from bust to boom: how the city's brand is on the rise, within our borders and beyond

Steadfast Clevelanders have never been subtle about declaring their allegiance for their hometown. For years, prominent t-shirt company BCTZ has commanded us to “Defend Cleveland,” while screen printing institution Daffy Dan has been reminding us that “You’ve Got to be Tough.” And don’t get us started on the never-ending stream of sports-themed apparel.
But even the most nearsighted among us can see that things are different these days. There is a tidal wave of fresh businesses that flaunt the city through an assortment of Cleveland-themed apparel and products or by integrating the city name right into their company’s branding.
Cleveland has long been a city built on making -- proud of the products it crafts and exports -- but many point to the recent recession as the dawn of a more modern movement built around entrepreneurial pursuits. And because that movement coincided with a newfound pride of place, many of those startups focused on 216-themed and branded products.
“There has definitely been a huge upswing in Cleveland-centric goods and branded companies, which seemed to start around 2008,” explains April Bleakney of APE MADE, which sells a full line of locally themed products. “I think this DIY movement is strong in my generation because we were not left with many other viable options for employment due to the economic downturn, especially in this region.”
At the same time, the national media pointed more and more folks in our direction with stories detailing the so-called “Rust Belt Revival,” where cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo were being hailed as affordable options for creative types priced out of larger cities. And when they did relocate here, those new arrivals coupled their entrepreneurial start-ups with a keen sense of civic pride.
Heart on our sleeves
Mike Kubinski was working in Cleveland but living in Akron, and he was determined to devise a plan to move to the city. Inspired by Rubber City Clothing, he wanted to create an “everyman’s brand” that he could unveil in Cleveland. He discovered existing apparel companies like the rock-themed BCTZ, but he had a few ideas of his own. By 2008, the wheels were in motion for what would become CLE Clothing Co.
In 2010, Kubinski and his business partner Jeff Rees planted their flagship store, Native Cleveland, in the up-and-coming Collinwood neighborhood. In one year’s time, they would expand their line of American-made, Cleveland-proud products to the heart of downtown: E. Fourth Street.
“Once the market crashed, there was this whole movement to source local, and shop local, and eat local,” Kubinski says of his company’s beginnings. “Ten years ago, you’d walk down E. Fourth and see empty storefronts. Now, you can buy a CLE Clothing shirt then go eat at the Greenhouse Tavern. People wanted to show off that they were somewhere that was sourced as local as possible.”
The company’s downtown store caters as much to longtime residents and boomerangs as it does to tourists and those living out of state, says Kubinski. “We have so many customers who come in who just moved here for their jobs,” he says. “They’re totally engrossing themselves in Cleveland, wearing Cleveland apparel proudly.”
When it came time for Positively Cleveland, the city’s visitors bureau, to debut its new branding campaign to attract visitors, partnering with CLE Clothing Company seemed like a natural choice, says communications manager Jennifer Kramer.
“What they were doing was a good inspiration for us,” Kramer explains. “They embody that Cleveland pride -- being proud of who we are and not taking ourselves too seriously.”
The rebranding effort launched with a flashy video that included cameos by locals adorned in CLE Clothing attire. Throughout the film, taglines like “Never mainstream, never meant to be” and “You may have heard the stories” flashed on screen, reinforcing the city’s personality as authentic, resilient, unvarnished and slightly askew.
“People who live here are the third-most utilized resource for those who are planning a trip,” Kramer says, noting that since 2007, the city has enjoyed an 18 percent rise in tourism. “What we’re seeing is those are the ones who are taking pictures of Cleveland goods, using the hashtag #ThisIsCLE, showcasing what they love, and that intrigues people to come.“
In the year that followed CLE Clothing Co.’s launch, three new Cleveland apparel companies would emerge, namely Fresh Brewed Tees, GV Art + Design and iLTHy, which boldly states that it’s “Cleveland Against The World.” And while it would be another few years before Aaron Sechrist would unveil his t-shirt company Made by Superior, he began his transition to a freelance life in 2008.
Before going his own way, Sechrist, a designer who goes by the name “OK Pants,” watched as artistic budgets were being slashed by companies struggling to make ends meet. The result of those cuts, says Sechrist, was a small business renaissance in Cleveland.
“I saw potential to really grow with the city and see good things happen,” he recalls. “I had been waiting for this whole wave of local pride to come about. And when it did, you saw this glut of local clothing companies blow up. I saw that developing, and from a business standpoint -- and just a personal interest standpoint -- it made sense to get into stating my perspective as a designer.”
What’s in a name?
Compulsive traveler Scott Colosimo says that when he was younger, “I was always trying to get away from Cleveland.” But when Colosimo and his then-co-worker Jarrod Streng were laid off from their design jobs in 2009, they planted roots firmly in the city to launch their motorcycle venture. What’s more, they named it Cleveland CycleWerks -- a name they feel embodies the company’s working class clientele.
“It’s well known internationally that Cleveland is an American manufacturing city, but lesser known than Pittsburgh or Detroit,” explains Colosimo. “Using the Cleveland name, we really have the opportunity to make our own future and let the past that we want to be known.”
In 2012, Cleveland CycleWerks began construction on a new warehouse in the heart of Gordon Square in hopes of moving the entirety of its manufacturing operations to its namesake city.
“I bought a house in the city and my business is in the city,” Colosimo says. “I like this idea of living and working in the city and that we’re not just building businesses, but we’re rebuilding the neighborhoods we’re in. People want to identify with where their products are coming from; they want to know the people who are making them.”
A similar path led Dan Herbst to lay the groundwork for Cleveland Bagel Co., which he launched last year with partner Geoff Hardman. When Herbst was laid off from his full-time gig, he dove headlong into the flourishing artisan food economy by way of his Montreal-meets-New York-style baked goods. When it came time to brand his fledgling food start-up, he drew from his formative memories from growing up here.
"My dad always took us to Indians games as a kid and he would say, ‘no fair-weather fans’ -- we would always stay through the whole thing even as we watched them lose game after game,” he laughs. “When I first moved back [in 2000], everyone was moving away and I used that as my inspiration. You can’t be weak. The heroes that come out of Cleveland – Harvey Pekar, Jesse Owens, Big Chuck and Lil’ John – are gritty, real people that had to dig down to make it. That’s what we love about Cleveland and that’s why we chose to take it as our name."
Herbst and Hardman continue to add to the repertoire, expanding the reach of their distribution in a way they say might not be possible had they set up shop in a different locale.
"I think more people, like myself, are realizing if they were in a different, bigger city it would be a lot harder to do something like this,” Herbst says. “You really can start something from the ground up here and the community embraces it. You can pursue something and be passionate about it; really focus on one thing and try to bring the magic to it. And that translates to what we’re doing right now and people around me are doing right now in my industry. We want to build that perception."

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted