Technology, social justice inspire pair of Illinois fashion entrepreneurs
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Annie Mohaupt’s shoe manufacturer Mohop utilizes cutting-edge digital technology, but the original inspiration for her business was completely analog.
As a kid growing up in Pecatonica, an Illinois town about 100 miles northwest of Chicago, she’d watch her mother shear sheep on their family-owned farm and spin the wool into yarn to make clothes for her children.
“Seeing her transform these natural products into something beautiful and functional, that kind of inspired me to make shoes out of trees,” said the 43-year-old entrepreneur, who in December 2017 moved her 13-year-old firm from Chicago to a 10,000-square-foot factory in Rockford.
Those shoes don’t magically appear out of trees, of course. The process is aided by robots. Mohaupt’s business is the first in the U.S. to fabricate mass-customizable footwear and accessories using digital scanning and 3D manufacturing techniques.
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Mohop shoes and accessories are “designed + crafted . . . by an artist, an architect, and their robots,” the website says of the firm she runs with her partner Justin Walker.
He’s the artist. She’s the architect.
Their products are made from scratch, using vegan, recycled, and fair-trade materials such as faux leather and the shoes are meticulously carved from wood. They’re available online and in select boutiques.
Mohaupt’s journey — from promising young architect to innovative shoemaker — wasn’t planned.
She spent eight years at architectural firms before chucking that career for shoemaking in 2005, wanting to work with her hands.
That’s a rarity considering that the footwear industry is all but non-existent in the United States.
“It’s a huge, huge industry, over $82 million,” said Mohaupt, who obtained her architectural degree from the University of Illinois in 1998. “But over 98 percent of (footwear) is made in other countries, because of the labor involved. The average shoe contains over 70 different components, and with the way shoes are traditionally made, there’s really no good way to automate it.”
Mohaupt was determined to use technology to find a solution to the problem of exploited labor overseas. She started incorporating machines she learned about through her architecture career to carve the wooden footbeds of shoes three-dimensionally.
“I started using and incorporating these emerging technologies, which involved a lot less labor, and what we ended up doing is actually re-engineering the way shoes are made,” she said.
Dancer-turned-designer Peter Gaona, owner of the five-year-old online retailer Reformed School is also about making handcrafted clothing using sustainable materials. But he’s got a different kind of mission in mind.
The bow ties, fashion and wearable art he makes from repurposed vintage fabrics, leathers and recycled plastic bottles are designed to shine a spotlight on both social justice and African Diasporan history.
“I started out with bow ties. Then in response to the shootings of black men around the country, I did a recreation of the ‘I Am a Man’ poster” from the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that Dr. Martin Luther King was championing when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.
“I made that out of a felt created from recycled plastic bottles, and sewed that onto the back of an old denim jacket, like an applique. I began wearing that to different markets where I was selling the bowties, and people were like, ‘I want one. You should add this to your line,’ ” said the 41-year-old Afro-Latino entrepreneur, who lives in Bronzeville.
Reformed School was birthed one day while he was looking for a denim bowtie to wear to an event.
“I couldn’t find one, and couldn’t afford the ones I found online. I was like, ‘I think I can make this.’ I cut up old jeans and started experimenting. Then I took an entrepreneurship class, and that’s where I got the idea of starting a bow tie business.”
Gaona got help and feedback by selling his bowties at Shop Columbia, the retail store for student products at Columbia College in Chicago, where he was in enrolled. He went back to work at the Chicago High School for the Arts another two years after graduating.
“This was just something I was doing on the side. But after I started adding different pieces to my line, it kind of got to be a lot. I stopped working and focused on building my business,” said Gaona, whose work has been commissioned by such organizations as the Schomburg Center for Black Research, and the Ailey School, both in New York.
His two-bedroom apartment, however, is now so overrun with fabrics, equipment, and displays that he can no longer use his kitchen.
“The goal for this year: Get a separate workspace,” he said. “I feel like the business has been steadily progressing. But I don’t want to change the branding or the mission of what I want Reform School to be: Using eco-fashion to educate people about the environment as well as history and social justice.”