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.
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.
didn't yet know that most licensing pitches came in the form of polished PowerPoint presentations, with sales figures and mocked-up designs.
brought them a giant corkboard.
pulled an all-nighter the night before proposals were due, assembling an inspiration board in a friend's living room.
found old pictures of Ohio State football games from back issues of Sports Illustrated
that a pack-rat family friend had kept in his
pulled newspaper articles, banners and Buckeyes football T-shirts he'd been accumulating himself during more than a decade of dedicated hoarding.
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
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.
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.
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
"I wanted to create a connection."
has been creating connections his
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.
"I just liked finding things nobody else had," Vesler
has long been a source of inspiration for Vesler
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
"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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
hired close friends from Columbus and college to fill high-level roles at Homage-he
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.
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.
voice only to express frustration that the stock of a particular T-shirt color isn't coming in quickly enough.
"All right," Vesler