On any given day, Peter Gaona is the personification of cool.
With his penchant for vintage jackets, bow ties and a killer pair of eyewear, it’s no surprise that Gaona is the founder behind Reformed School– one of Chicago’s most distinct independent clothing and accessory brands.
Reformed School uses recycled materials and repurposes them to create uniquely fashionable, socially conscious eco-wear. From its colorful bowties to its statement tees, Reformed School pieces create a conversation.
Interestingly, despite his thoughtfully crafted brand mission, Gaona’s foray into fashion as a business wasn’t part of a master plan. He began creating bow ties for himself, and the demand simply followed. “I wanted a denim tie, but I couldn’t find one. I just took one apart just to see how it was made. I had a bunch of old jeans that I was going to throw away or donate so just cut some of them up and made a bow tie out of it. I had some leather pants too. And I kinda just started mixing and matching- just for myself. When I would wear them, people would say, ‘oh that’s cool, make me one.’ But I didn’t know what to charge people, I didn’t know anything really, ” Gaona shares. What he did know was how to sew. Then, a professional dancer, Gaona had taken sewing lessons to create affordable dancewear. However, turning tie making into tie selling wasn’t yet a priority.
Two years later, while completing his degree at Columbia College, Gaona took an Entrepreneurship class that rekindled the idea of starting of a business-at least part-time. “I was thinking I ‘m a full time student and I can sell these bow ties on the side to make some money,” Gaona shares.
The class proved hugely beneficial, and gave him the fundamentals to get started. “It allowed me to research how to operate a business without a physical location. It allowed me to research and figure out should I get a website right away, how to do pop up shops, etc.,” says Gaona. Upon the advice of friends, he decided to sell his bow ties and label pins via an Etsy shop.
Gaona continued to make unique clothing items for himself, and once again, his personal style would inadvertently lead to a winning sales idea. Gaona took an old denim jacket and sewed on a handmade applique of the iconic “I Am a Man” poster. “In response to the killing of Black men all over the country, I wanted a statement that I could wear that still had historical value.” Gaona states. While wearing the jacket at a local pop-up market, a friend urged him to add it to his collection. He did. The positive response led him to expand Reformed School to include more social commentary items.
Today, you can find Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith (1968 Olympic icon) hoodies among the many items available in the Reformed School product line. His social message pins even come with a historical bio card. It’s important to Gaona that wearers understand the meaning behind the fashion. “When you wear something, I want you to know and be able to talk about why you’re wearing this pin. Or what does it mean. Who that person is. To be able to teach other people. To start conversation about race and ethnicity, music and culture.”
Reformed School doesn’t always strike a serious tone, though. Reformed School gives a nod to pop culture with fun pins of notable figures from Stevie Wonder to Maxine Waters. A Sade Eco Tee was recently added to the collection.
Currently, Gaona is working on expanding the Reformed School brand beyond Chicago. For years, he’s had successful runs at the Afropunk Festival in New York, and this year had a great turn at his first visit to the Essence Festival in New Orleans. His Arturo Schomburg lapel pins can be found at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.
Fortunately for us, Chicago is home and Reformed School will be around for a while. You can currently find Reformed School items at The Silver Room, Jo Jayden (bowties) and the online Reformed School Etsy Shop.