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At-risk, homeless youths help create apparel brand called dfrntpigeon (or 'different pigeon')

COURTESY: MATT FIRMAN/NEW AVENUES FOR YOUTH - The Liberty T-shirt was designed by Olivia Lewis, who said it came from her view of the state of the world right now. It's part of dfrntpigeon's 2017 spring collection, called 'Identity.'Somewhere at the intersection of "identity" and pigeons, you'll find the clothing brand called dfrntpigeon — pronounced "different pigeon."

It's a streetwear T-shirt company run by a small group of at-risk and homeless youths at New Avenues for Youth, a nonprofit organization in downtown Portland. The organization serves people 16 to 25 years old.

The dfrntpigeon program partners with AKQA, a digital design group that has worked with major brands, such as Nike, and helps mentor the group. Dfrntpigeon just released its second collection at Portland's Design Week, called "Identity." They've worked previously with well-known Portland brands including Sizzle Pie and Deschutes Brewing.

"I think the beauty and the profound quality to that is the different directions that everyone takes one word," says Sara Weihmann, executive director at New Avenues for Youth. And "pigeon" comes from the idea that the bird is often overlooked and undervalued, but has a subtle beauty. Weihmann says the youths involved connect with the bird in that way.

"I think the youth identified this pigeon as this bird that's so easily labeled and miscategorized and judged ... they're kind of pests and they're in the way," Weihmann says. "They related being viewed that way in society as overlooked and cast aside, when really they're unique and have a lot of potential."

The collection has a punk-ish quality to it, mostly all black T-shirts, with designs that Weihmann says evolved from discussions about what identity means.

COURTESY: MATT FIRMAN/NEW AVENUES FOR YOUTH - The Collage design combines facial features and expressions 'to capture the complex spectrum of our emotional identity.' One of the collection's primary designers, Olivia Lewis, 22, of Southwest Portland, designed a shirt depicting cut off hands that spell out "dfrntpigeon" in American Sign Language (ASL).

"This one was linguistics based because we were talking about ways people communicate with each other, and then we started talking about how you don't really see ASL spread out anymore," says Lewis. She says they wanted to put sign language on a shirt to make it more visible.

"People don't automatically know what it means, so they have to look it up and learn a little bit," she says.

Seven youths worked on the dfrntpigeon "Identity" collection.

Lewis found New Avenues for Youth almost three years ago after struggling to get ahead, needing job experience. New Avenues runs a Ben & Jerry's on Southwest Yamhill Street where the organization placed her to work.

However, she's ultimately interested in design. Working her way further into the program, Lewis recently became the only part-time, paid staff youth working 20 hours a week. The rest of the youth designers work between two and eight hours, depending on what they can commit to.

Although there are other organizations in Portland that work with young people around art, such as p:ear, Weihmann says New Avenues is unique in that they're making it a real business.

"We're trying to create paid job opportunities, where youth can do this work and get their foot in the door at a design agency," she says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Olivia Lewis, 22, folds up some of the shirts she helped design to debut at Design Week last week.Lewis was hard at work last week, folding and tagging the shirts she helped design in preparation for their big Design Week opening of the collection.

Helping was her best friend, Brooke Chavez, 23, whom Lewis encouraged to participate in the program after she joined.

They now live together in an apartment, and Chavez is working at Ben & Jerry's, too.

The design work, Weihmann says, is about confidence.

"I think for them to be so open about their work is very brave and courageous. And I think putting themselves out there like that, the return is this deep sense of self-confidence," she says.

But there's also magic.

"To see it come through the screen and see a T-shirt they designed, there's some sort of magic in seeing that complete part of the process," Weihmann says.

They're not in stores yet, just online; see dfrntpigeon.com. But local, then national and even international retail locations are what they hope to tackle next.

"The initial discussion is trying to find who our partners there can be," Weihmann says. "Right now it's just finding our own way."

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