People wearing people, all over the world

May 17, 2011

Can wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of a stranger’s face promote global peace and awareness?

Jeff Woodrow thinks so.

The 31-year-old social entrepreneur is the owner of Joy Apparel, a Toronto-based T-shirt company with a lofty purpose. Seated beneath a dangling rainbow of Joy T-shirts in his live/work studio off Queen West, Woodrow explains the concept.

“The idea is that when you wear your shirt, you think about that person and about how your everyday actions affect others,” says Woodrow. “It’s people wearing people, all over the world.”

Here’s how it works: Customers visit Joy Apparel’s website and select the hand-drawn face of a real person they would like printed on a T-shirt. Each face is accompanied by the person’s age, home country, and a list of things that bring them joy.

Say you choose 36-year-old Fred from Jamaica. You will learn that his passions in life include soccer, video production, movies, hip hop, spending time with his family, Carib lager, jerk chicken, lending a helping hand, and banging on the drums.

Once you have received your Fred shirt, you send in a photo of your own face. Woodrow then draws you, puts you on a T-shirt, and someone else buys and wears you.

An art and film school graduate, Woodrow came up with the concept when he made a shirt bearing the hand-drawn face of his friend Megamu, a Japanese figure skater. “Everyone wanted one,” says Woodrow. “But not only that, everyone wanted to hear Megamu’s story.”

It’s been five years since the first Joy Apparel T-shirts were printed, and things have grown considerably. Today, there are more than 1,500 faces in the Joy database, and Woodrow estimates he has made some 8,000 shirts so far. He has also expanded to make scarves and pocket squares, so dapper gents can have a stranger’s face peeking cheekily out of their blazer pocket. All Joy’s products are 100 per cent made in Canada and he still prints everything himself.

And Woodrow’s little company now receives orders from around the world: There are people wearing Joy faces in France, Australia, Hong Kong, Finland and more.

“This is Julius from Kenya,” says Woodrow, taking a break from printing to show me a photo of a rather serious looking fellow. “One of his passions is raising awareness about children orphaned by HIV-AIDS.” Julius is wearing the smiling face of three-year-old McKenna from Bradford, Ont.

“Everyone has a story,” says Woodrow.

Thanks to Joy Apparel, we can wear those stories on our hearts.