A new ‘School of Thought:’ collegiate fashion inspired by black leaders

Philadelphia Printworks, a screen-printing T-shirt company, recently released the collection “School of Thought,” featuring college-style sweatshirts with designs inspired by legacies of famous black leaders.

One of the photos in the "School of Thought" lookbook features a wide display of the collegiate-style apparel. | Courtesy of Philadelphia Printworks
One of the photos in the "School of Thought" lookbook features a wide display of the collegiate-style apparel. | Courtesy of Philadelphia Printworks

Maryam Pugh said activism is part of her DNA.

So when she co-founded Philadelphia Printworks, a screen printing T-shirt company, in 2011, she combined her interest in DIY aesthetics with her own activist voice.

“At the beginning it was just to really get the word out about different topics and ideas,” Pugh said. “And it kind of developed into trying to encourage a culture of activism and inclusion.”

Philadelphia Printworks creates T-shirts and sweatshirts with designs inspired by social issues, like feminism and gentrification, as well as the legacies of revolutionary leaders.

Released Dec. 9, the most recent collection, “School of Thought,” features college-style sweatshirts based off the namesakes of famous black historical leaders.

“The whole point of the ‘School of Thought’ collection is to tip our hats or nod to the double consciousness that African Americans feel and all people of color feel in the country,” Pugh said. “It comes from us having to educate ourselves.”

Pugh teamed up with designer Donte Neal, also known as Mars Five, to create the “School of Thought” collection.

The two first met when Philadelphia Printworks, which now exists completely online with production outsourced to California, still operated its screen-printing production out of a studio in Window Factory Arts at 2301 N. 9th St., where Neal also had his own graphic design studio.

Since they first met in 2011, Neal and Pugh discussed the possibility of a collaboration, but the duo wasn’t able to team up until last year when they began work on the “School of Thought” collection.

Together Pugh and Neal selected the six black leaders who would be featured in the collection.

“These are some of the leaders, the thinkers who have done things that we can read and use as a blueprint to our own liberation,” Pugh said.

Some of these leaders include Audre Lorde, a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political leader who was a proponent of both black nationalism, which promoted the formation of a separate and sovereign black community,  and Pan-Africanism, which called for the worldwide solidarity of all descendants of Africa.   

“In high school, I didn’t really learn about like half of the names we put on those shirts until like my sophomore year,” Neal said. “We’re not really taught about Garvey or Malcolm X in school.”

“We’re not really given any kind of idea outside of George Washington Carver or Martin Luther King what other black heroes exist, other than the ones I feel like they allow us to know,” Neal added.

Pugh said Audre Lorde resonates the most with her.

“Just being a black woman, I just see a lot of myself in the things that she says and teaches,” Pugh said.

The “Lorde University” sweatshirt has quickly become Philadelphia Printworks’ best selling shirt of  2015, Pugh said, knocking a Black Panthers inspired T-shirt from the top spot.

Jaya Montague, a sophomore neuroscience major, recently bought the Black Panthers T-shirt, which reads,  ‘No Justice, No Peace.’

She was inspired to make this purchase because the T-shirt associates the Black Panthers with peace, which is not always how the group has been represented, Montague said.

“The media and the system that we lived in interpreted the Black Panthers as evil, as this group that was trying to tear down American society,” Montague said. “And I felt from what I knew about the Black Panthers … It was more about creating black unity.”

Montague discovered Philadelphia Printworks, she said, when she was doing research to find businesses with black owners.

“The sweaters that Philadelphia Printworks are producing, I feel that it’s a visible way to bring pride and culture within the black community,” Montague said.

Montague also said she has plans to buy a sweatshirt from the “School of Thought” collection.

“Wearing something that you’re not necessarily going to see at American Apparel or H&M, something that’s not produced by the masses, I feel like that’s a revolutionary act,” Montague said. “You’re saying that you’re proud of your culture.”

Philadelphia Printworks’ next upcoming projects include a children’s collection, as well as a small collection based on contemporary artist Jenny Holzer’s work, ‘Truisms,’ Pugh said.

“It’s just very important to us that everyone is vocal and plays an engaged and active part in their community,” Pugh said. “So we try to do that through engaging in dialogue through fashion T-shirts.”

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