When Chase McAnulty was 16, you could find him leaving Kansas City thrift stores with piles of vintage T-shirts. Now, you’ll catch him stocking local boutique shelves with his own designs.
What started as a vintage T-shirt obsession culminated into a business when McAnulty went to college. Living in Lawrence in 2005 while attending the Kansas City Art Institute, he created the online store and blog “vintagethreadz.com” — a name McAnulty chuckles about now — and learned early those essential business lessons like supply and demand and time management.
“What were we thinking?” McAnulty said. “But I always say, 'While they were in business school, I was in business.'"
Amid the growing trend of retro clothing, McAnulty’s business developed a strong fanbase.
“We really created a cult following,” McAnulty said. “People would come to read what we had to say about a vintage Nike T from back then."
These skills and popularity served him well in May 2012, when McAnulty and friend Josh Riesgo launched another vintage T-shirt design company, Charlie Hustle. Like its forefather, vintagethreadz, Charlie Hustle sells merchandise online, but the new company’s shirts can also be found in area stores.
Method, Westide Storey and The Bunker in Kansas City, Mo., carry McAnulty’s hip throwback T-shirts, and Lawrence’s Hobbs Inc. featured Charlie Hustle’s Danny Manning-themed shirt in its front window all spring.
“Finding special items like the Charlie Hustle Ts is what makes Hobbs special and the Danny and the Miracles T-shirt is a slam dunk,” Hobbs owner Mark Swanson said. “Overall for a young company, I think they are doing a very good job.”
The same business concept that McAnulty says he “lived off in college” has turned into a real-world entrepreneurial endeavor. Charlie Hustle expects to do about $24,000 in sales this year and expects to quadruple that amount in 2014. The shirts sell for about $30.
“There are tough times; it can be stressful,” McAnulty said. “But little successes keep you moving up the ladder."
For a startup business to achieve that success, it must offer something more than just a cool design. McAnulty says Charlie Hustle is not simply a T-shirt company; it is a story teller. Customers are drawn not only to the nostalgia of retro wear, but also to the community spirit and educational value of the designs.
“Our shirts spark a conversation,” McAnulty said. “They open up a dialogue about the past.”
Charlie Hustle just received licensing from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to design shirts for a new line featuring logos of baseball teams like the Kansas City Monarchs. The project is expected to bring attention to an era of great athletes lost in the history of America’s segregated past.
“The main thing is being able to tell those stories, which are dying out,” McAnulty said. “We want to teach America’s youth nowadays, who know nothing outside of the major leagues.”
Now, Charlie Hustle wants to tell its own story. In the upcoming weeks, it will launch a campaign to raise $20,000 on the fundraising website kickstarter.com.
McAnulty says they chose the online approach because of the community nature of his business. Charlie Hustle has never sought formal investors; all startup costs were covered out-of-pocket and with a little credit card debt.
Contributions of any amount can be made to support Charlie Hustle's kickstarter campaign, which will return the favor with gifts tied to the donation amount. Pledge $10 and receive a handwritten thank-you note from Charlie Hustle execs; pledge $2,500 and join McAnulty and crew on an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas, where they will meet with national buyers at a trade show in February.
That trade show is one of many to come for the group once they reach their fundraising goal. Yet, while McAnulty aspires to bring the regional company to a national market, he insists Charlie Hustle must keep its local vibe.
“The best thing is to be able to create something and see how people can connect to that,” McAnulty said. “Obviously our roots are in Kansas, but we want to share Chicago stories or see what Denver has to say.”
For now, look out for Charlie Hustle T-shirts gracing celebrity torsos July 19-20 at the upcoming Big Slick KC fundraiser put on by Kansas City natives Jason Sudeikis, Paul Rudd and Rob Riggle. Charlie Hustle has been asked to provide shirts for 25 big-name guests, an honor for which the one-time college entrepreneur says he’s grateful.
“It is a humbling experience, for sure,” McAnulty said. “We are used to reaching out to ask for these types of opportunities, but to have people calling us now, that is a really special thing.”