In our January issue, we asked: Who will carry the city's torch forward for the next generations? Here, the next retail Renaissance man
Ryan Vesler calls himself a “Jewish goofball,” and it's hard to disagree. His cluttered office is a jumble of vintage sneakers, piles of T-shirts and sports and pop-culture oddities. Asked about the décor, Vesler points to one of his proudest possessions: a framed poster from the legendary 1970s ad campaign for the Brooklyn bakery Henry S. Levy and Sons. The poster features a playful slogan—“You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real Jewish Rye”—with an image of an adorable black child holding a piece of rye bread with a bite taken out of it. Vesler connects with the sweet irreverence and inclusiveness of the poster. “It combines everything of who I am,” he says, lounging on an overstuffed couch alongside a Larry Bird doll.
That oddball spirit has fueled Vesler's rise in Columbus's business world. His company, Homage, has been a bright spot during an uncertain time for the retail industry, experiencing double-digit sales growth every year over the past decade as his brand of neo-retro clothing has caught fire with nostalgic sports fans in Columbus and beyond. What started out as a one-man operation in the basement of his parents' Berwick home now includes some 100 employees, an office and distribution center near John Glenn Columbus International Airport, seven brick-and-mortar stores and a robust e-commerce operation that generates 60 percent of his company's revenue. “When you're making purchasing decisions, and there's a value system behind the product that you're buying, it deepens the experience and enriches the experience,” he says. “It's not a commodity.”
Nostalgia has always connected with Vesler, and he experimented with selling vintage stuff on eBay as a student at Ohio University. After graduating from OU in 2005 with a degree in Spanish, Vesler returned to Columbus and hit upon the idea of producing new T-shirts inspired by the vintage products he loved. He could still celebrate the past without having to fight with other collectors over a limited supply. He also could reach customers turned off by the idea of wearing used clothes. “It was like, ‘Let's try to create this experience, this brand, and let's build it around storytelling and authenticity,'” Vesler recalls.
It's easy to underestimate Vesler. On his LinkedIn page, he calls himself Homage's “chief mall kiosk strategist,” and he's pictured in a Larry Bird Boston Celtics jersey with matching, hip-hugging, 1980s-style basketball shorts. During a tour of Homage's warehouse in early December, he insists a reporter take a pickle in a sealed pouch left over from a promotion for National Pickle Day (Nov. 14, if you're wondering). But don't let his retail savant act fool you. Vesler is no schlemiel. He's smart, curious and articulate, and he brings an almost scholarly dedication to his work, whether it's creating a retro Cleveland Cavaliers T-shirt or understanding the life and times of a more famous Columbus specialty retailer who also grew up on the East Side. “There will never be another Les Wexner,” Vesler says. “He is the greatest specialty retailer. He changed the game.”
Vesler avoids comparing himself to Wexner—or anyone else, for that matter. “You're never going to be good enough,” he says. But Vesler does draw inspiration from the L Brands founder's story. He reads obscure articles about Wexner from the 1980s. He studies his innovations and reinventions. He admires his insatiable thirst for knowledge and takes to heart his nuggets of business wisdom, such as the importance of theater in retail.
The two have met just once—and Vesler admits it didn't exactly go swimmingly. When Wexner quizzed Vesler about his store payroll, the Homage founder was stumped. “I'm not a numbers guy, so I'm like, ‘I don't know,'” Vesler recalls. But Vesler did draw one important lesson from the encounter. When Wexner opened his line of questioning, he began by saying, “I'm just curious.” Indeed he is. It's one of the things that's fueled Wexner's continual success over the past five decades, and it's something Vesler knows he needs to emulate. “That's the thing—curiosity,” he says.