I’ve got a really cool pennant that says “Hustle” in bold golden letters hanging in my studio. It’s part conversation starter/part reminder to get off my ass and get working on whatever project I’m trying to launch at the time. If you look at little closer you’ll find a tag on it that proudly exclaims “It’s an Oxford!” which has become the rallying cry for a young business that’s taking a prototypical piece of sports memorabilia and breathing a new sense of style into it. CEO David Horesh and Brand Manager/Designer Brett Mikoll are turning the simple and classic felt pennant into something that’s equal parts Cal Ripken and Kanye West.
Oxford Pennant got its start on the road – specifically the long stretch between Buffalo and Boston where David and Brett were traveling regularly for business while working for another Buffalo entrepreneurial powerhouse, City Dining Cards (and as I’ve said before – their Buffalo Drink Deck is a thirsty and frugal photographer’s very best friend). The pair found themselves inspired by the preppy aesthetic and eye for visual merchandising of the stores they were dealing with that rolled together sports, local pride, and a keen intuition for pop culture. While bouncing ideas off of each other over drinks one night they began looking for a vehicle through which they distill all of their varied interests into one medium – and they knew they didn’t want to make t-shirts. Brett elaborated “We decided we want to do one thing and do it really well, that we wanted to be Oxford Pennant, not the Oxford brand.”
Somehow during the course of their trip the idea of creating pennants took hold, and Dave realized that there was a void in the marketplace for a modern and well-made pennant that focused more on the culture, aesthetics, and nostalgia of athleticism and civic pride than it did on a specific team. “We made a Buffalo pennant, a Boston pennant, and a Pittsburgh pennant to start because we had friends in those cities, and produced about one hundred of them. We figured that we could at least sell them or give them away as Christmas presents and that would be fine. So we quickly launched an Instagram and a Shopify store. I remember laying in bed on Christmas night 2013 registering the domain name and our timeline to launch from there was just about a month,” David told me during one of our many discussions about Oxford.
A month from inception to launch may sound crazy in this era of multi-volume business plans, cap tables, and overwrought marketing campaigns, but it’s indicative of the earnest and intuitive business that Oxford is building – one that embraces the scrappy, fight-to-make-it, mean-something-to-your-fans ethos of the sports legends that Oxford borrows so much from. Regarding their rapid genesis, Dave told me “We decided not to think about it too much, because if we thought about it too much we just wouldn’t do it. I remember sharing this idea with my brother-in-law who had just gone through a crazy period in his life of opening a business, getting married, having a child and moving to Rochester. When I asked him how he got through all this so quickly without going crazy he told me ‘go, ready, set” and go, ready, set is something that I think about all the time now. Sometimes you just have to do it and figure it out along the way, and in this case that worked in our favor.”
The duo quickly pulled in project manager Pat Simons, another City Dining Cards alum, to complete Oxford Pennant’s core team. In the past year they’ve grown to a roster of approximately thirty strikingly designed and 100% made-in-America wool and cotton felt pennants that feature phrases like “Started From the Bottom Now We Here” and “Liberty or Death”, and pay homage to locales like Nantucket, Cleveland, and Seattle. One thing that you will immediately notice about all of Oxford’s designs is how minimal they are. “The people that are producing pennants use this rigid, hard, plastic feeling material that doesn’t move. We wanted something that was floppy, so we sourced American made wool and cotton for our felt, and created something that would actually blow in the wind like flag, because that to me is the iconic aesthetic of the pennant. I think that this is another one of those products where less is more, when you have a simple crimson or navy or forest green pennant with a one color print on it that says what you want it to say, it goes so much further than a complicated four color process. If you buy a football pennant now it’s going to have a helmet, and the quarterback throwing a pass, and a fan in the background eating a sandwich. I think that there’s too much in that. You really can’t look at it and appreciate the graphic quality of it.”
And there is something unique about their product, something that evokes that childhood feeling of going to your first game. Even if you were too young to follow the stats and lore of the sport, you knew that this was something formative. I think that there’s something in all of us that wants an artifact of that, something of the ephemera of the game that we could keep with us. For me growing up in Canada it was a puck at a hockey game, and if you grew up in a baseball, soccer, or football town, it was probably a pennant. Before we became consumed with facts and figures, anger about salary caps and trades, and resentment over bad calls and poor league decisions, there was something about the simplicity of the game and cheering for your team that had a much more innocent appeal to it. Oxford has taken that signifier and turned it into a design savvy medium for a certain type of consumer – themselves. ““I think that the reason the product is successful is because our customers are a lot like us. We’re some combination of hip hop, sports, hometown pride, and hard work and I think that speaks to a lot of people. Sure, it’s just a twenty dollar pennant, but we’re lucky to have customers who see what we see in the product.”
And some important people have seen just what David, Brett, and Pat have seen in their pennants, because partnering with other brands to create items for their audiences is a fast growing part of the Oxford business. Since their launch Oxford has been creating custom products for entities like Burton Snowboards, Mitchell Bat Company, Ninth Inning Tx, Phish, and about sixty other companies and numerous bands. They’ve even collaborated with TSPTR on a Charles Schultz Peanuts Pennant.
Like a lot of the conversations I’ve had with young entrepreneurs in Buffalo, the team from Oxford had some strong opinions regarding the changes that the city is seeing. Dave equates a lot of their success to being based in Buffalo, but is also wary of the “We exist because of Buffalo. It’s the reason we’re able to do this. I’m originally from Rochester, but Buffalo has become my home. A little company like Oxford can shout loud enough to be heard in Buffalo and that’s definitely helped our brand thrive. As a city, we’re so preoccupied with trying to figure out when we’ve finally made it back to our former glory. I think we’re in a sweet spot right where we are.” Brett added “Buffalo DOES have the prettiest logos in sports though. The Sabres classic logo and the Bills current logo are some of the best looking logos today, beautiful logos.”