A T-Shirt Company Giving Female Parolees a Shot
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we sorely need a way to keep people out of prison — and that requires giving them a way back into society. This company has a plan.
By Diana Kapp
Road 22 has high expectations for its employees. Yeah, it’s a new urban hipster T-shirt brand, but it does things differently. For one, it employs female ex-cons. And more: The founding team members made a commitment that their shirt designs must look amazing on all five of their completely different figures. Call it the sisterhood of the traveling tees.
A social mission is the brand’s driver, but exceptional style is why it’s likely to succeed. “We want to open as many eyes as possible, and the way we do that is to make sure the shirt is really cool,” stresses creative director Alice Cahan, a willowy blonde with a deep fashion industry resume who, in her scuffed boots and white jeans, embodies effortless chic. Picture these Micro Tencel cotton-blend tees in monochromatic shades eventually stocked at Barneys or a similarly cool boutique — but initially you can get them online, after the brand launches on Sept. 15.
Road 22 is named for the highway out of Chowchilla prison, California’s largest female correctional institution. You get the metaphor: It’s meant to create a road out for women parolees. The company will hire from re-entry programs like America Works, Rubicon Foundation and Glide Memorial Church. And the work will include sample sewing, screen-printing, customer service and more.
Within five years of release, a shocking 76.6 percent of former U.S. inmates return to jail, according to a recently released study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. For women, there’s an extra wrinkle — kids — since 80 percent of female inmates are mothers. Road 22 founder Fif Ghobadian is looking to make her biggest impact here.
It was Ghobadian’s own riches-to-rags family saga that motivated her to launch and self-fund (with part of her kids’ college fund, even) Road 22. Her well-to-do Iranian family lost everything in the Revolution, and had to flee to the U.S. and start over. So she knows “how quickly life can turn. And, when it does, how desperately you need a door opened.” Ghobadian, 47, is a single mom and top mortgage broker in San Francisco — a job she’ll continue doing until the T-shirt company takes off.
When the team developed the design, they each brought in 20 or so of their own shirts. And, yes, several sheepishly admitted that the assignment gave them license to do some shopping. “Then we sat around for hours talking about necklines. Literally hours,” Cahan adds. They each threw out their must-haves. The shirt design had to show the collarbone but not dip enough to be slutty, and be formfitting but have enough drape. It also had to cover a muffin top. The sleeve had to mitigate jiggle but show shoulder. The result? Five different styles.Her inspiration: reading the best-seller that inspired the Netflix blockbuster, Orange Is the New Black. It hit home that female parolees were a group deserving of a second chance. “Honestly it freaked me out, how any one of us could make a mistake. It’s not as if you go to the principal’s office and then go back and continue life. You are deleted from society. You can’t get a job. … You can’t get housing. You come out with no skills,” Ghobadian shares.
Ghobadian is encouraged by conversations she’s had with folks that head up the rehabilitation outfits that refer women to her for employment. “They all tell me they will be the most loyal employees you have ever seen.”The tees are named after San Francisco streets: The Battery, The Balboa, The Sutro. And they are pricey — at $60 to $80 — but in keeping with other luxury brands like James Perse and Rag & Bone. Road 22 is also planning on creating limited-edition styles and eventually putting pop-up stores in trendy boutiques.
- Diana Kapp, OZY Author Contact Diana Kapp