Jerome Peel never intended to create a workwear brand popular with New York’s cool crowd when he designed a work shirt for his father’s painting business. Originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, Jerome was just doing his father a favor, it wasn't until people he didn’t know started asking where they could get one of the infamous Peels shirts, a pinstripe work shirt with two patches on either side, that they saw his friends wearing downtown. From there, a few posts on his Instagram account turned into a small, hand-made business of his own, reminiscent of his inspiration, his father.
Unlike so many other start-up “Instagram Brands,” Jerome was able to separate himself and his brand “Peels” from the masses, by focusing on putting together designs he believed in and wanted to wear. Backed by a solid network of friends promoting his workwear inspired products, the classic Peels work shirt became unmistakeable. Sticking to what he knows best, whatever Jerome personally deems cool and interesting, is the meat he seeks to incorporate into Peels’ DNA.
Curious to understand how he turned a one-off design meant to promote his dad’s business into a full range of clothing, we spent a full day with Jerome exploring his design studio, skating in the scorching heat, scarfing down dollar slices, and shotgunning beers during band practice.
POND: I think there's some confusion about the origins and inspiration for your brand. Do you want to clear that up?
JEROME: I think a lot of people are confused. This shirt was intended for my dad’s painting company. He’s a painter. People don’t even know that. That’s the whole story. My dad still paints. He’s 65 and it’s all he knows. He got the first shirt and he wears it to work—this shirt with all the info on the back. That was to get him more work and make him look more professional. He’s in West Palm Beach—that’s his real phone number. He’s gotten calls and work from it. I sent it to all his painter homies in Florida and they all wear it. They’re just down to be wearing a clean white t-shirt even if it’s repping another business [laughs]. This was intended to make him look more professional 'cause he just wears a paint-splattered white tee. I send him like five of those a month. Once I was down to 20 larges, I just packed them all in a box and sent them down to him.
People think this started because work shirts are trendy. I feel like I got lucky on the trend. I didn’t know. I didn’t think anyone would wear a shirt with their own name on it. I feel like the timing was good and the whole idea was just for my dad’s company. The fact that workwear is trendy was kind of a bonus. My friends were always telling me, “Your idea is alright, but nobody is going to buy that. Nobody will wear their own name on their shirt…” And I was like, “Yeah, I know, but this is all I got. I’m going to try it. This is the best idea I’ve had.”
When I started I was just going through Instagram and posting on my personal account and posting my friends wearing it and not even stating that I was starting a brand or anything. People I didn’t even know then started asking where they could get one. Then I started giving a lot of them away and thought, I got to start charging people. On Instagram someone would send me their name and I’d make the shirt and I’d be like, "Yo man, shirt is ready! Let’s meet up soon." Then sometimes they would stop replying [laughs]. Once that happened like five times I was like I can’t do this anymore. I never saw it going there, but I figured I would start a little site and see what happens. Slowly the orders came in. There’s no huge end goal, I just don’t want to have to get another coffee job and have some boss be like, "You fucking work slow!" I never want to hear those words again.
POND: I’m curious how you get connected with skaters like Yaje Popson or Andrew Wilson, etc. How do those moments come about?
JEROME: It’s not really about getting a mainstream skater and seeing if they’ll wear it and I’ll pay them. It’s more about dudes I like. It’s not about getting this on a super famous person so they blow me up, it’s more that I would love for this person to wear this. This person inspires me. Andrew is one of my favorite skaters. He’s one of the best skaters to watch there is. I have seen him and always been like whoa, and I finally went up to him and said “Yo can I just give you this?” I approached him and asked, “Would you wanna do this shoot?” I didn’t wanna use some model or random attractive dude, just a dude that was cool to me.
POND: You also have people like Andy Roy and Jake Phelps, the editor in chief of Thrasher…
JEROME: I actually went out to San Francisco and I just wanted to see those two. I had seen them both at Potrero Skate Park before and said hi and stuff. Jake is so funny man, he’s just one of the funniest people in skateboarding. I gave him a shirt and held it up and he was like, “Uh… ok…” and Andy was so hyped on it and he told Jake, “Jake, stop being a fucking asshole, put the shirt on!” Then Phelp’s was like “Ok…” then I asked, “Can I take a photo?” and he said “No you can’t take a fucking photo!” [laughs]. Then he said “Fine, one photo” but he heard three shutters and yelled, “You said one!” We ran it a little more than we should have because of [Andy’s] other sponsors, but it worked for a little bit. There are some people that I look up to that I just want to kind of stalk and find and show up with a shirt [laughs].
POND: Do you have pre-made shirts for people for when you find them?
JEROME: That’s kind of how that went down. I knew I was gonna see Andy there, and I was hoping he was gonna be with Phelps, and then he was. I just loaded up the backpack. A lot of the times when I’m traveling to an area where I know someone might be I’ll just throw one in there. That’s how I got Ty Segall. I knew he was playing a show and I didn’t really even confirm if he wanted one or not. He was at Baby’s All Right before his show and I handed it to him and he was psyched. He’s got a reputation for not being the nicest dude and he seemed like he was so fuckin happy.
POND: I’ve noticed that your brand is big in Japan too.
JEROME: Japan is awesome. Their culture and their streetwear mixes so much with what I like. This shirt fits right into their fashion. They’re so hyped on it and everyone there is so nice and inspiring. It’s insane seeing people being so nice to you and bowing to you. I had never gotten that kind of appreciation, but I got it in Japan. I want to do as much as I can for them. They definitely have supported me a lot and always put me on. Japan’s market is really good and I want to do a lot more there and be in more stores and do pop ups. I don’t care to go anywhere else, I just want to go back to Japan.
POND: What do you make of their obsession with skateboarding and workwear? It’s very American stuff, but a big part of their culture.
JEROME: Skating there is difficult. The scene is small but for the kids that skate, it’s their life. It’s not very appreciated there. You can’t skate on the sidewalk there. You can’t skate at all. A cop can give you a ticket for being on a skateboard. It’s not accepted. The lifestyle is very rigid and the work people do—skating just isn’t a part of it. The guys that skate are all in their own little clique and it’s small, but everyone is welcome. Here you can pass skaters and not even wave at them, but there it’s so small and if you see another skater, you skate with them. That’s just how it goes. Everyone is homies. And there are tons of people who definitely don’t skate wearing skate brands, but maybe if they had the chance and weren’t in such a rigid lifestyle, they would skate. It’s not like they’re huge posers. I would never hate on some dude wearing Anti Hero that’s never skated, I’d just be like, that’s cool, he’s supporting it. He likes it.
POND: Skating and fashion are very intertwined right now for sure. I think that’s true here in New York, but also everywhere else. How do you feel about that dynamic, as someone who is interested in both?
JEROME: I never wanted skating to push my business or be a crutch, or make it look cool. I skate and it’s a little bit of a reflection of what I do, and if it’s what I do—like with my band and music—I’m going to eventually incorporate it into my brand. It’s not some full on skate brand. I skate, my friends skate, and the first people in Peels' clothes were skaters. Those are the people I had access to and it’s a big part of my life. I wouldn’t say it’s either a skate brand or a fashion brand, it’s just a reflection of what I do. If skaters want to wear it, that’s great. It’s not like I want to profit off the skate industry. I think a lot of skaters don’t like that. It’s my goal to not do that. But also, I don’t want people to think, “That’s a skate brand, I can’t wear it if I don’t skate.” I would just rather be open to everyone than getting labeled.
POND: It seems like there’s a lot of intersection between skateboarding, fashion, and music in your brand’s DNA. How important are each of those to you and how do they come together in what you’re doing?
JEROME: They’re all equally important to me. I spend almost equal time doing all three. I skate and my friends in the band skate, so we have that friendship and we move it straight to the practice space. It’s just the things I like, and they go right into the brand and everything I do. I would like it all to be one thing. I want all our band to be wearing shirts when we play [laughs]. The band is called The Gnarcissists so I don’t wanna be too narcissistic [laughs].
POND: What’s your day in this design studio like? What do you do first?
JEROME: This is like my living room. I like being here. I’ll end up chilling and being on the computer and doing whatever. It would be cool to skate all day and then come in at 7 or 8, but I feel like this is a business so I have to have work time. I feel like you’re most productive if you do it when you should be working.
The design thing comes naturally. I usually come down here and put on some music and check the orders, get them done, print some labels, load up and go to the post office. I definitely take care of the orders first. I feel like if I force myself to try and design something, it won’t be sincere. Everything I make, I would want to wear it. I never want to make something that I wouldn’t wear or personally like. That would be crazy to me.
The design process sort of happens as I want something. I looked a long time for a particular shirt, and I couldn’t find anything exactly like it. I wanted something personal and I wanted my name on it, so I did it. And then I wanted a shirt with a full zipper because I thought it would be a cool look. There’s none available really, and I looked at vintage stores and everything, and I said I just got to make one. The things I make... I just have an idea. I waited until I had this t-shirt idea, and then I had it and I didn’t just go out and get it made. I sat on it and re-drew it for a month or two because I didn’t want to print it and then a couple of months later be like, “Oh actually, that was wack…”
POND: How big is the operation right now?
JEROME: It’s just me. I need some help, but for right now, because we’re small, it’s easiest to just bite the bullet and do everything from sewing on labels, to ripping tags off and packing orders. It is super rewarding to go through it and do it from beginning to end. A lot of the times it’s not fun, but it’s nice to know that it’s my little baby and I’m running it. It’s like any time you go to a restaurant and you see the owner there. The owner could be just looking over everything, or working in the kitchen, but the owner is there just making sure stuff is going right, and that’s always the best restaurant. If the owner is on site, it’s going to be good.
POND: How do you source all your materials that you work with? Where do you go to get all the right fitting shirts to design from?
JEROME: My dad, because he’s been in the paint business for so long, he’s been able to put me in contact with a manufacturer of workwear. If you just grab your normal shirt, workwear is that stiff fabric… the day you get the pair it doesn’t always fit right, and same with the stock shirts. I worked on the sizing, fixed it, made it different and made it a more modern fit. We got the fits a lot better than where they were at the beginning. It’s rewarding once you’ve worn it in enough, just to you. It’s like breaking something in, it’s so much better. We pay a little extra to modify every shirt they send us.
POND: What companies do you think informed your personal taste and that you’ve taken from their philosophy to incorporate into what you do? Or do you not look to anyone?
JEROME: I’m definitely looking at people on the street. We just saw that guy, the beer distributor, and I saw his shirt and thought, “That’s sick!” That’s where I get my inspiration. I just saw his shirt and liked the colorway and thought, “Wow, that works really well as a long sleeve.” I have a short sleeve one right here. It can be a janitor, a custodian, a car mechanic. I look at how they all dress.
Everything really from day one has happened so organically. I was never planning to have a brand or a studio or a line. I never wrote anything down and said I’m going to have a brand. At first, I had made a shirt and people were hyped on the customization factor. It was this old style shirt, and I never thought it could sell and people would like it. It was authentic because it wasn’t like we had a big chunk of money to start with. I started with one shirt, sold it, and was able to buy two. Then sold those two and was able to buy four. There’s still no investment. All the stock you see, every trip I’ve taken, all the shoots, it’s all just from shirts. I can’t release stuff right now because I don’t have the money, but that time between saving the money, it’s like work and it’s built a little bit of excitement of what’s coming next.
I’ve never had the money to put out two jackets, some pants, a shirt and more styles… Things happen so slow, but I think it’s working. It’s kind of unfortunate I didn’t have all that startup money. Everything is happening slowly, but it’s just real to me. Everything I do I want my dad to be stoked on. He wants me to have money, and he wants me to stop hitting him up for money [laughs]. He also knows that there’s moments where it can sell out, and he wouldn’t be stoked on that. He’s more about authenticity than just making money if you can. I didn’t care to research how to get in touch with Kanye West’s stylist or something. I wouldn’t even want that. I would make a lot of money, but that would bring the worst people [laughs].