“It’s kind of like when people think you shouldn’t wear the band’s tee to their concerts. Like it’s not cool or something. But in reality the band would never complain about that; they appreciate the support.”
That’s how Dwayne Mitchell, Office and Retail Manager/Apparel Propagandist, relates the notion of repping your city in your city. We’re talking shop about agency life and their popular Winston-Salem inspired apparel line, Camel City Goods. Philip Pledger, Producer, is sitting with us and nods his head in agreement. I can’t help but notice they both have stellar hair.
We’re sitting in their conference room, which recently has doubled as overflow storage for their Camel City Goods apparel brand. There are rows and rows of cotton tees with slick typography. “Winston-Salem” is prominent everywhere. This place, at the corner of Brookstown Ave and Burke, is the homebase for Airtype, a design, branding and interactive agency here in Winston-Salem.
“We can’t wait to move into our new space, partly because I’m looking forward to the new conference room,” laughs Philip. They are currently restoring the historic early 20th century building next door. Their stamp on the property is already visible with the facade recently refinished with matte black paint. The move takes them from roughly 2,200 square feet to 10,000. Their growth over the past five years has resulted in staff being crammed into every nook and cranny of their current space.
I’m sure you’ve seen their work, whether you realize it or not. Most noticeably those WS/NC flag magnets you see plastered on cars around town.
“People usually don’t make the connection,” Dwayne shares after I ask if customers and clients realize that Airtype, the design house, and Camel City Goods, the apparel shop, are one and the same.
I remember the first time I came across their Camel City Goods line a few years back. I had spotted their work somehow, someway popping up in my social feeds. Months later, I happened to walk by their store and made a detour to pop in. I remember thinking “Yes. Yes, this is what Winston needs.” They had created a fresh look with modern typography and messaging that pulls from city’s storied past. They were forging a new identity for our hometown.
The guys said they had felt the same. But instead of just talking about it, they made it happen. That’s the difference between dreamers and doers. They know how to harness a good idea and bring it to life.
“And no one was really doing that at the time,” adds Dwayne, talking about creating Winston-Salem branded merchandise.
As we talk, he walks me back to the beginning of the Camel City Goods concept. “It really started one day when Bryan said we should create some merchandise to take with us to the events and festivals that Airtype was sponsoring. You know, something to rep at our booth to help get our name out there.”
He’s talking about Bryan Ledbetter, Airtype Founder and “Director of Everything”. In addition to his role here, Bryan is an accomplished BMX rider, musician, husband, and father of three.
“That was part of his design background,” continues Dwayne. “He started out designing album covers, t-shirts and the like for bands.” Philip had previously explained that the agency’s staff shares a mutual love for music; many are musicians themselves. It’s a common theme I’ve found in Winston; music seems to run through everyone’s story.
In the beginning, they started with two collections, Airtype and Camel City Goods. They had no concrete expectations for either, but quickly saw the Camel City Goods collection take off. In 2015 they expanded with a North Carolina-themed line. “We just figured it’s the next logical step. I mean you don’t really hear people say ‘man I love Winston but I hate North Carolina’. Kind of goes hand in hand,” Dwayne jokes.
“We had started selling online in 2012 with the option to pick up purchases locally. We were finding that more and more customers were selecting the pickup option, so we thought it might be time to test out a storefront.” So they converted their office lobby into their shop. Since then their retail business has experienced consistent growth year after year and they have added a second location at Hanes Mall.
They say they have been pleasantly surprised with the support they have received since launching Camel City Goods Co. in particular. The collection’s concept stems from years of collecting interesting stories about the city’s past. Those stories inspired fresh designs, tying interesting bits of history with compelling typography. Each design and each tagline pulls in something from our city’s past. For instance, did you know the Reynolds building was the model for the Empire State Building? It’s true, and here’s a shirt to prove it.
“Then we thought it could be fun to pull from the past to create fictional stories like our Reynolds Battle of the Bands shirt.” In their mind the year was 1983 and Ben Folds was a student at Reynolds High School. Both facts. “But what if there was a battle of the bands that year and Ben competed? What might a shirt look like?” With that, another popular design is born.
“We actually have a running cue of ideas for future shirts. We just need the time to produce them.” They say the success of the creative agency supports their apparel business.
They are now finding that some folks learn about Camel City Goods by way of their relationship with Airtype. But now others are discovering the agency after discovering the apparel brand. They have been fortunate to parlay some customers into agency clients from meeting in their flagship store.
“We love the opportunity to work for local organizations and to see our work out in the city.” Most recently the crew designed the new logo for UNC School of the Arts as a major component of their rebranding campaign. They have designed merchandise for hometown staples like Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Reynolda House, and have been longtime interactive partners with Reynolds American. As an agency, Airtype works with local pro-bono clients to help burgeoning businesses get off of the ground, like The Honey Pot, Camel City Grill and Cycle Your City.
“We originally worked pro-bono for Hoots Beer Co., but as their business has taken off our relationship has grown. That growth is always awesome to see,” says Philip.
I tell them that this blog was in part inspired by their work with Camel City Goods. “You have helped instill a sense of pride with locals. It was always there but the visual elements you have brought to market have created the identity we have been missing. You guys are making it cool to be a Townie.”
They say they just want to keep pushing the envelope with their designs, and help paint “the best possible picture of Winston.” They also do their part to support the domestic fashion movement by sourcing product and materials that are made in the US or eco-friendly. Their product specs keep things transparent with phrases like “sweatshop free”.
As we spend the hour together, I hear the guys reference Airtype’s founder Bryan repeatedly. When I ask what inspired him to start the agency, Philip responded frankly, “if you know Bryan, it’s pretty obvious he couldn’t work for anyone else.”
I didn’t have one-on-one time with him, but I instantly got a feel for his personality online and I dig it. His Linkedin page lists one of his past positions at The Russell Agency as “Scissor User” where he states his duties “included cutting out (w/ scissors) supermodels in magazines & scanning them.” Anyone who has spent any time as an agency intern can relate.
In 2006, with $600 to his name, Bryan launched Airtype. As a designer, he has been awarded over 45 international awards, is a voting member of the Grammys and has been published in several leading design books. He has grown Airtype from a one-man freelance operation to a team of 15. Both Dwayne and Philip speak to the opportunities that Airtype gives them to have their hand in everything from strategy to design to copywriting to retail operations.
Dwayne shares a bit of his own story as he’s ringing up my Christmas gift purchase in the store later on. “Before coming here, I spent a long time in mall retail management. Yep, I was definitely over it.” There was a project manager position open at Airtype, he applied and told Bryan he could read and learn and was ready to take the role and run with it. Which he did, but as the agency grew and the apparel concepts came to life, Dwayne found himself shifting back into the role of Retail Manager. “We laugh about how life bounces you through all of these seasons and experiences and then ultimately takes you right back where you started from.”
Philip came to Airtype by way of his work as Founder and Director of the popular music festival, Phuzz Phest. Now Winston’s most anticipated annual music festival, he remembers that Bryan was willing to sign on as one of the festival’s first major sponsors. “I never forgot that,” he said. Impressed with Philip’s initiative and creativity, Bryan brought him aboard the Airtype team.
It’s that type of reinvestment in the Winston-Salem community that Airtype has built their reputation on. They say that community engagement is at the heart of what they do, and they work to support local endeavors that enrich the quality of life in Winston-Salem. Since their inception, they have invested over $80,000 into local sponsorships, advertising and in-kind donations. In 2016 they also plan to relaunch their website FieldGuideWSNC.com to help further highlight and promote local businesses. Philip says we can expect a highly curated guide to Winston-Salem experiences.
I ask them, as brand makers, what words or ideas come to mind when they think of our city. “Grit,” says Philip. “Sure there is a lot of old money here, which is great, but this city was built on industry and the working man. Many of the people doing interesting things here are self-made too.” It’s becoming “very Winston” to just dive into new ventures armed with nothing more than heart and a whole lot of hard work. We talk about how we hope that continues to be a prominent trait found among businesses in the “New Winston”.
We also talk of the future and how is hard to pinpoint what’s to come in our town, but that it’s obvious a renaissance is taking place. “When developers from larger cities like Raleigh and Atlanta are investing in Winston you know things are finally starting to take shape.” The guys are looking forward to seeing what Brand Properties Real Estate Investment Group and Wakefield Beasley & Associates has in store for the neighborhood. Their neighborhood is being renamed the “Brookstown District at BB&T Ballpark” and the proposed development plan would encompass more than one million square feet, including 300,000 sq. ft. of retail; 300,000 sq. ft. of office space; 250 hotel rooms and 580 luxury residential flats. “They transformed the neighborhood around the Atlanta Braves stadium so they clearly know what they are doing. It is going to look a whole lot different here” adds Dwayne.
They are grateful to be part of all that’s to come.