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AROUND TOWN

Wearing a Philosophy on Their Sleeves

August 19, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Manny Gonzalez knew a little intervention was in order when he heard his new worker answering the office phone, "Yeah. What's up?"

Soon, he had Jimmy Serrano, 20, saying "Peace Wear. May I help you?" Just as he had one of his young logo designers writing Peace Wear, not Peace Ware. Just as he'd convinced others that "walking in with baggy pants and a baggy shirt and saying, 'Hey, give me a job' " doesn't cut it.

He says of his hires, "Your first impression, when they walk in the door, is, 'Call security.' " To them, the business world might as well be Oz. One, Gonzalez mentions, had just spent six years in jail. "He had no idea what a fax machine was."

Gonzalez, 28, is founder / president of Peace Wear, born in his garage in 1993. Then it was just him and a few troubled kids designing peace-themed T-shirts. Today, headquarters is a donated 2,800-square-foot space in the L.A. garment district.

In a notoriously cutthroat industry, Peace Wear seems oddly out of step. "We're not just a garment company," Gonzalez says. More like a philosophy. Yes, it will be nice when he starts turning a profit, but, he insists, "I'll die happy knowing these kids are going somewhere."

These kids are the ex-gangbangers and graffiti artists he is directing to devote their creative energies to designs for Peace Wear shirts and caps and, soon, a line of men's, women's and children's sportswear.

It began that day in 1993 when Gonzalez, the youngest of 10 children of Mexican immigrants, was in Superior Court delivering papers for O'Melveny and Myers, where he was a paralegal.

There, he chanced to spot some kids during a recess in the murder trial of one of their friends. One, Jeremy Flores, now 20, recalls: "We were writing on the walls. Manny caught me." Flores, sizing up this man in suit and tie, figured he was a cop. Having served time for attempted murder during a drive-by shooting, he wanted nothing to do with cops.

In his world, Flores says, the motto was "rob, cheat, kill, steal at will" and strangers didn't go around handing out cards, asking you to call. He wondered, "Who is this guy and why does he want to help me all of a sudden?"

Still, "He was one of us," a Mexican American, and seemed to be "someone with feelings." Soon, Flores and friends were meeting at Gonzalez's house in Covina, drawing T-shirt designs with pens and markers.

Gonzalez, who'd been volunteering at MacLaren Hall, a Los Angeles County shelter for abused and abandoned kids, was at the time undergoing an epiphany of sorts, fed up with youth violence, drug abuse, poverty and hopelessness.

He seized on peace as the theme for the shirts, contracted with a printer, and soon he and his fledgling staff were selling to friends and neighbors. Having invested the $15,000 he'd saved to buy a house, he also kept his day job.

*

From his "office" (a courthouse phone booth), he began soliciting orders from T-shirt shops, surf shops, mom-and-pop stores. Today, with partner Michael Kofoed, 37, brought in to rev up licensing and marketing, Gonzalez projects 1996 sales of $200,000 from Mexico to Japan.

When Gonzalez says, "If I die with money, I won't die happy," he's believable. But, if Peace Wear doesn't succeed, he won't be able to provide troubled kids with minimum wage jobs. Gonzalez figures that, with a 35% profit margin, he'll need annual sales of $600,000 to start making a profit.

Flores recalls that, when at 16 he came out of three years of incarceration, he "didn't know how to function. I was like a little kid out in the world.

"Manny brought my talent out. If not for him, I'd be writing on walls, destroying property." Sometimes Gonzalez's kids disappoint him, as Flores did once when he violated probation and ended up behind bars again.

Today, he's getting a two-year degree at Cypress College and hopes to be a social worker, helping kids. He credits Gonzalez, who paid for his books and arranged for no-cost removal of the tattoos that identified him as a member of the Pico Viejo gang.

Serrano was serving a four-year term for attempted murder when Gonzalez, on a visit to the California Youth Authority facility, told him, "If you need a job, call me." He did and, two months ago, joined Peace Wear. While working part time, he's taking computer studies at Los Angeles Trade Tech. Gonzalez is paying.

Serrano, a former member of the Easy Boys gang from South-Central, likes the Peace Wear designs and thinks they have wide appeal--but not to gang members: "They don't have peace on their minds."

*

Gonzalez still regularly volunteers at MacLaren Hall, where he's been both Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. Teenagers relate to him, says MacLaren's Sally McCoy. "He's young enough and he's cool, and he doesn't get rattled with our kids, who can be pretty tough to handle."

Sometimes he takes some of his staff of 10--which includes one young woman--with him to Juvenile Hall, where he also volunteers. There, he says, "They are somebody because somebody's listening to them," perhaps for the first time.

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