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T-Shirt Entrepreneur Gets Nostalgic with American-Made Goods

Dave Mielach, Contributing Writer

Ryan Vesler hasn’t forgotten the good old days. In fact, he created a business out of remembering them.

"I have always been interested in anything nostalgic, from vintage sports stories to really cool bits and pieces of pop culture history," said Vesler, the owner of Homage, a retro-inspired T-shirt company he founded in 2007.  "I thought of the idea to re-create these great moments with the Homage brand. What drives me is that I get to tell a story with each Homage product we release."

These stories are not told with pen and paper, but with a screened image printed on cotton-, rayon- and polyester-blended T-shirts. They are wearable tributes to famous people, places, and events of America's past. Vesler has been able to honor figures including Buzz Aldrin, Babe Ruth, Steve Jobs, Vince Lombardi, Jesse Owens and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name just a few. His Ohio company's products also depict famous sports moments and pop culture events. Vesler calls it a "new spin on the old school."
Homage is also paying homage to the roots of the shirts' iconic images by manufacturing all of its products in America.

With a marketing plan that relies heavily upon social media interaction with customers and with four years of strong Web sales, the company has been able to grow out of the basement of Vesler's parent's house into a retail store in Columbus that also offers sweatshirts, sweatpants, backpacks and accessories.

Products are sold on the Homage website as well as in the store. The business will celebrate its fifth anniversary in the spring.

Humble beginnings

Vesler's business career started when he was a student at Ohio University. He would visit thrift stores, buy the interesting vintage items of clothing he found there, and resell them on eBay.

"I did that for a couple years through college for extra money," said Vesler. "It was a very valuable experience because I gained an appreciation for vintage. I would look at all these pieces that were one of a kind. I started to pay attention to their fabric, wash and graphics and I really started to gain a fondness and appreciation for an original piece."

Vesler soon outgrew his eBay enterprise and looked to create his own pieces. In 2007 Vesler started Homage with the money he had received from a few credit cards as well as from selling clothes online.

"With credit cards, you can really extend your credit," said Vesler. "If you get good terms from some vendors that you work with, you can really buy yourself a good 60 days to go out and try to make stuff happen."

Vesler was able to do quite a bit in that time, despite entering a with lots of competition. Vesler, a lifelong fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes, applied for a license to produce shirts for Ohio State University and got it.

"That is one of the more difficult collegiate licenses to obtain," said Vesler, "and when we got that, people started to see us differently. It really legitimized us."

The Ohio State license proved to be just the beginning; Homage designs are now also featured in TD Banknorth Garden (the former Boston Garden) as well as retail stores including Urban Outfitters, Zumiez, Lids, and Japan's United Arrows. Homage has become a favorite of celebrities including Chris Rock, Will Smith, David Arquette, Jimmy Kimmel and NBA player Russell Westbrook.

More recently, Homage's shirts have been featured in an advertising campaign with fast food chain Wendy's. Homage re-created T-shirts from the company's legendary "Where's The Beef?" campaign.

Believe in yourself

Many things contributed to the growth and success of Homage, but Vesler cites one factor above any other.

"From the very beginning, I could sense that there were these great moments in history, especially in sports history, that really resonate with people emotionally," said Vesler. "They remember where they were watching the game or whom they were with. I think those moments are special to people. I knew that the Homage brand was going to connect people to those moments. I could feel that personally."

Vesler's intense personal belief and has paid off. In the beginning, though, it wasn't easy to convince those skeptical of his idea.

"When I started telling people about Homage, I think they thought I was just a guy running around selling T-shirts," said Vesler. "It wasn’t until I started to have this body of work that people started to realize what we were doing. It was a legitimacy thing.  You can tell people an idea and they don’t quite get it until they see it or feel it."

While Vesler was convincing doubters of the viability of his company, he also was learning valuable lessons about the way the business needed to be run.

"I think it is very important to get started, do something and don't dwell on every little detail," said Vesler. "The reality is that you can't grow until you start learning from your mistakes and fixing them.  Not getting hung up on all the details early on is really pivotal.  You need to make decisions, roll with them and adapt. "

Getting started, however, does not mean simply throwing a product out into the marketplace, Vesler said.  New businesses must combine the right mixture of adaptability and willingness to try new things.

"With small businesses, regardless of the category you are in, you are going to encounter roadblocks," said Vesler. "If you are not passionate about the product, you won't want to power through those roadblocks. For me, I can't imagine doing something I didn’t love doing.  I encourage everyone who is starting a business to do something they really love to do.