Whooping cranes and red pandas have a new advocate, thanks to a physics class.
Pittsfield native and musician Justin Allen explains the process, which began back in December: "It was my first semester at Amherst College, which was very difficult for me. I was sitting in a physics lecture hall and thinking about how it was going to be a very long time before I'd be able to make what I was learning useful. Then I started thinking about what skills I already have that I could use to benefit the people and things that I care about. Meanwhile, I was sketching a pangolin in my notebook. Then it was like, ‘Oh my God! Light bulb!' "
The pangolin is a mammal that can be found in Africa and Asia, and is often described as resembling a scaly anteater.
And there, in that lecture hall, his new charitable clothing line, Pangolin Clothing Company, was conceived.
"I thought it was a good spokesanimal for the cause. Not only does it have a cool name, but it has these really amazing animal thick scales that protect them from predators. It seemed like the perfect symbol for endangered animals protection," Allen said.
So he worked on his drawing and created a logo out of the mammal's name. Then he took his idea to the people.
"I started talking about it on campus with everyone and anyone who'd listen," he said.
Allen's designs are now printed on T-shirts manufactured by the Los Angeles-based American Apparel company (http://americanapparel.net).
On Tuesday, Pangolin Clothing Company also announced its official partnership with the Whooping Crane Conservation Association (http://whoopingcrane.com), which will now receive at least 50 percent of the proceeds the clothing company receives from sales of T-shirts with its Whooping Crane design.
Allen said he's proud of the fact that so much has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time.
"One thing I'd like people to take away from our story is that if someone has an idea like this, it's not impossible to do. I had this idea six months ago, and now it's happening. Granted, not all ideas might take off so quickly, but if someone feels passionately about making something happen, it's within your power," Allen said.
The young artist isn't doing it all on his own.
Though Allen serves as the founder, lead designer and CEO of the company, his friend and classmate Craig Velozo has come aboard as chief operations officer.
"Craig and I have been friends since I started going to Amherst last year. He was one of the people I started bumping ideas off of, and he gave me some really solid advice," said Allen.
This summer, both men are serving an internship with the Vela Scholars Program based at Amherst Regional Middle School. Vela means to "rise and grow" in the African language, Xhosa (pronounced "hosa"). And in between helping students, Allen and Velozo would chat about their own ideas and how to grow the Pangolin Clothing Co. concept.
"We both share a passion for it, so we started working together, and suddenly the business became something," Allen said.
Velozo, 29, is a native from Fall River, and, like Allen, is also a member of the Class of 2016. He's an English major, but has previously served as a U.S. Army medic, who's now also focused on a pre-med track.
"I've always been a volunteer in some aspect, whether it's mentoring kids or working as an EMT. I've never really focused in one area, like environmentalism. That's all Justin, but it was contagious. He has such a passion for it, and it's a great idea," said Velozo, on why he decided to partner with Allen to work on the Pangolin Clothing Co. project.
"I also think the time is right.
Right now, Velozo and Allen are focused on establishing partnerships with agencies that are doing legitimate conservation work to protect species that appear in Pangolin Clothing Co.'s designs.
Allen said not only has the Whooping Crane Conservation Association accepted their partnership, they've also invited him and Velozo to travel to Texas with them in December to film a sustained flock of Whooping Cranes and create a video to raise awareness of the issue, which will be shared with both organizations.
"We'd like to go to wherever the money's being spent, to make a video and to show our customers what our conservation efforts are really going for," said Allen. It will also be an opportunity for the company to bring donations directly to their recipients.
"One of the things that really concerned us is how you hear about a lot of charitable organizations that come under fire for not doing much for their cause ... We want to be accountable to where this money goes, and in turn [our customers can hold us accountable]," Velozo said.
In addition to the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, Pangolin Clothing Co. has also partnered with the Red Panda Network (http://redpandanetwork.org), based in San Francisco, with a field office in Nepal.
"There's a bunch of designs ready, and when we have partnerships set up, we'll actually plan to start selling those T-shirts as well," Allen said.
Some of the designs in the queue include endangered or threatened species such as the black rhinoceros, snow leopard, Hector's dolphins, Sumatran orangutan, Tasmanian devil, dama gazelle, and pangolins. Allen's also currently working on a polar bear design.
Allen said he doesn't want to release all the designs all at once.
"Part of it's about raising awareness of each animal and their needs, not just about which one's the cutest animal or best design," he said. "The coolest part about it is that the shirts are kind of advertisements for themselves. We want it to initiative a conversation, whether it's because someone looks at it and knows the animal and the cause, or they stop you and ask about it because they think it's a really cool shirt."
Allen said he and Velozo are in the "fortuitous" position of being on a college campus; they've received permission to sell their shirts in the campus center at Amherst College, and also hope to put together a street team to help raise awareness of the products and causes they support.
From a design perspective, Allen hopes to collaborate with other artists, and said the company will likely not limit its products to T-shirts.
Pangolin Clothing Co. operates on the myshopify.com platform, which has an app that allows customers to browse and purchase products via the company's Facebook page. A formal website is also in the works.
Velozo said that though they have a lot of work to do -- including trying to balance a business and school -- he's looking forward to seeing their visions for the conservation through clothing grow.
"We're very passionate about what we do and we never want to compromise," he said. "If there's anything I've learned, it's that when you find your passion, you just have to keep working at it."