When old race-day T-shirts just won’t cut it, enter V23 Athletics apparel. Touting a motto of “strength and energy,” this local company’s name is fueled by the periodic element vanadium, which possesses properties that make material (like steel) lighter and stronger. For V23, the beauty of the name is that, according to its founders, “it can be perceived a million different ways.”
With shirts and tees named The Expedition, Balcones, and Lake Austin Blvd as part of the product line, it’s perhaps an understatement to say that the city of Austin has provided a palette for inspiration. V23 Athletics apparel is crafted using vibrant colors that boast a powerful simplicity in design, anti-microbial and moisture-wicking fabric, and a variety of athletic cuts. Neither comfort nor style is sacrificed in these garments that are tough enough to take on perspiration from a grueling workout or a walk down Congress Avenue in the summer heat.
Desire Sidlo, photo by Brian Fitzsimmons
Type image description here.JD Harper, a seven-year resident of Austin, is the idea man behind V23 Athletics. Upon graduating from Washington State University, Harper took a job in Seattle with a manufacturing company, unaware that the work environment and his friendship with company owners would eventually lead him down the path of small business ownership. Learning supply chain management, manufacturing, and how to manage warehouses from a distance offered a good first taste of the world of entrepreneurship. “There are high highs and low lows, and the work is endless,” Harper asserted. “As long as you love what you are doing, it’s the best possible scenario you can ever imagine.”
It took Harper a mere 15 minutes—he didn’t even have to step out of the airport—to decide that Austin would be his new home and the perfect city for his flagship brand. “Austin is like my hometown (Pullman, WA), but ten times better,” he said. Impressed with the abundance of “liberal and independent thinkers” and Austin’s being an overall “well-educated college town,” Harper knew he was definitely in a place where he could freely express himself and be accepted. “The crazier you are, the better you are perceived here; not like every town in the U.S.,” he joked. And, although Austin’s scorching temperatures might have sent non-natives fleeing back to cooler climates, it should be noted that Harper would “trade the cold Northwest winter for the Texas heat in the summer any day.”
Lured by the persistent thought of entrepreneurship, Harper pitched the idea of V23 to CrossFit colleague Dru Sellers. A software developer and CrossFit newbie on a mission for better health, Sellers noted, “There is something to be said about enduring something together. Going through workouts and sweating and hating it together as a team makes it a lot easier to say, ‘Okay I’ll listen to your idea.’” Harper agreed: “It didn’t take too much persuading.” With Sellers on board, Harper picked Tom Gmelch’s brain; Gmelch is his best friend from high school and an experienced CFO for a number of start-up companies who possesses a wealth of small business knowledge. “Tom was very instrumental in getting [V23] off the ground,” said Harper.
Like other artists, Harper and Sellers both harbor a passion for creating, though each finds fulfillment in different areas. “It’s a rush taking something that doesn’t exist and having a concept, whatever that concept is, and taking that to the end,” Harper explained. He admitted to being more partial to the “operations and artistic” side of the business; Sellers, a high-end HTML coder, “creates and develops code out of nothing.” and he is, in Harper’s words, “a big deal” in that environment. A little inspiration always helps creativity flow, and, according to Harper and Sellers, all they need can be found here: “All of our inspiration comes from within the city. Just living in Austin—any part of town—you’re inspired by architecture, art, people, and music.” However, designs still take time, even in ideal surroundings. “For us, it’s art. We pour countless hours [into] going over designs and making sure it’s exactly right,” noted Harper. Harper and his team place a premium on being unique (“Being an original is super important to us”), and so all V23 designs are done in-house and manufactured on a limited basis, with frequent new releases.
Brandon Epstein, photo by Brian Fitzsimmons
Type image description here.Over the years, V23 has garnered major support from friends, family, and the rest of the Austin community, which has been much appreciated by its founders. “When you quit a 9 to 5, paying job and go full time into a business that doesn’t really exist, it’s pretty scary,” Harper admitted. He noted that one of the biggest challenges in a small clothing company is manufacturing your own items, sourcing minimum-order quantities in the thousands, and finding a significant amount of capital to cover costs. “In our business, there are a lot companies that make apparel and then just sell blanks. [Other companies] just buy the blanks and print on them.” Aside from taking thread to needle, V23 has taken great strides toward manufacturing their own items, a company goal. Harper explained, “We use more of the traditional, old-fashioned way [of manufacturing]; developing patterns, sourcing fabric, and ensuring apparel is sewn to our specifications.” There’s also a desire to keeping things local, and so about 90 percent of all product production is “outsourced” within the Austin community.
The same attention to detail and care put into apparel designs trickles over into customer service. “Our goal is to offer the best customer service in Austin,” Harper said, and so each shipment comes with a hand-written note to the customer, part of the “boutique-type level customer service you just won’t get with a larger company.” Free shipping and returns are offered on all orders because V23 feels strongly that “the customer shouldn’t have to pay because we don’t have a brick and mortar [store].”
V23 has expanded from its original scope: They now have a growing handful of “co-conspirators” (partners or ambassadors) for whom they’ve designed shirts and tees branded specifically for their business. “This isn’t something we saw coming,” Harper admitted, “but we found a need in the community we could fulfill.” They were first approached by Atomic Athlete (a local gym where Harper trains), and several others, such as Fit4Life and Vaughn Weightlifting, soon followed suit. This is perhaps a natural development, as workout apparel is a ubiquitous marketing tool used by personal trainers and coach-owned gyms—clients become a virtual walking advertisement. “Before we took [apparel] over, they basically had a box of shirts wadded up in the back of their trucks,” said Harper. Most “co-conspirators” already have established branding guidelines, but V23 still develops about 95 percent of the design and takes over printing, storing, and shipping.
V23 Athletics has plans for continued growth that include new product offerings, with shorts on deck first, and, eventually, a full clothing line. In the meantime, they’ll continue to encourage customers to find their own sources of strength and energy, all the while feeling confident those who purchase their products will agree that “we make the best damn apparel, period.”