ROGERS PARK — Mother-and-son duo Michael Trailer and Renee Matsushima opened Tee Mart Decorated Apparel in March, thinking they would be busy all Spring making custom clothes for sports teams, family reunions and church outings.
Then the coronavirus pandemic swept into Chicago, forcing the new business to close its doors.
While the store was closed, massive racial justice movements sprung up throughout the country, denouncing the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and calling for the reform of racist institutions.
The social movement and the time afforded them by the closure gave Trailer and Matsushima an opportunity to think about how to help the cause. Now, with Tee Mart’s doors back open, the store has come to specialize in apparel with social justice messages.
“We want to be here to provide visibility for causes,” Trailer said. “You want to make sure you’re giving people a chance to express themselves. If there’s anything you want to bring interest to, it’ll be in the window the next day.”
Tee Mart Decorated Apparel opened March 8 at 1445 W. Morse Ave. Trailer had designed and produced clothing as a hobby and side project for six years.
With Matsushima now retired from her career as an accountant, Trailer decided to partner with his mom and open up a storefront for his clothing business.
One week after opening the store, Tee Mart was forced to close its doors.
“It was pretty jarring,” Trailer said. “You’ve taken this big step and are being forced to step down. It was a setback.”
The duo sold clothing online while waiting to reopen. When Tee Mart was allowed to reopen in early June, they saw the public’s preferences shifting from Father’s Day and summer-themed clothing to something more serious and practical.
The store began selling masks, including a mask that had pro-Black Lives Matter decals. It turned out to be a hit, the business owners said. They began stocking shirts with sayings like “solidarity” and “Black Lives Matter,” which have also proved popular, they said.
“In a normal summer, we’d be busy with family reunions, sports teams and that,” said Matsushima, who lives in Rogers Park. “We learned to adapt.”
Tee Mart stocks pre-made shirts and other apparel, but it specializes in custom-designed clothing, business uniforms and items like graduation signs.
Despite some fits and starts, Rogers Park has a diverse small business community well supported by residents, something that has proved beneficial to the nascent store.
“We had a few slow weeks, then they came in to help us out,” Trailer said. “The Rogers Park community has been very supportive and welcoming of Black businesses. Knowing that people are out there looking for Black businesses to support, it’s really heartwarming.”
Tee Mart Decorated Apparel is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
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