HOMAGE Thriving, Opening Short North Store

Chances are, if you have eyes and have been in Columbus during college football season, you’ve seen Ryan Vesler’s work firsthand. That “Script Ohio” T-shirt? He designed it.

In fact, HOMAGE, the company Vesler founded in 2007, sells about a dozen vintage-looking Ohio State University T-shirts and many more that pay tribute, or “homage,” to various culturally significant moments, personalities, and places.

I like to think that everyone can be an HOMAGE customer,” he says. “Everyone wears T-shirts, right? And when you make an emotional connection with customers by reminding them of things that they love, the brand begins to appeal to people of all walks of life.”

Or, at the very least, it appeals to people on several continents. Local retailers, like Sole Classics and Buckeye Corner, as well as stores in Europe and Japan, currently carry HOMAGE, which also offers sweatshirts, winter hats, foam fingers, and Frisbees.

We recently sat down with Vesler −a 27-year-old Columbus native and Ohio University graduate− to discuss the store he’s opening in just a couple weeks, the struggles he faced as a new business owner, and the perk that comes with being boss (though it can be a drawback, too).

Melanie McIntyre: So tell me about the new store.

Ryan Vesler: Our first retail store is located at 17 E. Brickel St. in the Short North. It’s less than 1,000 square feet.

MM: Why open a store of your own?

RV: In order to deliver an authentic experience, I decided that we needed to take control of the retail environment− sound, taste, smell, sight.

MM: Describe your vision for the space.

RV: The shopping experience is going to be a lot of fun. What could be better than sipping on ice-cold Coke from a bottle while playing NBA Jam and listening to old school funk from the ’70s? When it’s your retail environment, you have the opportunity to do something unique and we want to change the game.

MM: How did you find the space?

RV: Our space on Brickel was formerly occupied by Tigertree. Josh and Niki [Quinn] are wonderful entrepreneurs bringing great things to the neighborhood, so when the opportunity became available on Brickel Street, we were able to sublease their former location.

MM: Why set up the HOMAGE store in that particular location?

RV: I love being tucked back in the alley. There’s something cool about being off the beaten path.  I get really excited when I think about our new retail location in conjunction with events like Gallery Hop and all that takes place in the Short North.

MM: When does the store open?

RV: At the beginning of September.

MM: Who helped you design the store?

RV: We’re currently working with Suzi West of Collier West. Suzi’s passion, vision, attention to detail, and creativity are helping to mold the HOMAGE retail store into something really special.

MM: Do you worry the store will cannibalize your online business or your sales at other retailers?

RV: No. The HOMAGE retail store is intended to enhance what we’ve already built. We see our Short North location as more a flagship store where customers can appreciate the history and legacies behind all of our products in a special environment. We love the relationships we’ve built locally with other stores and think everyone can coexist nicely.

MM: Now, a few background questions… Why did you start a T-shirt company?

RV: For a lot of reasons. After an internship in the corporate world during college, I realized I wasn’t cut out for that kind of environment. I knew I had to do my own thing.

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit about me. I think this comes from my parents. My dad has been in business for himself for many years and my mom is the type of person who uses her creativity in so many wonderful ways.  Being raised in this kind of environment must have fostered an ability in me to “think outside of the box.” I’m very grateful for this.

I love vintage T-shirts− everything from the tag and construction to the graphic and print technique really fascinates me. I’ll give you an example. While in college, I remember finding a soft, faded “Where’s The Beef?” T-Shirt at the Lancaster Thrift Store. The shirt had been washed so many times that the 50 percent cotton, 50 percent polyester blended fabric had reached the perfect softness! The Wendy’s Clara Pellar image adorning the front took me back in time to one of the greatest ad campaigns in history. The “Screen Stars” label inside the shirt meant that it was manufactured in the USA during the 1980s. The list goes on and on…

As you can see, T-Shirts are such unique pieces and are full of great stories. Take, for example, our Archie Griffin T-Shirt. Archie is an incredible guy and is an inspiration for many people. Wanting to pay tribute to his career, we set out to capture, with a story on a T-Shirt, his contribution to college football, the spirit and heritage of the 1970s, and everyone’s love of Ohio State football.

To be honest, it’s this opportunity to tell a story with our products that is the greatest thrill for me.

MM: When you decided to launch HOMAGE, what were some of the first steps you took? Did you read specific books, get a bank loan?

RV: I definitely didn’t get a loan from the bank. In fact, I remember being incredibly frustrated with banks because nobody wanted to give me a loan!

When I tried to read books on starting a business, I could never focus because I’d start daydreaming about the ideas that I wanted to execute. Business books are loaded with great information, but sometimes this same information can seem so overwhelming. The important thing, at the end of the day, is to just get started.

Looking back, I just went after it. I can’t really point to a specific set of steps that I took. Instead, I just believed so much in what I was doing at the time that I was willing to take risks.

MM: What resources did you utilize to get up and running?

RV: In the beginning, I tried to work with other small companies who understood what it’s like to be in business for yourself. For example, my first screen printer was a local guy and he’d always be flexible with payment. This kind of thing really helped with my cash flow in the beginning.

I also have to say that the local media has always been wonderful. Columbus Alive, Columbus Underground and local bloggers, to name a few, were instrumental in helping to get the word out about my products.

I also remember having a really candid conversation with the guy in credit at my T-shirt wholesaler. After repeatedly maxing out my credit line, I picked up the phone day and said something out of frustration along the lines of, “Hey, man, this is a new business and I could really use some help.” Fortunately enough for me, he raised my credit line, which allowed me to order more goods to keep the business moving.

I realize that not everyone is going to be sympathetic. After all, this is the business world. But if you look hard enough, there are wonderful people out there who are willing to help.

MM: Did you have any local advisers, role models, or mentors you relied on for advice and input?

RV: A lot of amazing people have helped me over the years. Without their knowledge and guidance, I’m not sure where I’d be today.

David Norris, who used to own a store in the Short North called “Nostalgia Vintage,” introduced me to the tricks of the trade of the vintage biz. From him, I learned about things like Levi’s BIG E Jeans, Nike Dunks, Velva Sheen T-Shirts, original Champion athletic wear, the Japanese vintage clothing market, et cetera. While the two of us were driving all over, exploring thrift stores and old warehouses full of deadstock merchandise, David taught me quite a bit. All of this knowledge of vintage clothing is now infused into the HOMAGE brand.

Ron Kaplan, the creator of Surf Ohio, has given me so much knowledge about the good ol’ days when he used to design, screen print, and hustle his iconic series of Surf Ohio T-Shirts. Before the age of computers, Ron used to do everything by hand, eventually gaining distribution in places like Lazarus and Gold Circle department stores.  Ron’s energy, passion for great ideas, and ability to think out of the box are truly one of a kind. And he’s still got it to this day.

Rick Van Brimmer, the director of Trademark and Licensing [Services] at Ohio State, recognized my passion for exploring the past and how this could evolve into HOMAGE creating unique products in the marketplace. Ohio State runs one of the best licensing programs in the country and Rick has always been supportive of local business. Receiving a license from Ohio State really helped put HOMAGE on the map.

MM: What were you doing professionally before launching HOMAGE?

VS: Selling vintage clothing on eBay.

MM: Has that job influenced the way you do business?

VS: Yes.  Believe it or not, eBay taught me in the ins and outs of customer service, the need to offer a unique shopping experience, and demonstrated the opportunities that exist in a global marketplace.

MM: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?

RV: This is tricky. There have been so many bumps in the road, it’s hard to point to just one.

I was turned down the first time I applied for an Ohio State license. The next time I turned in the application, I remember spending weeks putting it all together. Every detail had to be perfect.

MM: What advice do you have for others who are thinking of starting their own businesses?

RV: Don’t be afraid to take a risk.

MM: What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

RV: Being able to set my own hours.

MM: The worst thing about being your own boss?

RV: Having to set my own hours. If something goes wrong and it’s 8 at night, I can’t expect someone else to take care of the issue. As your own boss, you’ve got to be ready to react to just about anything.

MM: Where is your merchandise manufactured?

RV: Most everything is made right here in the USA.  We take pride in being able to manufacture our clothing domestically. Back when Champion, Russell, Velva Sheen, and Screen Stars were in business, they all used to make their stuff here!

MM: Who handles your marketing?

RV: We do. We’ve managed to grow organically with social-media tools like Facebook and Twitter.

MM: Do you advertise?

RV: Yes. We are starting to develop some creative marketing strategies that will help us expand into new markets.  Regardless of the type of advertising, however, it’s vital in today’s economy to get the word out about your product. There’s a lot to sift through; customers are so inundated with products and information that they tend to stop paying attention.  To be successful, you’ve got to get through to them creatively.

MM: I know quite a few celebrities have worn Homage tees. Who most excited you?

RV: Two moments, in particular, have absolutely blown my mind. Seeing a photo of Marc André-Fleury −goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins− holding the Stanley Cup while wearing our “City of Champions” T-shirt was incredible. And I was absolutely stunned when Ernie Johnson shouted out HOMAGE during the NBA Playoffs on live, national television.

MM: Tell me about the design for the first T-shirt you sold?

RV: While I was a student in Athens, [Ohio], I designed a T-shirt that read, “Ohio Is For Hustlers.” Within a few weeks, I began seeing people around campus wearing the design. The rest, as they say, is history.

MM: Do you have a favorite HOMAGE T-shirt?

RV: This is a tricky question because I have so many favorites. But if I had to pick just one, I’d say that our “Block Ohio” design is my favorite because of its simplicity and timelessness. Recently, though, we released a Jesse Owens “Buckeye Bullet” design. It’s such an honor and a privilege to be able to tell the story of a guy who overcame so much in his life.

Owens said, “The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself− the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us. That’s where it’s at.”

After reading a statement like that, our “Buckeye Bullet” graphic is really special for me.

MM: Is there anything else you think I should know?

RV: All great things start in the basement or the garage.

To learn more about HOMAGE, visit Homage.com.