At Barnes and Morgan in Old Town, tea sets, gathered from estate sales, sit on shelves mounted on brick walls. Mismatched light fixtures hang over the counter, shining light on a tray of baklava. A group comes in to check out the space, and Amir Morgan — a tea purveyor, textile artist, and clothing designer — greets them warmly. Instead of handing them a menu, he asks questions about what they like.
“I like mint tea,” one says.
“Ginger is good too.”
“Well for a strong ginger…” Morgan says, reaching for a black canister. The visitor laughs. “I can smell it from here.”
As various customers enter the stylish, minimalist shop, Morgan takes a similar approach. He digs through drawers and cabinets to unearth bags of tea leaves, herbs, some curled into small spheres, others reminiscent of dried bouquets. While people wait for their tea to steep, his mother, Diane Barnes Morgan, greets each customer, offering to show them the back room where Morgan keeps his art.
Barnes and Morgan Tea and Threads — part tea shop, part fashion house, which opened in late January — is unlike many of either category. In the front space, Morgan sells pots of tea, sourced from local companies like Tea Freak and Jasmine Pearl as well as international distributors. Morgan will soon fill taps at the front counter with iced sweetened teas, kombuchas, and other tea-based drinks. Through an archway in the back, any visitor can stroll through his workspace, a showroom of hats, vests, and distinctive one-piece jumpsuits, something between overalls and a suit.
Morgan’s art has always been textiles and fashion, but tea has been a part of his life for much longer. He grew up in a house that used tea in lieu of medicine; his father would make pots of ginger and ginseng tea to treat colds. And, growing up in North Carolina, sweet tea was a cultural phenomenon; a pitcher was always close at hand when visiting a friend’s house. With his new tea shop and storefront, Morgan wants to create a space that’s as welcoming as his home, and showcases the full spectrum of who he is as an artist. “When I welcome people into this space, I offer tea,” he says. “If someone welcomes you into their home, you offer them tea.”
In 2008, Morgan decided he was going to bring back overalls. He started to experiment with tailoring and suiting, and hoped to debut some designs at a friend’s Kentucky Derby wedding. He sent his sketches to his sister, who sews, and she helped him finish two one-piece suits: One for the Derby, and another for the wedding.
Two years later, Morgan moved to Portland from Southern California to take a job at Nike. After settling in, he felt an urge to return to his jumpsuits, this time a little more deliberately. Instead of just creating a line of clothing to sell online, he turned them into art exhibits: events held at galleries and event spaces with food and live music, where people could see his work. But after a while, he noticed the events weren’t helping him connect with the larger community. “People wouldn’t go to the museum because it didn’t feel welcoming,” he says. “At galleries, people felt clique-y.”
Instead, he thought about what it would look like to open a shop or gallery that was inherently welcoming, a place that encouraged conversation. A cafe came to mind: a third place, where people could talk over a warm drink, and wade into the world of fashion in their own way. “The idea is to meet people where they’re at,” he says. “We want this to be a space for people to explore their own expression.”
In the back room, open to anyone who visits, two Nike-swoosh-adorned vinyl couches face each other by a fireplace, a place to sit and relax, or talk through a bespoke clothing piece. A wearable history of Morgan’s work hangs behind the couches, including a Tasmanian tiger-inspired jumpsuit with an open back and overalls made of cyanotyped fabric. A white one-piece, covered in doodles and signatures with marker, served as the sign-in for a 2016 showing. The couches were a part of a Sneaker Week event.
While Barnes and Morgan items are primarily bespoke, the designer wants people to be able to try items on, and accommodates everyone from a size extra-small to a 4-XL. It’s part of his desire to help people figure out who they are, how they want to present. “I always say clothing is an easy way to story-tell without saying anything,” he says. “We want people to come in and ask questions, to try things on.”
Morgan doesn’t pretend to be the most knowledgeable tea purveyor. He’s learning as he goes, absorbing what he can from the people around him. He intentionally serves a wide spectrum of styles, unafraid of offering sweeteners and sugars, letting people drink their teas however they like. “I’m definitely not an expert in tea, but this is a place to explore something new,” he says. “I’m attached to the clothing piece. I’m not trying to make you look like me. Tea is the same. I have things I like, but I want you to try it.”
For Morgan, finding the common thread between the two parts of himself — and himself and his customers — is the goal. For him, that common thread is the ability to get to know one another, to explore and learn about something together. And at Barnes and Morgan, that can happen over a cup of oolong.
Barnes and Morgan is located at 131 NW 2nd Avenue.