Willy Wonka meets fabric in T-shirt company

To keep the designs exclusive, there are three editions, with four designs per edition and only 88 prints per design.

By Whitney Haddard haddardw@theridernews.com

Those who aren’t familiar with Tom and John’s Chocolate Factory might mistake it for a candy store. But in truth, it is a unique apparel company whose name pays homage to Willy Wonka’s unconventional production of goods.

“It does throw people off a little bit,” said Chief Executive Officer and Rider University alumnus John Jeong. “You’d expect us to sell chocolate. But we actually sell apparel, and we do sell it in chocolate boxes. It’s very memorable.”

Last May, Jeong got a call from his high school friend, Thomas Mui, who had just graduated from the University of Illinois. During the summer, they worked together in Manhattan and decided to co-found Tom and John’s Chocolate Factory. But rather than open the business right away, at the end of the summer Mui went back to Urbana-Champaign, Ill., only a few hours outside of Chicago. In February, Jeong followed.

Mui, Chief Creative Officer of Tom and John’s Chocolate Factory, graduated with degrees in architecture and finance but he never took an art class. He loved drawing and always doodled in class, so one day his friend suggested that he put a drawing on a T-shirt. This led him to the idea that he could possibly find success in the fashion industry, and instead of moving to Los Angeles to take a wealth management job he had waiting for him, Mui stayed put. Tom and John’s Chocolate Factory was officially established in September 2010, and the design and sale of both men’s and women’s T-shirts began immediately.

“One of my biggest inspirations is Marc Ecko,” said Mui. “He dropped out [of Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers University] to pursue his T-shirt business. Now he’s a multi-billionaire. That’s kind of what I would like to leave as my legacy. I didn’t decide to go the corporate route; I decided to do my own thing.”

The shirt designs are created using a variety of media including photography, graphic art and hand-drawn sketches. The “urban wear” is inspired by Chicago, musicians and architecture, according to the company’s website (tjchocolate.com). There are currently four editions with four designs per edition available for sale through the website’s store that range in price from $30 to $35 per print. There will only be 88 prints of each of the four designs in the first edition, because Mui and Jeong were born in 1988.

“We chose to make limited editions because we want our customers to feel like they’re really a part of something unique,” said Chief of Marketing and 2010 graduate of Rider University, Jessica Maiuro. “Only them and the select few other people who buy will have our art. No one else in the world will.”

Since music is such an inspiration for the designs, Maiuro, a native of central New Jersey, has partnered with bands in sharing merchandise tables at shows. One band is Tara Elliot and the Red Velvets. This marketing strategy has tremendously helped sales of the apparel.

The company also helped found College Couture, a fashion organization for the collegiate community. The first College Couture fashion week ran from April 10 to April 17.

Mui, Jeong and Maiuro are looking forward to what’s in store for the future.

“Our designer, Tom, is working on the fourth edition now,” said Maiuro.  “[The designs] are going to be a little different. He’s expanding his creativity a little more. He’s going to be working with chocolate — melting [it] on a canvas and painting with that, to go along with the name a little more.”

Visit Tom and John’s Chocolate Factory’s new website at tjchocolate.com or like them on Facebook to learn more.

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