Once upon a time, it was actually warm enough in Brooklyn to wear a T-shirt.
Luckily, as the seasons change, style- and socially-conscious folks can bare their arms in a new line of shirts that gives back to the borough. Recent college graduates Ben Chu and Michael Sim launched their T-shirt company Heart & Silk in January, and at first glance, their 10 designs are eye-catching and charming, including a pink ice-cream cone and a cheetah. But their origin story is even more interesting: they were drawn by children without homes.
Heart & Silk primarily works with two local shelters, St. John’s Place Family Center in Crown Heights, which provides temporary housing, day care, and other services to nearly 100 families; and the faith-based Providence House in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, which aids homeless women and children and women recently paroled from prison.
They host art workshops and get to know the children, then take the kids’ artistic output and silkscreen their designs onto shirts. For each shirt sold, they then donate a care package back to the kids. The goal of co-founders Ben Chu and Michael Sim is to help break the cycle of homelessness. New York is ranked No. 1 in the homeless population in the U.S. with around 63,000 homeless people in shelters. The epidemic has grown so severe that Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” initiative in February. For his part, Chu wants to pinpoint their efforts on what he calls the “hidden homeless population” of children.
“What they’re missing right now is education and art,” says Chu. “Art programs are the first things to be cut out of a budget. We wanted to teach these kids how to love to learn,” as a means of reducing the high conversion rate of homeless children into homeless adults. And their plan starts with a simple shirt.
Chu was motivated to work with homeless shelters after moving 14 times during his youth, living in China, Brooklyn, Wisconsin, and Queens. But he also saw the joy that a simple shirt could bring—he recalls his aunt and uncle sending him graphic tees with anime characters and ripping open the package. He knew then and there he wanted to make T-shirts when he grew up.
While attending Baruch College and studying finance, Chu noticed clubs and organizations were in need of shirts, and he decided to start his own retail line to help pay his tuition. He had an eye for fine details: soft shirts and thin ink. Shirts that people would actually want to wear. He researched and printed his own shirts for two years before deciding to launch Heart & Silk with Michael Sim, a friend from middle school who graduated from St. John’s University in 2015 with a marketing degree. After graduating last summer, 24-year-old Chu started working on Heart & Silk full-time.
Seeking out Shelters
An idea is one thing, but execution is another deal entirely. Chu thought approaching local shelters would be easy—the partners weren’t asking for funding and only wanted to hold art workshops. He didn’t anticipate the launch would take six months and involve submitting proposal after proposal to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). “We wanted to give something to the kids that could take them away from their reality for a split second,” says Chu, who says DHS was receptive to their idea but allows that “it wasn’t on the top of their list.” Finally, they found a director at St. John’s Place Family Center who was wiling to work with them and, if all went well, prove their case to the DHS.
Their first shirt collection came from four interactive and educational art workshops during which Chu and Sim asked kids to describe their favorite animals to spark conversation. That opened the door to much more wide-ranging chats. “We’re trying to build longterm connections with the kids there and do anything necessary to help them stay in school,” says Chu. They treat the artwork like prized possessions; whatever was drawn on the paper goes straight on the shirt.
These afternoons of creativity have created a bond; when he and Sim arrive at the shelters, the kids run up and hug them. Last November, the Heart & Silk duo brought their ink and stencils to the shelters to design superhero capes with the kids’ favorite logos on the back.
A Careful Product
The shirts themselves, which sell for $35, are eminently wearable with ink that feels more like it belongs on a soft vintage shirt. It’s hard to believe they were printed a stone’s throw away in Queens, in Chu’s uncle’s basement, now overrun by multiple screen-printing machines. “You have to make sure the ventilation is good,” laughs Chu, who says they’re looking into warehouse spaces. The shirts are made of 50% modal and 50% premium cotton blend, manufactured in garment hotbed Los Angeles, although the partners are hoping to source an equally suitable product locally.
Every purchased shirt comes with a “thank you” notecard, saying that a care package was donated; the packages contain items that emphasize creativity, including pencils, erasers, notepads, and snacks—a little bit of fuel for both body and mind.
Being a digitally native millennial has it upsides: Chu points to social media and YouTube as two modes of outreach and information that helped him with the launch, which he admits came with unforeseen challenges: “You can’t worry about it too much; the harder you work, the easier things get,” he says.
While Sim handles the marketing with a heavy push on Instagram and Facebook initiatives, Chu takes on the production and communication tasks. Much of the money Chu saved during his college screen-printing days has been put straight back into the business, and aside from some borrowed money from their families, they’re self-funding and have taken pains to minimize costs in order to put more money back into the care packages. Instead of hiring outside help, they spent hours learning photography and how to design a slick website.
After selling out their initial run of 300 shirts, the mission of Heart & Silk built on its early success. Local businesses with a up-close view of the homeless population have been asking to team up with their burgeoning initiative. In late March, Heart & Silk joined up with Macaulay Honors College for a community service day. They handed out care packages; kids drew and told stories about eating their favorite foods. One child who moved to New York from Nigeria told Chu all about eating seafood in his home country. So, who knows, you may be seeing a squid on a T-shirt in the next collection. With more art workshops planned and more shirts to be printed, what’s next for Heart & Silk lies in the most creative space of all: a kid’s imagination.