By Mimi Tomei
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Two hundred forty-seven dollars is a lot of money to spend on one piece of clothing – especially for a college student.
It’s an even more staggering figure when it’s spent on an old windbreaker, even if that windbreaker is Carolina blue and has the UNC-Chapel Hill logo on the flap of the pocket. But that’s exactly what one customer paid after an intense bidding war unfolded on Vintage Blue’s Instagram page.
By giving the customer who lost the bidding war a free piece of gear, they built a relationship.
Vintage Blue is a purveyor of vintage Carolina paraphernalia from area thrift stores and various online sources. The group connects with its audience through Instagram, their main business platform. Other students model for photo shoots around campus and surrounding areas, fostering relationships. The photos serve as advertisements on the company’s Instagram feed.
Vintage Blue’s crew and models arrived with hangers of clothing at 1789 Venture Lab. Among the clothing was a blue windbreaker featuring the UNC-CH mascot Rameses outlined in yellow. But one item didn’t fit on a hanger: a pair of worn, white basketball shoes.
Marketing director Jessi Zhou springs into action, putting the sneakers on model Katy Dettmer, coming up with a way to lace the shoes so the laces can remain loose a la Jay-Z but will still stay on Dettmer’s feet.
As Zhou works, Dettmer and Connor Von Steen, also modeling for the day’s shoot, chat with the team..
Once the shoes are on, content and creative director Rodrigo Bustamante takes over.
Bustamante and Zhou set up on the steep stairs that lead into the entrepreneurship space from Franklin Street a level down. As Zhou styles Dettmer, Bustamante furiously clicks his shutter.
The whole operation has to pause occasionally when someone needs to walk up or down the creaky, paint-chipped stairs.
Nearby, technology and analytics director Kenny Barone sits at a folding table with his MacBook open, perusing Instagram. Barone calls his business partners over, consulting them about which athletes the group’s feed should follow.
Of course, all the basketball players are a given.
The company is run entirely on Instagram, a choice that was made due to the popularity of social media in the venture’s target customer base: college students.
“If it’s in front of your face, you’re going to click on it,” Zhou said.
Convenience is a big draw for Vintage Blue’s customers. The team scopes out and acquires items online and in local thrift stores, saving their customers the effort of having to traverse greater Chapel Hill area to find the perfect piece of gear.
During this time of year when much of UNC-CH is focused on basketball, it comes as no surprise that Vintage Blue is focusing on athletic wear.
“We definitely try to match the energy of the school,” Jemal Abdulhadi, finance and strategy director, said.
The entrepreneurs give the garments they sell creative names. Some of them coincide with upcoming games, such as a basketball warm-up shirt dubbed “Juice ‘cuse” in reference to the then-upcoming game against Syracuse.
Others include a sweatshirt featuring the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Toons dunking a basketball clad in a UNC-CH jersey entitled “Tazzz,” which Von Steen modeled in front of an old PacMan video game machine.
Why do they do it?
They all get real-world experience in fields they hope to pursue after graduation in a profitable business. They’re a part of the vintage fashion scene in Chapel Hill. They express their creativity by telling multimedia stories. They get to work with items so unique they sometimes struggle to let them go when they’re sold.
And they get to learn more about the people they go to school with.
“I like the idea of spreading a social venture for the campus,” Zhou said. “I like how we’re venturing out and doing the stories, because I think it’s very important whatever you do to have a social impact in some way, and selling vintage clothes isn’t a social impact. But by connecting people in the community – I would really love to learn more about my peers that I can’t reach out to.”
The company uses “originals,” which are journalistic profiles written by Bustamante and Barone, to promote their products on their website. So far, Bustamante and Barone have published three “originals,” accompanied by photos of the subject in the clothing.
“We’ve been working on how we can bridge this gap – like how are we going to make stories and vintage clothing work?” Bustamante said. “But we just realized that we can use the model, or the person that we’re doing the story on, to model the clothing. We do the story one day and then the next day drop the item that is associated with their story.”
So far, juniors Psalms White and Scott Diekema and senior Aaron Epps are all profiled on the originals page.
The company came together quickly at the beginning of the spring 2018 semester. The first profile appeared online February 6 – less than three weeks after the group’s first photoshoot.
Where did it come from and where is it going?
Originally conceived as In With the Old in fall 2016, the startup rebranded to Vintage Blue shortly before the semester began under the guidance of Bustamante and Abdulhadi. Two weeks in, the business began turning a profit.
Photos of the items, shot by Bustamante, are posted on the feed, along with a starting bid and an ending time for bidding on items. From there, customers place bids through the comments section. Each bid must be at least $2 higher than the last. Customers pay through PayPal or Venmo and then arrange a time to meet with a Vintage Blue team member to pick up their item.
“In the first few weeks, we definitely were careful of what and how we spent money on because we weren’t (generating) significant revenue,” Abdulhadi said. “Since then, we’ve primarily been reinvesting profit in the website, gear and future offerings.”
The group has goals for the future, including an official launch party slated for next month. But these new developments come with logistical challenges the company will have to face, like delivery methods.
Vintage Blue hand delivers all their items to help continue connections with its customers beyond the sale. It helps the customer incur less cost, too, since they don’t have to pay for shipping – but that might not always be the case.
“I think we’re going to have to change our model towards shipping and e-commerce,” Abdulhadi said.
“I think as we grow our following nationally, since there are a lot of Carolina fans nationally, it’ll expand to a ton of people who want to buy stuff.”
Edited by Ana Irizarry