BFF: Jenny and Julia of Retrofit Republic

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Jenny and Julia

Julia Rhee and Jenny Ton

One of my favorite “chick flick” movies is Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, a 1997 comedy  film starring Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino where two 28-year-old women roommates and best friends attend their 10 year high school reunion and invent fake careers to impress their former classmates.   Fast forward to San Francisco 2013, and we have real-life Jenny and Julia:  two best friends, roommates, both 28- years-old (coincidentally) AND successful business partners who don’t have to invent fake careers when they attend their respective high school reunions.

The dynamic duo operates a four person team at Retrofit Republic  a sustainable fashion styling firm, event design, & vintage retailer with a social impact. They fancy belts, bright shoes, and Cyndi Lauper combinations to transform individuals with a Vintage flair. “Their motto is “Look good, do good” and they follow a socially responsible mission to recycle and/or dispose of unwanted clothing in a sustainable manner, change the status quo in the fashion industry, and uplift and empower the marginalized communities they come from.

Jenny Ton was born in Texas and grew up in Baldwin Park, CA (home of the first In-N-Out burger store in 1948) to Vietnamese and Chinese immigrant parents: Dad was a construction worker and her mother had her hands full raising 6 kids (she’s 8 minutes older than her twin).  Growing up low-income, she learned to be resourceful and creative early on.  Her family would shop at thrift shops where she recalls fondly bringing home mismatched furniture and repainted or retrofitted them to match the rest of her 2nd hand room decor.  Shopping at thrift stores was not by choice.  It was what her family could afford.  Because it was a stigma to shop second hand, it was the catalyst to her creative styling and bold expression through clothes.  It was her early exposure to socio-economic disparity and injustice of immigrants in her predominantly populated Mexican & Asian immigrant hometown that provided her the motivation to make a positive impact in life, which led her to UC Berkeley where she was passionately involved in student organizations organizing and advocating for low income youth of color.

Julia Rhee is a native of the Pacific Northwest and the daughter of Korean immigrants. Compelled by the American Dream, Julia’s parents set out for the U.S. in the late 70s where they raised 2 children and operated a Korean grocery store, and later, a general minimart.  As the daughter of small business owners who continuously worked “immigrant hours” – exhaustive 16-18 hour days, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, the idea of being an entrepreneur or a small business owner herself never entered the realm of possibility for young Julia. Julia was resentful of the store — it felt like it was the unwanted child where she had to compete for the attention of her hard-working parents. Like a lot of kids, she couldn’t appreciate the depths of their sacrifice until adulthood.  Similar to Jenny, Julia’s family was resourceful to a fault. Her maternal grandmother, a survivor of the Japanese occupation in Korea and the Korean civil war, raised Julia and her brother while the parents were working and would teach her American-born grandchildren fundamental pillars of sustainability that stay with them today: character-building survival tips like eating around the mold, never throwing anything away, and the endless possibilities of recycling and repurposing everyday items.

Jenny and Julia met at a University of Californian summer session in Hawaii. They both were organizing youth in college, admired fashion and just clicked.

This was my first two person profile and it was like interviewing one person….my head would shift back and forth from one to another as they finished each other’s sentences with such passion and fervor.


What are your fashion favorites?

JT: Vintage. Menswear. Menswear inspired clothes for women. Power suits. Color. Collar swag. Chambray. Black and white. Color blocking. Mixing patterns. Mixing casual and formal. Sock Cleavage. Shoes -the higher the better!

JR: Vintage costume jewelry, signature outerwear, animal themes on accessories, creative short hair on women, menswear-inspired clothing for women.

What clothing designers do you like/admire?

JT: Alexander Wang. Jason Wu. Phillip Lim. Rei Kawakubo. Yohji Yamamoto. Junya Watanabe. Marchesa. Marc Jacobs. Jean Paul Gaultier. Coco Chanel. Karl Lagerfield. YSL. Maison Martin Margiela.

JR: For runway work, I really appreciate the aesthetic of designers like Reem Acra, Proenza, Band of Outsiders, John Varvatos, Jil Sander. For what I wear personally, there’s no real brand loyalty.

Have you lost an item of clothing that you really miss, where and when?

JT: I lost my favorite faux fur scarf Julia gave me for Christmas. I don’t know where and when it disappeared. I just know that I can’t find it. Maybe it will one day reappear when I least expect it. Crossing fingers.

JR: I lost a white messenger bag when I was around 14-15 years old. It was the most expensive bag I had purchased at the time, probably around $50 which felt like an absurdly large sum of money. And, it was not so much the design of the bag that I missed — it was the symbolic value. It was a physical marker of a moment when I allowed myself to believe that I could be worthy and capable of wearing something as bold and beautiful as that. It was a strange attachment. Nevertheless, I was devastated when someone took it because I rarely lost any items that I owned. The silver lining at the end, however, was when my dad, upon hearing about this loss, told me how these things happen in life, and that we just have to learn to be more careful. I wasn’t a materialistic kid growing up and I didn’t get a lot of toys or clothes — but for that occasion, I do remember my dad slipping me his hard-earned $50 to lift my spirits. I’ll never forget that.

Who are your role models?

JT: Mama Ton-Pham. My inspiring best friends just to name a few: Julia Rhee, Chandara Phanachone, Cat Bao Le, Linda Le. Michelle Obama. Grace Lee Boggs. Yuri Kochiyama. Aung San Suu Kyi. Jane Kim

JR: My parents, grandmothers, best friends, and Asian American women trailblazers like Mee Moua, Helen Zia, and others.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

JT: I’d love to see a woman of color as President of the US.

JR: Quality free education for all. The eradication of gender and sexual discrimination. A balanced redistribution of wealth, resources, and opportunity between the first world and developing world. The extinction of carbon extraction and active displacement of indigenous people. An international treaty that mandates all dresses are to be constructed with pockets for additional utility.

What are some of your goals in life?

JT: Learn to speak Vietnamese and Spanish fluently; Visit Vietnam with my mom. It’ll be our first trip together to the motherland; Give my mom her dream home; Travel to every continent; Start a non-profit in the US and in Southeast Asia focused on women and girls empowerment through education, economic development e.g., self-sustaining job opportunities and entrepreneurship, and civic engagement.

JR: Travel internationally with my family. Create local jobs and opportunities for women and girls. Help lead the movement of change that advocates for wider body acceptance, more diverse representation, sustainable practice, and bolder creative expression.

If you could take a year off and do anything you wanted and not have to worry about money, what would you do?

JT:  Travel the world to get involved with organizations already doing work on ending violence and sex trafficking and organizations building schools and sustainable incubators for small businesses for socio-economically disadvantaged women and girls in developing countries.

JR: Travel show host.

What worries you?

JT: My mom’s health. My niece and nephew’s futures. Not living my life to my fullest.

JR: Climate change. Gun violence. The shocking rates of reported and unreported gender and sexual violence. Student loan repayment.

What makes you happy?

JT:  Spending quality time with my chosen family and family. Seeing my loved ones happy. Women’s successes. Eating. Delicious food. Traveling. Vintage shopping. Art. Live music. Reading. Biking. Leisure walks. Rooftops. Gorgeous weather. Being able to do what I love -on our terms.

JR: Laughing with my friends and family. Working on projects that engage both my creativity and social justice values. Traveling. Quality Asian food. San Francisco.

Any cool hangouts or places people should go to and check out?

JT: Tank18. We fell in love with the space the first time we walked in. We immediately knew we were going to have an event here and we did -our Tastemakers Lookbook Launch Celebration; – The Haus of Hipstamatic & Snap Magazine office in Soma. It has all the design elements and layout that I covet. Rooftop anyone? – The Sutro Baths before it is completely closed. It’s rumored to be out of commission indefinitely; – The top floor view from the De Young Museum’s Observation Tower; – The rooftop at the SF MOMA. Hurry because they close for retrofit and expansion beginning of this June 2013 – 2016!

JR: Sutro Baths in San Francisco beautifully, yet eerily, feels like the end of the world.

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