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Last week we had the pleasure of sitting down with Reese Shebel and Johann Aguirre of Brooklyn-based apparel brand Minus US. We met the duo at SOHO House in Manhattan to talk about their work, thrifting in the city, and building an artistic career with social impact.
Minus Us repurposes vintage, thrift, and sample garments with a contemporary feel, yielding designs that are nostalgic yet resonant today. At The Canvas you will find Minus Us racks adorned with screen printed jackets, playfully stamped and distressed denim, and vintage blouses with just the right alterations to feel brand new. “We want to resonate with people,” explains Reese, “We’re looking for those really exciting pieces of clothes that feel just like your personality.” The couple is less interested in overpriced thrifting in Brooklyn and Manhattan as they are in changing the way people see thrift, vintage, and used apparel. One of their methods of doing this is by hosting pop-ups at DUMBO House parties, which Reese says provide the opportunity to “sneak attack” crowds that would otherwise choose to buy new or designer over secondhand. The Canvas team first met the Minus Us team at DUMBO House's Thursday Lates, a wild party organized on a monthly basis by Dianna Loevner.
“A big part is taking the stigma off of it,” Johann says. Minus Us aims to destigmatize secondhand clothing by making the cuts, stitches, and prints that give a garment new life. Reese and Johann can agree that they have “completely different styles,” which lends the brand a nuanced aesthetic-- one that balances delicacy with rock-n-roll, masculine silhouettes with retro details, classic suiting with touches of pop culture.
Designs by Minus Us are further diversified by collaborations with talented local artists. “Part of the business that we’re very passionate about is collaborating with different artists in other fields,” says Johann, “whether it be musicians, painters, business owners, people that have a type of aesthetic that we’re fond of and that we can muse over and that also can convey a message.”
The manifestations of these collaborations can be found on their website in the form of shop-able editorials. Graphic feeds allow you to experience the music by the band while simultaneously shopping the clothing that was inspired by that band’s music and personal aesthetic. Collaborating on the design process brings in different perspectives that in turn allow Minus Us to appeal to a variety of tastes and styles. “You can cover a lot of bases when you have that rotating co-creative director,” explains Reese.
Music and artistry exist at the heart of every design created by Minus US. “When I design I treat it strictly as a musical art experiment,” Johann says. Having a career driven by passion was something he had been missing after graduating college and starting a career in finance. He worked for two years in investment banking at Oppenheimer Holdings, where meetings with large corporations taught him about fashion retail “in terms of running a store from a financial standpoint, what the margins look like and the back end of the business.” But he found Wall street left plenty to be desired, “It came to a point where people in the industry are only concerned with making money.”
“It’s scary,” Reese adds, who was the one to push Johann to start Minus US last year after dating for several months. Johann had been thinking of starting the company for a while and Reese really got him to take the plunge. “I named the company Minus Us and it felt almost like when I started listening to Nirvana, my parents didn’t understand the music or why I liked it. Same thing in finance, no one really understood my interest in fashion or anything else outside of work. Minus Us was made out of a frustration of wanting to build my own career, and to work in an environment where I’m really happy," Johann stated proudly.
Now Reese and Johann are equal partners in Minus US, sharing a relationship that is “an ebb and flow of designing, traveling, helping the community, and helping people,” says Johann. Johann, who “has so many ideas,” according to Reese, designs for hours every morning. Reese, in addition to designing, graphic designing, and working part-time as an art director, is “the hammer. She says yes or no to whatever we’re working on, if it’s go or no-go,” Johann states. “That’s because I trust her intuition more than mine.”
Providing opportunities for women is a central aspect of Minus US. Committed to Sustainable Development Goal #5, Gender Equality, about “80% of the artists that we hand-pick to work with are female,” Johann says. When asked why this is an important issue to him personally, he says “that just comes from being raised around women. My mom raised me with my dad but my mom has more influence in my artistic ability. Even in a financial firm, all of the managers that are women are more successful than men, but they’re not given enough opportunities. So just take that concept, and that’s how I’m driving this company. Women are more successful than men. That should be the headline.”
Living and working in New York opens up opportunities for artistic collaboration that one might not find anywhere else. Artists with clout or huge salaries, Reese asserts, present less value to their work than people who are “going out and taking a risk for what they like doing.” When partnering up with other passionate artists, Johann and Reese’s goal is always to use design to provide awareness and have an impact, whether that message concerns the environment or isolation and loneliness in the inner city. “I’m not looking for a strong bottom line,” Johann states, “I’m looking to pay my bills, eat, and help people, because at the end of the day that’s really why I started. If I didn’t, I would have stayed working at a financial firm.”
All of us at the Canvas admire Johann and Reese’s commitment to making social impact through artistry and meaningful partnerships, embodying Sustainable Development Goal #17, utilizing partnerships to achieve the goals. We are looking forward to watching Minus US grow, especially in their efforts to make sustainable and second-hand clothing scalable. Although opening a storefront is not high on their priority list, you can shop Minus US online and, of course, at The Canvas by Querencia Studio in Brooklyn, New York.