Josh Perez Is Turning His Familial Roots Into A Brand With Meaning.
Interview Adam Fitzgerald IMAGES VOCA Films
Only days after the sudden loss of his mother, Josh Perez found something she had left behind for him. It was something that Perez carried with him for years before understanding what to do with it. This past spring, against all odds in the midst of a global pandemic, Perez and business partner Levi Tijerina decided to build a brand that valued diversity, family history, and the values of hard work. Pedro & Tailor was born and with it Perez finally found a way to share his mother's gift with the world.
Iron & Air: You started a new lifestyle brand with Pedro & Tailor in the middle of a global pandemic. Are you crazy or are you just crazy confident? Either way, it seems to be working.
Joshua Perez: [Laughs] Probably both. It's crazy in that it didn't make sense from a business and financial standpoint. For us, it opened up the opportunity to work with individuals that normally we couldn't afford, but because of the pandemic they were willing to work with us at a lower rate. We love to treat people fairly, but being a full-blown startup, we can't pay everyone amazing dollars. It was just really cool that we got to provide jobs, even if just a small freelance project, to just help people kind of ride the wave until they figure something else out. There were apparel designers at large companies that were put on furlough or graphic designers or whatever it might be. But I think the confidence side was just, there's going to be a window of time, probably two months, where people are on furlough that we can hire for freelance projects and get them at an affordable rate.
I&A: So while some people would look at this time period as really risky to start something, you saw it as more of an opportunity.
JP: We actually launched by giving away money through the Pedro & Tailor Creative Grant. We looked at COVID-19 and quarantine as a unique opportunity to give back to the creative community, and that quickly built a whole entire tribe for us. Before we even had any product on the website we decided to give away money, which actually seems even crazier. From a business perspective, that is like, "You guys are not going to last. Your generosity is going to make you fail." But it kind of worked the opposite way where people bought into what we were doing because they realized, "These guys just want to do good. They want to start a brand where from Day One we thrive on generosity." You can call it backwards, obviously. There's some amazing companies out there who've shown that if you do good, good will come to you. But then people started asking, "How do I buy the product? Where do I find it?"
I&A: Yeah, that's pretty backwards! But it seems to be working, which is awesome. You had a background working for brands like Topo Designs, Magpul, and Rab before you started Pedro & Tailor, so you've known the industry for a bit.
JP: Yeah. Mark Hansen from Topo has been one of my best friends for a long time now. Basically, once I left Topo he and I became even closer friends, and then when I started talking to him about Pedro & Tailor he was like, "I'd love to help you with advice in different ways." He's been a huge encouragement and kind of a mentor along the way. On the crazy confident side, if you surround yourself with the right people, you'll be fine.
I&A: Pedro & Tailor is you and your business partner, Levi Tijerina. How did that friendship kickstart a brand?
JP: We've been longtime friends, then business partners. We launched Pedro & Tailor mostly out of a lack of brands in the market that truly celebrated diversity and inclusivity and we wanted to do something different. We weren't out there to reinvent the fashion or the apparel space. If you look at our product line, we're not trying to reinvent apparel. What we wanted to do is create a brand that truly celebrated diversity, and that came across through apparel, home goods, and some other items. We look at it as an invitation to join what we are all about — to join the community, if you will.
I&A: And both you and Levi come from diverse backgrounds, right?
JP: I'm Puerto Rican-Cuban, and first generation American. Levi is Mexican. He came from an ancestry of migrant workers. Our parents and grandparents had to come from different countries and earn everything. So we wanted to also celebrate this idea of earning your keep. A lot of minority-focused brands kind of stay cheap because they assume, "We can't be premium because minorities have less money." That's a very generalist way of thinking, but we wanted to create something that was truly premium that celebrated the hard work that people go through. Then, as we thought deeper, we were like, this isn't just for minorities; this earning your keep mentality resonates with all sorts of people no matter where they're from. It could be someone from middle-of-nowhere Tennessee who's been trying to get out of generations of a hard life and they're like, "Hell yeah. I want to buy into a brand that truly celebrates earning your keep."
The premium space — when you think of traditional premium brands — has this mentality of like, "You've always had money so you can afford this." Ultimately we're trying to redefine luxury by celebrating a life of wonder. For some people a life of wonder might be getting the expensive motorcycle they've been wanting in their garage. For me, a life of wonder was inheriting my first motorcycle from Mark, which was a 1973 Honda CB500 Four. It was a gift and it was something that, to me, means more than building my dream custom bike. I say that now; once I build my dream custom bike, then I'll think differently!
I&A: You used the phrase “a life of wonder,” and I know that was inspired by something that your mom left you.
JP: In 2017 my mom passed away suddenly. Basically, her lungs collapsed and she immediately went into cardiac arrest. I was in Denver one morning, and my brother called me and was like, "You need to get on the first flight home." He didn't even tell me what was happening. He just was like, "Trust me, just get on a flight to Miami." So I landed and then a friend of mine actually picked me up at the airport and drove me to the hospital. I was pretty clueless because my plane didn't have WiFi, so I couldn't text anyone. All I knew was I just needed to get to Miami.
She ended up having either six or seven cardiac arrests total, and the last one came right when I got there. I like to think that she knew that her son was coming and she wanted to wait. She passed away right when I got there. Because she was unconscious from the moment her lungs collapsed, none of us got to say goodbye: myself, my dad, my brother.
We were going through her belongings a couple days after and I found these little notes and letters made out to each of us. She wrote them when we were kids. We looked at these letters as an opportunity to get a goodbye from her. The last line in my letter said, "I hope you advance to a life of wonder." That was like three years prior to even thinking about Pedro & Tailor, but I always knew I wanted to do something with those words: a life of wonder.
In developing a brand where the goal is to redefine luxury, I always thought, what is a life of wonder? The more we develop the brand, the more we just look at everything we do as an invitation to a life of wonder, and letting people interpret a life of wonder as whatever it means for them.
I&A: Wow, I love that. It's a beautiful way to honor your mom. Is being self-driven and entrepreneurial something that was also instilled in you?
JP: I didn't necessarily come from a super-entrepreneurial family. Levi didn't either, but we both came from families who — whether the previous generation or two generations ago — were super poor, and then we saw our parents being able to thrive. I think we both want to carry that legacy of where our ancestors came from.
My grandfather had a hardware store in Cuba and had to ditch it when it became full-blown communism, and they left to Puerto Rico and then to America. He didn't talk too much about his business, but just the fact that he had a business and then had to leave it because his country basically told him, "This business is now ours"... Just hearing those stories, I think you pick up a bit of that. I really looked up to my grandfather.
My dad was born and raised in Puerto Rico and came from a really poor situation. He's the intellectual. He actually got a perfect score on his SATs for math and ended up leaving Puerto Rico to go to Seattle to work for Boeing. Growing up, we’d go visit his home town in Puerto Rico and Cuba as well, and just seeing Cuba and Puerto Rico and the poverty, and then what my parents were able to make out of it ... I think there's a part of me that wants to honor that legacy of — like I said — earning your keep. It's like, "Dang. You guys worked so hard." And my story is not necessarily unique. It doesn't matter where you come from. I think all of us always want what's best for the next generation in your family for the most part, but I think a lot of it for me was wanting to carry that legacy.
Entrepreneurial-wise, I didn't necessarily pick that up from my mom, but she was the most generous person I know. In developing my own brands, I knew I always wanted generosity. She just taught me so much about taking care of others.
I&A: We both share an affinity for mezcal, and I know you previously mentioned something about making mezcal cups and other home goods under the Pedro & Tailor name.
JP: Levi and I have traveled the world together with our families, and also separately. When we were in Mexico, he was telling me about copitas, these clay cups. They're about two inches by one inch. In Oaxaca, where mezcal originated, that's how they serve it. So we were like, "Wow, let's dive into that."
That began to make us think through other moments and products we can make that are a nod to the places we come from and also a celebration of diversity. When it comes to materials and textiles, I'm doing a bunch of research on what the cool guys were wearing in Cuba in the '50s or in the '60s or whatever it might be, and the same with Mexico. The chore coat was a big inspiration through our grandfathers — the migrant workers and hardware workers. It's a nod to them, this mentality of working hard.
I&A: I always tell my kids to produce more than you consume. In other words, to leave the world with more than you take from it. Your mom left you with the words, "Advance to a life of wonder." What do you hope to leave your daughter from what you're doing right now?
JP: I wrote something the other day along the lines of, "believing when no one else believes." I think that's kind of been my theme. You ask, "Why would you launch a brand during COVID?" And it's just this idea of believing that there's something better and the best is yet to come.
When I think of a life of wonder, I guess what I would want to tell her is, "A life of wonder is not something we'll ever actually achieve." I would want her to think of a life of wonder as learning to be satisfied with what you have and also to never stop chasing it and keep believing. Our journeys are all about believing when no one else believes. That's so very vague and open-ended for her. She's going to be like, "Dad, I don't know what the hell that means." But it's sort of like a life of wonder. I'll never know exactly what my mom meant by "Advance to a life of wonder," but to me those words bring so much peace, and there's days where I feel like I'm in a life of wonder and then there's days where I'm like, "Wow. I’ve got to keep advancing because I'm not there yet.” Whatever it is, I'm not there yet.