GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Throughout history, the importance of what people wear at protests has gone hand in hand with what they’ve said. That has again rung true after the tragic police killing of 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya.
T-shirts, hats and hoodies adorned with Lyoya’s face have been staple items at rallies, marches and protests honoring his memory and calling for change. Many of the items have come from the studio of Reg James.
James, who officially started his company RegJames Klothing two years ago as the pandemic took its grip on society, never thought he’d find himself in this corner of the clothing industry.
But several times now, when a Black life is lost to violence, James has found himself staring back at the faces of the victims through his designs. It’s become a reluctant labor of love he’s taken on, but one he never expected to.
“It’s a really sad thing because we’ve got countless lives,” he said. “It’s not really about just gear, it’s about getting justice for Patrick.”
Beginning Monday, James’ Lyoya designs will be on sale at the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, with some of the proceeds going directly back to the Lyoya family. The museum – located just one block away from the Grand Rapids Police Department – will also add James’ designs to their archives to preserve for decades to come.
“All of the shirts he’s made have somebody’s name or face on it so that you’re recognizing that person for themselves as opposed to an incident or a time,” said George Bayard, the executive director of the GRAMMA. “For us, it’s a great way to honor people.”
In addition to the GRAMMA, James’ has also had his work archived by the Grand Rapids Public Museum, who will also display and store the Lyoya designs. Both museums have archived some of James’ clothing before; from designs featuring Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, to former president Barack Obama.
“Unfortunately, every time there’s an incident here or around the country, Reggie’s astute enough to make one of these shirts that honor these people that had their lives taken unnecessarily,” said Bayard. “With Patrick, the difference is that he was here. He lived here. He was here."
“Shirts and things like that are kind of more personal. They’re next to your body, you’re with it,” he continued, “and they’re sentimental in that they make you remember the people who have passed away.”
James has been partnering with Jimmy Barwan, a close friend of Patrick Lyoya’s. Together the two have turned out t-shirts and hoodies by the hundreds, keeping Lyoya’s name out there and alive.
“There’s some people that’s not always going to be there to march with us but when people see shirts like this and they read it, it’s helpful…that’s helping too in the community,” said Barwan who, like Lyoya, immigrated to West Michigan from Africa at a young age. “Me wearing this, it’s not only for Patrick but it’s for all of us. Because at the end of the day this is about a human being, this could’ve happened to any one of us.”
James and Barwan have been filling requests from around the globe. They’ve gotten a lot of orders from the Democratic Republic of Congo – where Lyoya was from – to as far away as Kenya, South Africa and France.
While both men know their efforts are helping keep Lyoya’s name alive, they hope it’s the last Black face they’ll have to put on a t-shirt.
“How many more t-shirts do we have to make?” said Barwan. “We don’t want to do that.”
“This is something I don’t want to do…I don’t want to do this,” said James. “But if this can get the word out by putting him on hoodies and spreading the word on t-shirts, then that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”