Before his branded hoodies took social media by storm, Jason Sole was just a visiting professor trying to educate his students at Hamline University.
So he told his students he would teach the rest of the semester in a hoodie, and he coupled that promise with a Facebook post ending with #HumanizeMyHoodie.
Two years later, the words would be featured on attire modeled during New York Fashion Week and praised by artists from singer John Legend to rappers J. Cole and 50 Cent.
“I just wanted to do something different, something bold,” Sole said.
Five years after Black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was deemed a threat, shot and killed while unarmed and wearing a hoodie Feb. 26, 2012, Sole wanted to teach his students to think differently.
He is, after all, the same father of two, husband, community leader and professor he is in a hoodie that he is in a suit.
“Just having a hoodie on doesn’t mean that I’m a criminal in any sense,” Sole said.
His longtime friend the designer Andre Wright saw the Facebook post and reached out to Sole about expanding the effort.
“Let’s make the world feel it,” he said.
Wright, an Iowa native and father of three who went on to create the fashion brand Born Leaders United, decided to wear a Humanize My Hoodie sweatshirt to New York Fashion Week on Sept. 9, 2017.
“I could’ve wore it in Iowa,” he said. “I wanted something authentic.”
He ended up getting a lot of stares in New York. White guys in business suits stepped to the side, he said.
“I kept wondering if it was my good looks or not,” he joked.
Wright also got positive reactions.
“‘Ah that’s what’s up. I like that. I like that,” Wright said people told him.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, this works,’” he said. “If they’re looking, it works.”
Sole and Wright filed for a trademark that same month, they said in a recent phone interview with Atlanta Black Star.
“Then we were off to the races, just figuring things out,” Wright said.
The company has expanded to include a podcast, art exhibitions and unconscious bias training opportunities.
Sole said he also wants to license the company’s designs and the business is in conversations with Target, FootAction and Footlocker to bring Humanize My Hoodie to their stores.
“So we’re going to see what that brings,” he said.
Sole, a criminal justice professor for about a decade, attributes the creative expansion of the company to Wright in part.
Described in a Twin Cities Pioneer Press article as “a self-taught designer,” Wright started making screen-printed T-shirts in college and ended up turning Born Leaders United into a global fashion brand.
He said he has worked on several runway shows and even worked as a production manager for a friend’s show on Fashion Week in 2017.
Still, debuting his own designs at New York’s staple fashion event was special.
“Exciting, electric, powerful, amazing,” Wright said, describing the experience, “all the things at one time.”
Sole said in video posted on the Humanize My Hoodie Facebook page that the experience was beyond his “wildest imagination.”
“I’ve dreamed a lot of things,” he said. “I never could have dreamed New York Fashion Week.”
Wright’s designs were featured Sept. 14 in a showcase of independent designers brought together by the Bronx-based fashion production company PEEKAPOSE.
The production also featured a tribute to Eric Garner, the unarmed Black man who said “I can’t breathe” 11 times before his chokehold death on July 17, 2014.
Sole and Wright said they would rather measure the success of their business through the people they reach than sales numbers, although both were able to support their families over the summer from Humanize My Hoodie profits, they said.
“Ultimately, we want to be able to make our message resonate,” Sole said.
He added he doesn’t want kids living in poverty to have to wear business suits to protect themselves from other peoples’ biases.
When Sole wore his hoodie on campus, he said some of his white colleagues “didn’t even recognize me.”
“I’d wave my hand at people,” he said. “They’d just look.”
The color of the sweatshirt matters too, Sole said, comparing his pink sweatshirt to his black one.
Black “represents a heightened threat in their eyes,” Sole said.
His goal for the company is that ultimately there won’t be a need for it.
“We want to be humanized,” Sole said. “We don’t want to have to continue to tell people to humanize my hoodie.”