How to succeed old-school

By
From the November 2013 edition

When he created Homage in his parents’ basement at the tender age of 23, Ryan Vesler didn’t have an MBA or a business pedigree. What he did have was a vision that wouldn’t stop and the tenacity to make it a reality. Seven years later, he’s sitting atop a growing business with national cred. Not bad for a T-shirt designer.

If you want to know the story of Ryan Vesler, you can start with the story of the board.

At 23, Vesler had rough ideas for what his T-shirt company, Homage, would become. It would be faces, personalities, places in professional and college sports, rendered in broken-in vintage graphics on cotton as soft as a shirt that had been loved for decades.

But to make and sell those kinds of shirts, first you need licenses from the teams. And Vesler had no idea how to get one of those.

So, in 2007, he found information on Ohio State’s website on how to apply to make Ohio State licensed apparel—just fill out some forms and submit a proposal to their licensing office, and they’d either approve or deny permission to make the items.

He didn’t yet know that most licensing pitches came in the form of polished PowerPoint presentations, with sales figures and mocked-up designs. Instead, he brought them a giant corkboard.


He pulled an all-nighter the night before proposals were due, assembling an inspiration board in a friend’s living room. He found old pictures of Ohio State football games from back issues of Sports Illustrated that a pack-rat family friend had kept in his basement. Vesler pulled newspaper articles, banners and Buckeyes football T-shirts he’d been accumulating himself during more than a decade of dedicated hoarding. He pitched no specific shirt designs, just a vision of the types of stories he’d try to tell about Ohio State from the era of Woody Hayes’ uncensored transparency and Archie Griffin’s dominance.

The board was so big that, when he and his friends went to deliver it the next morning, it didn’t fit in the back of his car, and they had to scramble to find a pick-up truck to haul it to the licensing office.

“At first, we rejected his application,” says Rick Van Brimmer, the associate vice president of licensing at Ohio State who’s worked closely with Homage since its inception. “The board looked like a fourth-grader’s presentation for school.”

But as was the department’s protocol, he invited Vesler for a follow-up interview. He didn’t know what to make of the oddball kid wearing a mismatched vintage T-shirt and shorts. He seemed an unlikely entrepreneur.

Then Vesler started talking.

“I’ve been doing this more than 20 years, and, to be honest, I’ve never met someone like him, who was totally unproven but came in with a real vision,” Van Brimmer says. “When we started talking to him, all the pictures and stuff he brought in came to life. He was telling us a story.”

Vesler got the license.

Seven years later, Homage is a slick, self-assured company. What was once a solo e-commerce operation run out of Vesler’s parents’ basement is now a robust three-pronged shopping experience that saw a more than 70-percent spike in sales last year, with 75 employees between the corporate office and two retail storefronts in the Short North and at Easton Town Center.


If you’ve attended a major sporting event in Ohio since Vesler got that first licensing agreement, you’ve seen Homage shirts: a loopy, ’70s-inspired Script Ohio on a heather gray tee in stands at the ’Shoe; a brown T-shirt bearing the bright orange emblem of the Kardiac Kids, the nickname of the mid-1980s Cleveland Browns team known for its heart-stopping game finishes. A shirt for Dime-A-Dog Night at Cooper Stadium, or the ill-fated 10-Cent Beer Night at the Indians’ old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.

Or maybe you spotted Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury sporting an Homage “Pittsburgh: City of Champions” tee while hoisting the Stanley Cup out of a window or heard “Elevator” Ernie Johnson shouting out a T-shirt honoring him live on air during the NBA Finals.

Homage manufactures hundreds of designs, selling to both twenty-somethings nostalgic for glory days they never experienced and parents who actually lived through them.

“If you dissect what he does, it’s just ink on a T-shirt,” Van Brimmer says. “But he puts the DNA behind the images.”


Vesler understands that even for something as simple as a T-shirt, all anyone really wants is to be told a story.

“You can go to a college bookstore and buy a shirt, and it may have a company name on it, but you don’t really have a connection to it, because it’s just a transaction,” he says. “I wanted to create a connection.”

Vesler has been creating connections his entire life. Elliott May, Homage’s vice president of licensing, first met Vesler when they were in third grade playing tennis at Scarborough East Tennis Club on the East Side. When Vesler recruited him to join the Homage team last year, May joked that he’d been interviewing for the job for 20 years.

Vesler’s childhood was full of sports—tennis, basketball leagues at the Leo Yassenoff Jewish Community Center, running track at Columbus Academy (all of which eventually inspired Homage shirts). He was an obsessive fan, too, latching onto the Larry Bird-era Boston Celtics and the San Francisco 49ers.

But in middle school, he realized he was much better at playing with computers than sports. He started taking them apart and reassembling them for fun. He started a website where he reviewed Apple products long before blogs were a thing.


And he started thrifting, at first with his older sister and then with his friends, favoring a cluster of stores on Cleveland Avenue and a Volunteers of America outlet on Alum Creek Drive.

“I just liked finding things nobody else had,” Vesler says. “I hold onto things that are cool because I don’t like the idea that someone I don’t know could have it.” That could be a foam finger or a teal Fila Bjorn Borg tennis suit. He keeps everything.

At first, he shopped for himself and for friends. But during college at Ohio University, he decided to use his eye for retro design to make some extra cash, launching Vintage Villains Loot, a successful eBay outlet for curated thrift-store finds. He designed his first shirt in college, too, a stylized OU logo that he printed in small batches at a local screen printer.

Ohio University has long been a source of inspiration for Vesler. He remembers looking through his dad’s college yearbook from OU, being fixated on his 1970s short-shorts track uniform.

“In some way, I guess, I’m reaching out to feel what that was like—not like I’m running around in short shorts all the time, but to try to live in a different era,” he says. “The brand is just an extension of my longing for the experience of the past.”

At the outset, Homage was entirely a one-man operation: Vesler not only managed the business end but designed the shirts himself. He’d spend entire days at a screen printer working on designs and making shirts, then come back to his parents’ house to answer emails and pack orders. His mom took packages to the post office for him.


When his visions outpaced his design capabilities, he emailed descriptions to a friend who was working for Old Navy who would sketch them and email the designs back to Vesler. (He’d soon lure this friend to design for Homage full-time, along with several other former Abercrombie & Fitch and Limited Brands designers.)

After he got the Ohio State license, his shirts started appearing online and in stores of local retailers like Dr. Mojoe, but the stores couldn’t keep them in stock.

So Vesler decided to open his own brick-and-mortar store in the Short North, in a tucked-away location on Brickel Alley, coating the walls in sports memorabilia he’d thrifted over the years. He assembled an authentic Zippo lighter display and a functional Coke machine that spat out free glass bottles for customers to sip. In 2012, he opened the Easton location.

“I never read business books or anything like that to learn how to be successful,” Vesler says. “I never worried about the next step—it all just seemed logical. I just had to figure out how to solve problems.”


His parents’ basement has yielded to a sprawling series of warehouses on the East Side, where employees can skateboard from the fulfillment warehouse to the screen printer. It’s part utilitarian, part start-up chic, the type of office where printed prototypes, a restored and Homage-branded VW van, an original NBA Jam arcade-game cabinet and a neon green American Apparel bra are displayed with equal nonchalance.

Now that Vesler has settled into a mini-empire, he’s starting to think about what’s next. In the near future, expect to see Homage stores in Cleveland and Cincinnati, followed by outlets in cities with strong sporting traditions (Pittsburgh is a likely bet, Vesler says).

He’s also hoping for more agreements like the one Homage struck with the Blue Jackets this season, which put Homage-branded team apparel on the racks of the pro shop at Nationwide Arena.

The Homage logo is starting to get more prominent play, whether it’s stitched onto a patch on the front of a Miami University football shirt or emblazoned in a loopy script across a tee. Vesler has figured out how to tell a story about sports. Now it’s time to figure out how to tell a story about everything else, because he knows the shirts making references to sports heroes of his childhood won’t have the same nostalgic cachet for future twenty-somethings as they do for him.


“Let’s say sometime down the line an 18-year-old comes to us and has never heard of Larry Bird,” he says. “They may enter the brand through another shirt, but they see a shirt about him and like the design, then read about him on our site and learn, ‘Hey, here’s this great basketball player,’ and suddenly, they’ve got a connection to us and to him.”

That means toying with non-sports imagery, too, like a recent collection in honor of Jack Hanna’s 35-year anniversary at the Columbus Zoo or a design emblazoned with the words “Salty Caramel” for the first 50 people in line on opening day at the Jeni’s location at Easton.

Or the “Ant’s Got It” shirt. In June, the family of 22-year-old Homage aficionado Anthony Jackson approached the company after Jackson died of complications from juvenile diabetes. In turn, Homage produced a video sharing Jackson’s story and a shirt with his nickname and cartooned face, with all the proceeds going to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Center.

It’s one burst of sincerity from a company that’s retained its goofy edge, that slips packs of vintage trading cards into shopping bags and promotes itself through videos of a fake job interview with the San Diego Padres’ chicken mascot and of Vesler, in a 1980s Larry Bird Celtics uniform, trying (and missing) trick shots to promote a contest.


Watching them feels like watching old friends goof off in high-quality video, like being let in on an inside joke, mostly because that’s exactly what’s happening. Vesler hired close friends from Columbus and college to fill high-level roles at Homage—he says he’s always been drawn to creative types with similar visions, so his friends were perfect fits as the company expanded.

“When I took this job, I had a lot of history with Ryan, and of course there was hesitancy to working with friends—you always hear you shouldn’t,” May says. “But here, it makes everyone have a strong sense of ownership of the company. I laugh a lot more at work here than I have anywhere else, but I’ve also dedicated more of myself.”

Each week, one cinderblock storehouse wall becomes a projection screen for a critique of Homage’s in-progress designs, and representatives of every aspect of the company weigh in on what works and what doesn’t.

They sit around a mismatched cafeteria-style conference table, leaning back in seats or slouching on exercise balls. Everyone wears jeans. Nobody is over the age of 35.


Vesler makes rapid-fire decisions as they flip through the shirts: Change the font on that Miami University homecoming tee, promote those Ohio State hoodies together for the holidays. There are no agendas, no notepads.

Vesler raises his voice only to express frustration that the stock of a particular T-shirt color isn’t coming in quickly enough. Within five minutes, the group has drafted a temporary solution to free up some extra gray shirts by changing the color of another prospective design to green.

At this particular meeting, someone has mocked up a T-shirt bearing the phrase “Mardi Gras in September in Cleveland,” which Cleveland Indians announcer Tom Hamilton howled when Jason Giambi hit a walk-off home run to win a pivotal late-season game the night before. The next day, it will be on sale for $19.97, a nod to the last time the Indians made the World Series.

They flip to the next design.

“All right,” Vesler says. “What’s next?”