What is Columbus fashion?
In some ways, it’s Homage, the retro sports shirt company that is at the forefront of the change in the way fans dress to support their teams. In some ways, it’s Lamp Apparel, the store owned by a former Ohio State basketball player that meshes California cool with Ohio sensibilities.
And in some ways it’s Sole Classics and Kingsrowe, the shoe/apparel store and fashion line, respectively, owned by former Ohio State football player Dionte Johnson.
Maybe that’s no mistake. Johnson describes himself as inspired by each of the former and hopes that his store – which bills itself as one of the “premier sneaker, apparel and lifestyle boutiques” in the nation – and brand serve as a representation of what Columbus brings to the table in the fashion world.
“Now that more people are emerging and bringing a name, it gives what you’re doing more credibility as well,” Johnson recently told BuckeyeSports.com. “I was just out west with guys that don’t know what Columbus was about aside from them knowing me and the shop, and they said, ‘We’ve seen Lamp has been doing some crazy things.’ Then there’s Homage of course and things like that, and you’re noticing even the small brands, and like I said, it’s a credibility thing more than anything else. It’s dope.”
If Columbus fashion is on the rise, Sole Classics – located at 846 N. High St. in the Short North – is one of the reasons why. It’s where Homage started selling shirts in town, and it’s the home of Johnson, who has become one of the most recognizable names in the fashion and apparel industry in Columbus.
That’s fitting, as before he was a scholarship football player at Ohio State, the son of former Buckeye star Pepper Johnson worked at Big Daddy’s sportswear just east of the OSU campus. There, he developed a handful of sensibilities about the retail business.
First, he developed an appreciation for the business and an interest in designing his own fashions. Secondly, he knew he wanted to devote attention into a local store that meant something to the community. And third, he wanted to represent the city of Columbus in his work.
“The interesting part about Columbus is people write it off,” he said. “Even people who are in Columbus or from Columbus, they write it off as this small town, not fashionable, things like that. We probably send more people to these big companies across the world than anybody even knows. There’s so many times that I bump into somebody and they say, ‘My parents are from Columbus,’ or, ‘I’m from Columbus,’ or, ‘My best friend is from Columbus and now he’s the director of marketing at such and such company.’
“You have all these creative minds, and their focus their entire life has been to get out of Columbus to do something greater. I want people to feel like you can do that here. That’s my goal – and as weird as it sounds, not for the money, but I want to show that this is Columbus.”
After finishing his career at Ohio State as a captain and fullback on the 2007 team that made the national championship game (and also featured the equally fashionable Malcolm Jenkins), Johnson tried to make the NFL but saw that dream extinguished quickly. The Columbus Eastmoor product had always planned to get into retail after his career, so he returned home and bought Sole Classics in 2010.
That business has continued to grow out of its High Street location, and on the side Johnson debuted Kingsrowe, his own personal brand. Kingsrowe opened its own store a few blocks north of Sole Classics – a location that has now been shuttered but will continue to serve as a pop-up shop when necessary – but now is focused on a new line that will be sold in Sole Classics and more going forward.
As both the owner of a store that sells some of the most popular sports wear in the country as well as a brand that aspires to reach that level, Johnson says his education in the apparel industry has been in-depth.
“The fact that I get to do it in both ends, I feel like it’s a cheat code,” he said. “As a buyer, I know what I want out of brands, so as a brand that makes it easier for me to make it for a buyer. It’s doing well. We took our bumps and bruises, but that’s a business. When you’re able to still do what you love on a day-to-day basis and you don’t have to close your doors, you’re blessed.”
Johnson admits that his real-world education in the business has had some “fumbles” along the way – including forcing too many designs in the early days of Kingsrowe in order to have inventory to sell – but now thinks he’s in a good place. He his wife, Jessica, is a CPA who keeps a handle on all financial matters while he the team he has built at Sole Classics handled the day-to-day stuff, allowing him to run the business and focus on Kingsrowe designs.
In addition, he serves as an assistant coach at Eastmoor and is also running a small business workshop this weekend designed to help local entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground – all from advice he’s learned along the way.
When asked what he wants to be known for, Johnson has a simple answer – the ability to create, to promote and to help.
“I guess that’s my hallmark,” he said. “Anytime you’re able to make something and someone likes it and they smile and enjoyed it, I don’t know what feels better than that. I don’t care what it is. To be able to pass that dream or that vision on is what it’s all about to me.”