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(Credit: Chris Casella)

Ryan Vesler

Homage Vintage Clothing

By Travis Hoewischer

Published January 1, 2012

The word “retro” hardly does Ryan Vesler justice. With his typical combo of classic sneakers, jeans and perfectly-imperfect match of his HOMAGE brand vintage t-shirts, he’s a 6-foot, 4-inch modern Marty McFly; if you didn’t know any better you’d assumed he just stepped out of the Delorean.

His mission: to tell you a story, a few fonts at a time.

Vesler, who’s seen his company grow from his OU dorm room to a Short North retail, has also seen his designs land on the chests of everyone from Morrissey to Chris Rock, as well as appearances on TNT (NBA Basketball) and F/X (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

But, he’s not just selling style, or trading in cool; HOMAGE is about paying tribute, about honoring a bygone era from our childhood and the stories and personalities of that time.

The store, tucked in Brickel alley, with its original arcade version of NBA Jam in the corner, and life-size cardboard cutout of Larry Bird – appears straight from the dream of a sports-loving teenager of the ‘90s.

In many ways, it is. (614) took a stroll through the HOMAGE clubhouse and the mind of its ambitious architect.

You have a loud, colorful personality, you like to stand out and be different and unique, but you also really buy into this school pride, team-fan unity thing. Is that an appropriate way to describe the impetus behind HOMAGE?

Well I don’t design stuff that you would find at Walmart. I think ever since I was young I would go to the mall store and feel really uncomfortable – like the stuff there wasn’t for me. I was different. I think that’s why I started to buy vintage clothing; I wanted something different that not everyone else had. My sister would take me thrifting when I was 12 or 13. Later in college I had a vintage clothing business where I was buying clothing in the thrift store and selling it on eBay. And the pieces I would find were so cool, unique and one of a kind, and most importantly – there was a story. A shirt from the 1984 NCAA Final Four would make me look at those the teams and think about who played on them. What was the story? Did somebody win that wasn’t supposed to? Or was it the favorite that ran the table in the tournament? That would take me to a different level. There was a depth there that I wanted to explore.

It’s about folklore as much as fashion?

People connect emotionally to brands; we live in a very branded world. Apple, for example, has just done something that is so incredible I can’t even begin to describe it with words. I mean, when Steve Jobs died, people felt like a part of them left, too. Myself included. He and his team designed a series of products that everybody could bring into their lives and use and customize and enrich their lives. I think when you build things like that you change the world. Not that I’m comparing clothing to technology …

Hey, maybe you should look at t-shirts as your way to change the world.

It’s a canvas that I can use to tell a great story and tell a story that I think is relevant. It would be a lie to say that the brand HOMAGE is not an expression of me, because it’s everything that I love fused into one. It’s Jobs’ Stay Hungry Stay Foolish t-shirt, it’s Cleveland is The City, it’s Bernie Kosar for President – these are all things that I think are quirky and creative. I think when I was growing up I had a chip on my shoulder because people would tell me I wasn’t creative and that I shouldn’t do clothing and that I should do this, that and the other and I was like, ‘Wait – I feel like this idea is great or is cool, and how am I ever going to know if this idea is great if I never go through with it?’ I think for whatever reason, I never felt the fear of failure; I just wanted to try it, because if I didn’t try it, I would never know. So, this curiosity for how successful an idea or a vision could be, combined with a love of clothing, a love of stories and a love of nostalgia really determined our collectively identity. When you go to the Horseshoe on Saturday it fills up – and it doesn’t matter if we have a winning or a losing record, it doesn’t matter who the coach is. There’s something sacred there. When you find those things in the sports realm and you talk about them in a context that people understand, you have the HOMAGE brand. I think that’s what we’re about. I want people to really connect emotionally with the t-shirt. I don’t know if that sounds funny or not (laughs).

But, it’s not just sports. It’s a connection to childhood, or to retro culture that make HOMAGE appealing. Is that why people can buy candy cigarettes and play video games in a clothing store?

I want people to go, ‘that’s awesome and this is why.’ Just the other day a guy made an order and in the comments, he said, “Do you have any extra Motorola Dynatech phones?

What is that?

The Zach Morris Saved by the Bell phone, you know – the big cellphones? And I’m thinking, do I know this guy? I thought this was some kind of joke, and then I realized this guy was just a customer who figured if anyone was going to know what that phone was it was going to be HOMAGE. So I happened to have one in my apartment, so I sent it to him.

Of course you did.

(Laughs). So, that’s the kind of influence, or the kind of mark we want to leave on people. When people think about HOMAGE they think about a brand that really cares, a brand that really wants to tell a story, a brand that really wants to connect to their customers, that really values what the customer thinks. I feel like that’s a reflection of me, too, because when people tell me something, I want them to feel like they’re being heard. When I talk to someone I know when they’re not listening. We listen and we talk back.

What better way to connect with people than with something as simple as a t-shirt? They are interesting little statements about whoever is wearing them.

And they can be whimsical or they can be serious or they can be agitating, it just depends on the context. You can communicate so much with that, and the things that I love in culture and history I’m communicating, is just a platform that I use. Some people are authors, some people are painters – for whatever reason, I was always drawn to the t-shirt. You’ve got this blank piece of cloth, what do you want to do with it? Who do you want to connect with? Where are those people? And then when they wear it, what do they feel?

I’ve seen you out in public, wearing the gear, waving a foam finger or towel, mixing it up with the fans, particularly at OSU games. Is it tough to maintain that passion for sports when you see the business side of it all the time, like with licensing battles, etc.?

Sometimes. It’s kind of like if you love a restaurant and you end up working there you don’t like the food as much. But yeah, you get into the politics of the business and start thinking about numbers and who your competition is and what the competition is doing and “I’ve got to start doing this, I’ve gotta make this number of sales,” yeah, it can erode a little bit of the enthusiasm and the passion, but it hasn’t completely erased it. That’s why I still love doing what I’m doing. When you start to be in the business of sports it can really change things. If you look up to an athlete as a kid and you want nothing more than to make a shirt about him, and you call him or you get a hold of him and his ego is big and he wants so much money that I’ll never be able to afford it, that’s kind of a letdown.

Like who?

I called Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and his agent was like, “I don’t think you can afford it, honey.” But, on the flipside, when I called Larry Bird’s agent, she was like, “Yeah, we’d love to work with you.” For every Kareem Abdul Jabbar, there’s a Larry Bird or Archie Griffin. I always wanted to go back in time to watch Archie. He was the coolest guy. I went to his office and I said, “I want to make a shirt about you,” and he looked at me and said, “Do you think this will sell?” and I said, “Yeah, I think it’ll sell.” We shook hands and that was that.

So when a shirt made by a Columbus kid, about a Columbus legend makes it onto the chest of an international rock star, like Morrissey, that’s got to be crazy …

It’s surreal. People ask, ‘did you have a publicist do that?’ Nope. I don’t even know who ordered it.

Who was your favorite athlete growing up?

It was probably Bird. I mean, just the whole “Hick from French Lick” thing was amazing; it only deepens my love and appreciation for his career and accomplishments. I liked his style of play. He was scrappy, he could shoot and he wasn’t super-super athletic. He couldn’t jump out of the gym, but he could always seem to make the right move at the right time. He just had this way about him and the way he approached the game; he always had this focus or intensity, and when I was old enough to kind of assess him as an athlete and look at his story and look where he came from … and now as a 28-year-old, to work with Larry Bird, I mean sh*t … And you know what makes him Larry Bird? When I send him a royalty check it’s addressed to Larry Bird. I sign it and when I see the scan it says Larry Bird. I'm like, ‘I send checks to Larry Bird!’

What a bizarre and charmed life you lead.

It’s such a privilege to work with these people and tell their story and tell our own story and pay Homage.