PU$H is a clothing line run by three friends who grew up together around New Haven — Shannon Harrell, Jr., Johnathan Mitchell, and Jamon Rouse — with a passion for sports, fashion, and improving the situation for themselves and their community. But it’s really the product of a family, the “family we chose,” Mitchell said.
Since it officially opened for business in 2015, PU$H has been making everything from T‑shirts and hoodies to sweatpants, socks, and bathing suits, one season at a time; it just released its summer line of clothes through its website this week. The clothes are designed to be athletic and to look good, but the entire line also has a message to impart.
“It all starts with what our community had given us,” Mitchell said. That New Haven community gave them basketball and football. “It was how kids even know each other coming from different neighborhoods.”
Mitchell and Rouse lived on the same street — Henry Street, near Orchard — growing up. “It was a cool street to live on because there were so many different walks of life,” Mitchell said. “We’re our own little fraternity on Henry Street. There are a lot of kids who grew up around the same age and know each other from when everything was innocent and cool. From my perspective,” growing up there meant that “you understand people’s struggles. It’s all out in the open. Nobody’s hiding. Our moms were going through the same things, we were going through the same things. Good or bad, you understood where it comes from. You get a lot of humble people from that street. Even if you didn’t go through half of what your friend went through, you understand it.”
Rouse and Mitchell met as children while playing for the New Haven Steelers, the city’s team in the Pop Warner youth football league. “Our moms used to sit together and watch our games and our practices,” Mitchell said. “We had involved parents.” The Steelers and high school football later — Harrell and Mitchell played on the same team at West Haven High School — “fostered us knowing each other. It wasn’t until later that we started to find out we had common interests other than sports…. We grew closer together,” Mitchell said.
The move from football to clothing started with Rouse. “It’s always been something I’ve been into,” Rouse said. “Even when I was playing football, I always liked to be fly. On the field, off the field…. If I go to the grocery store, I got to have it on. If I go the laundromat, I got to have it.”
Rouse liked shopping for clothes when he was a kid but he couldn’t afford what he wanted. “So I said, ‘I’ll make my own stuff,’” he said. He had a fashion role model, a barber named Blaze. “He was a straight hood dude,” Rouse said, “but he had talent, and he made me want to tap into my talent more.” Rouse had shied away from drawing and painting as a child. “I didn’t realize how far art could really take me until I got older,” he said. Blaze “is gone now, but he was the one that really sparked my interest. Now I got influences like Basquiat, Warhol, the Jackson Pollocks of the world.”
“He’s the brainchild when it comes to the clothing and the art,” Mitchell said of Rouse. “That was the initial spark to us having a brand. He had the name in his head and he had the designs.” Rouse starting making clothes at around 18. “Everything was cut myself,” Rouse said, “made straight from hand.” He learned how to make patterns and sew from videos online — “YouTube and Google University,” he said — starting with simpler projects like coin pouches and moving on from there, to garments with zippers and hoods. “It just kept growing and growing,” Rouse said. He got his fabric from “mom-and-pop stores in Connecticut. Sourcing the fabric has always been the tough part” — and remains so, Herrell said. “You got to be specific.”
“You got to feel it, touch it,” Mitchell said. “it’s one of those intimate deals.”
Harrell had also been drawn to fashion early. “I was already designing before we became a unit, but I didn’t really see myself as a designer,” he said. He worked at a sneaker store in Orange. “That was how I met Rouse,” Harrell said. “He would come to the sneaker store at the time. He knew my co-worker but we didn’t know each other as much. Rouse wasn’t interested in buying anything. He just wanted to hang out.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Rouse said. “I bought a couple sneakers.” They all laughed. But Rouse “was the first person of our age group, of our generation, that I’d ever seen sewing,” Harrell said. “He would come in with these customized hoodies.” Harrell recalled asking Rouse how he made his clothes. It inspired Herrell to try it too.
While they were all students at Southern Connecticut State University, Rouse and Herrell started making clothes together. “He would come over and we would design together,” Harrell said. “That’s how it began for us.” They showed them around to their friends, who started buying them.
“Spreading the message before it was a brand helped it,” Mitchell said. But “one man can’t sew everything, so we bought another sewing machine. Two men can’t sew everything. You can only sell 10 to 12 of those and not stretch yourself out. So that’s where someone like me came in.”
By then the three of them were just out of Southern, making art, clothes, and music — and working to save money. “I already had a business mind from being younger. I used to make music and was selling beats as a kid,” Mitchell said. “I understood contracts and bartering. I understood how to make the brand a business.” Rouse had the initial ideas; all Harrell and Mitchell had to do, Mitchell said, was “foster them.”
“I saw the potential early,” Mitchell added. “These are my friends, and I believed in them.” He also knew that making a brand wasn’t going to be a “quick thing. With any business, it’s going to take at least five years.”
“Five years is the preface,” Harrell said.
The three friends made their first mass-produced run of t‑shirts in 2015, using money they saved from their jobs. “We knew we had to be creative,” Mitchell said, to differentiate PU$H from other clothing brands. “That went hand in hand with our message. What we stood for, and how we interacted with each other, we put into the universe. That was our selling point at first. This is a shirt, but if you know us as people, you know we like high-quality stuff. We could make something simple and turn it into timeless. We’re hustling and trying to get money, but we’re not going to short our customer.”
That was one part of the message. For Rouse, the ideas were even broader. “No matter what obstacles you face in life, just keep pursuing what you’re doing,” he said. He flipped the word “push” to make it its mirror image for a reason. It meant that, if wearers looked at themselves in the mirror, they would get the message themselves. If they wore it out in the street, they could project that message onto others. “It’s to bring the world together,” Rouse said. “it’s deeper than clothes. My main thing when starting it was: ‘how can I do something of substance, and have a real impact on my community? How do I lead the youth without being preachy-preachy?”
PU$H started with a single box of 100 T‑shirts and one design. “It was a box of shirts, and us driving around, hand-to-hand transactions,” Mitchell said. Herrell remembered the same. “We were utilizing our social capital,” he said. “John is a musician. Rouse is a painter. My college experience brought a whole bunch of eyes as a social activist…. People liked us as people.”
They wrapped the T‑shirts in brown paper tied with string, reminiscent of packaging for drugs. That was part of the message, too. “We’re flipping the narrative,” Rouse said. “We know people whose parents were plagued by drugs,” Mitchell said. “We’re not ‘80s babies, but crack stayed in the neighborhood past the ‘80s, past the ‘90s. So we flipped it.” Drugs, he said, “are not our pillar. Our pillar is being creative. The narrative’s been changed now.”
They sold out their first run of shirts, made enough to do another run of clothes, and grew steadily from there. They branched out into hoodies and sweatpants, socks and swimsuits. They made clothes they wanted to wear and wanted to see on other people. They found and built a relationship with a shop in Pakistan to produce their designs, keeping professionalism high from concept to manufacture to shipping, and “standing for what we’re standing on,” Mitchell said.
They opened their online store for PU$H in 2019. During the pandemic shutdown, they saw sales improve as people shopped that much more from their homes. They also saw their clothes appearing on social media, as people took pictures of themselves wearing PU$H clothing.
“A lot of our sales are people we don’t know now,” Herrell said. “I’m never going to get tired of seeing people wearing our stuff.”
They do short runs by season, gauging interest from customers, selling out a line, and moving on to the next designs. “We can gauge it so that we’re never losing,” Mitchell said. They’ve been able to fine-tune their marketing, learning “how to turn it into a success,” Herrell said. “We still have an athlete mentality. All the good stuff behind the scenes is all season training. Once we’re dealing with our manufacturers and our product, it’s like practice. And then game day is releasing stuff.”
Recently they produced a commercial to help get the word out further about what they’re doing. “Our community messaging is big now,” Mitchell said. The trio “push heritage — things that promote thinking about what you’re doing and moving your body.” One item, the thinking cap, was inspired heavily by Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro.
“He was showing the school system we evolved in and what it’s doing to the Black community. My college experience is almost the same as what he was talking about in 1920. Not a lot has changed,” Mitchell said. “We come from the same poverty, you might say.” The trio was inspired to “push that message through in our way. We’re going to be of one accord. We’re going to be eclectic, and we’re going to embrace the people with talent, embrace the people with art. We’re going to make money and share information. That’s where we’re pushing it to. That’s what we do for each other.”
They have ideas for getting their clothes into existing brick-and-mortar stores, or possibly getting their own storefront, which could double as a workspace for them. And they have long-term plans to build a company with an eye toward possibly giving it to Rouse’s 1‑year-old child, July.
“This business is supposed to last until he wants to take it over,” Mitchell said. “He’s grown up around this his whole life. Wherever big Rouse goes, little Rouse goes. He’s soaking it all in, so his future’s going to be a different route. He can go to college like his uncles if he wants to, or he could run a business if he wants to. That wasn’t an option that was given to us. We had to take what we’ve seen and implement it ourselves, and do a lot of groundwork. It’s a brand, and it’s a clothing company, but by the time he’s 18 it’s going to be a corporation.”
“This is a whole new monster now,” he added.
“Breaking generational curses,” Rouse said. “That’s what this was founded on.”