their finances in order. “I guess they had bigger problems than me,” says Alvarado. “After this, I don’t imagine I’ll be invited to many more wine and cheese openings.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Alvin Rogers by Jon Randolph.