The Baltimore brand changing attitudes one tote at a time

"We wanna show people that they can travel, they can have dreams, and that quality can come from this neighbourhood,” says Jason Bass, one half of the Baltimore brand which began back in 2010.

Neighbourhood locals Bass and Aaron Jones saw promoting businesses in the black community as one way of solving a real local problem of racial inequality.

Data from the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau showed that the unemployment rate was an 37% for young black men between the ages of 20 and 24, compared with 10% for white men of the same age. For them, selling lifestyle items was their chance to challenge expectations and create employment.

@ Treason Toting

The brand is so named because they were committing what they call ‘social treason’.

"You grow up hearing that the only way you gonna get out is if you cut hair, play ball or sell drugs, so when we said that we wanted to make bags, it was real strange to people. It was like committing social treason,” says Jones.

Through sewing, making and indulging their streetwear fashion fascinations, their brand of duffels, t-shirts and tote bags aim to make a central point: that if you’re from Baltimore, not only can you can travel, but you can have a stake in the local creative community.

Their Central Baltimore shop is part of a wider push for a generation of young local creatives to revive the city, inspiring kids from the neighbourhood to commit social treason with them.

@ Treason Toting

How did you two meet?

AJ: We met through another friend who he was like, ‘you need to meet my boy Jason!’ so in 2010 we met in a dive bar in Baltimore. At that time I was actually sewing prom dresses in the day and water taxi-ing most nights to make money.

Did you have access to fashion brands when you were growing up?

JB: Not really. I remember there was a store called PEDX that sold brands that we liked, but it’s closed down now, so we got our streetwear fix through online and magazines. That’s the thing, we loved this stuff but they weren’t selling them in Baltimore.

Are you trying to bring back ‘making’ to Baltimore?

AJ: Yes! When we were growing up people weren’t doing anything like this, it was all about throwing a party – you’d invite 150 people, you’d sell 150 tickets and if you could fill the space up with booze and play great Baltimore club music that was it. No one was making anything.

Is this part of the narrative that you’re trying to rewrite?

JB: It was important that some of the new interest in Baltimore as a place that is cool with cheap rents that is happening right now was filtering down to the black community. Like, we’re from here. I’ve lived in the worst of the city.

AJ: I’ve lived all over the city and lost friends selling drugs and all that – I left and went to college but I feel like we owe it to the city because they didn’t have the opportunities. I guess we just trying to remind kids that you can be more than a stick up kid and sell dope.

@ Treason Toting

Do you think you are representative of a new generation?

AJ: I think we represent hope and possibility. Sure, we keep saying that we’re from the city but just the idea of us to be able to overlook the stuff that we could have been caught up into feels new. The majority of our lives were spent just trying to figure out where we fall in with things. Imagine the kids that won’t do it because they feel like society will clown them. Imagine you have a kid who lives in inner city Baltimore and he’s like, ‘I want to sew, and his boys are like, nah only girls sew’ – then guys like us show up and show you that it’s cool. There’s so many people with ideas and concepts in their mind but they so scared to get them out.

How much is the brand quintessentially Baltimore?

JB: Well we don’t have crab-printed novelty fabric [crabs are the city emblem], but the labels say ‘Made in Maryland’. So it’s paying homage to the original sailmakers who lived here who would have used canvas as materials, which we love.

How much does solving a local problem of racial inequality factor into the project?

AJ: Well, look. I literally just walked out of the store two days ago at about midnight because we were up sewing. I walk down the steps, and before I can hit the kerb or put in earphones or anything, undercover cops in the car come speeding up and stopped me, asking questions, putting a flashlight in my bag and I was like damn, I can’t even hit the kerb! Can I live?” Then the other day I was just walking through Zombieland (a stretch of road from Biddle Street to Montford and Luzerne Avenues, which has a number of heroin addicts frequenting the stretch), and some cops came and started asking us about our bags – but that’s just a question of reframing who we are and what we do. So yeah, Treason is just part of the wider issue.

What’s next for you guys?

JB: We’ll be expanding the business and creative side of things. Our hope is that we can start taking on kids from the neighbourhood to help with the storefront and with sewing and screen-printing to teach them some skills. We’re also working with local business owners to make things - right now we’ve just done some aprons for a local restaurant. So Treason is a work in progress, but we’re part of the new generation.

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