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A New Take on Vintage Design

This story appears in the January 2014 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Everything old is new again, thanks to Homage. The Columbus, Ohio-based startup creates apparel that celebrates iconic athletes, teams and pop culture sensations of years past, combining period-correct design sensibilities with contemporary production techniques to turn out original fan gear with that fresh-from-the-thrift-shop look and feel.

Homage doesn't rehash the same familiar images you find on the mass-produced T-shirts, sweatshirts and caps sold at your local mall. Each item tells its own story, communicating the spirit and essence of an icon. For example, there's the orange T-shirt with brown letters reading "Bad to the Bone," an in-the-know tribute to the Dawg Pound, the famously rowdy Cleveland Browns fans who inhabit the bleacher section behind FirstEnergy Stadium's east end zone.

"I'm constantly intrigued by learning new things and finding out about the engaging moments and quirky personalities behind the stories all fans know," says Homage founder Ryan Vesler. "The surface-level stuff is team logos or slogans. We want to be less obvious than that. We want to differentiate this company and our brand."

Vesler started Homage in 2007 after graduating from Ohio University, setting up shop in his parents' basement. At first the company focused on reselling vintage apparel acquired at secondhand stores, but Vesler soon expanded into original designs, striking licensing deals with universities, including his alma mater and nearby Kent State and Dayton. From there Homage secured agreements with local heroes like former Ohio State University running back Archie Griffin (the only two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy) and former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar.

"There were no products telling [those athletes'] stories in a fun way," Vesler says. "There's always a cool story to be told. But you have to look at each story through the lens of its era. In the case of someone like Archie Griffin, if you're trying to create an authentic shirt, you want it to look like it's from the '70s. You don't want to use fonts that look too current, but you do want to use line art, because that's what was popular then. And if you found something like that shirt in a thrift store, it would have been washed a hundred times, and the image would be cracking and peeling, so you need designers to know how to stress it the right way."

Shawn Khemsurov serves as Homage's director of design. His efforts draw from a host of resources, ranging from thrift-shop finds to vintage clip-art books to photos borrowed from athletes' private collections. The source material is scanned into a PC and digitally manipulated to match Homage's old-school sensibilities.

"Whenever you take a story and put it in graphic form, there's a lot to take into consideration," says Khemsurov, who joined Homage after design stints with Abercrombie & Fitch and Old Navy. "Should it be a type-only shirt? Does it need imagery? It can't be too obscure. You need to make sure people get it. The fundamental code to live by is 'Simple, simple, simple.' Strip everything down. You don't need to overdesign things. Simple sells."

The Homage catalog today encompasses hundreds of shirts, hats and hoodies honoring everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Zippy, the University of Akron's kangaroo mascot. All products are made in the U.S.A. and fully licensed. In some cases, Homage deals directly with the individual or institution in question; in others, the company works with organizations like the Collegiate Licensing Company, the trademark and marketing arm of sports and media business-management goliath IMG. "Part of paying homage and showing respect is figuring out the status of each intellectual property and who owns it," Vesler points out.

The terms of each licensing agreement vary. Most T-shirts are priced at $28. Homage president Jason Block says sales are up 80 percent year-over-year but he declined to disclose the total.

While online commerce drives the business, the company operates two brick-and-mortar stores in Columbus. "When Ohio State fans who don't live in Columbus anymore come to town, they can't wait to visit our shop," Vesler says. "They come in early, buy an OSU shirt and wear it to the game. We're now part of their game-day ritual. That's really important to me because it shows how clothing can be meaningful and how it can be different. We're here to convey that message to the world."

Jason Ankeny

Written By

Chicago-based writer Jason Ankeny is the executive editor of Fiercemobile content, a daily electronic newsletter dedicated to mobile media, applications and marketing.