Identical twins Jeff and Randy Vines, 32, may have grown up in Creve Coeur, but their hearts belong a bit further east, within the St. Louis city limits.
Their passion for what they fondly call the "Red Brick Mama" dates back to their high school days at Parkway North, where they spent weekends riding Bi-State buses, exploring gritty urban neighborhoods, downtown streets and city parks. At one point they even produced a Saturday cable TV show about the city called "XYZ" on Double Helix Channel 21.
But it was their experiences at college-both attended Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.-that first planted the seed for an idea that has since turned them into entrepreneurs as well as civic boosters.
"Most of our friends at Bradley were from Chicago, and they were always bragging about the city," recalls Randy. "We refused to be apologetic about St. Louis; we thought it was every bit as worthy. And we would have loved some edgy St. Louis T-shirts to show off our pride. There just weren't any available."
Fast forward to 2001. Now college grads, the twins were working at the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Bureau - Randy in convention sales and market research, Jeff in tourism sales - when the aftermath of 9/11 caused a major downsizing there. Suddenly unemployed, the pair decided to launch STL-Style, selling T-shirts that tongue-in-cheek touted the city's quirky charms with slogans like "Highway Farty," "East of Skinker," "My Way or Kingshighway," "Where'd You Go To High School?" and the best-selling "Fo' Chouteau" ("fo-show-do," as in the colloquial "for sure.")
At first, the venture was more akin to a part-time hobby; the pair literally hawked the T-shirts from the trunks of their cars at various neighborhood and civic advocacy meetings. At the same time, Jeff worked as a waiter and then in marketing and sales at a retro apparel store in University City, while Randy bounced around in hotel management and spent time as director of marketing for a housing company.
But as word about their unique garments began to spread, the Vines started an online enterprise, www.stl-style.com, with the motto "You can't spell STyLe without STL." Ironically, much of their customer base came from far-flung former St. Louisans who were nostalgic-and proud-of their offtimes maligned hometown.
In 2003, as their web-based business grew, the Vines teamed up with designer Kadie Foppiano to offer more graphically sophisticated images to their screen-printed merchandise-a "Bevo Fever" T-shirt celebrating the area's windmill icon, a "Washington Avenue Garment District" tee touting the historic street, a "Forest Park" T-shirt with an image of a tree made of hot-air balloons. Next came a bevy of novelty items-hats, underwear, bumper stickers, mugs, messenger bags, posters and onesies for St. Louis' littlest fans-plus lucrative contracts for custom print promotional items from St. Louis entities.
Last January, with 50 tees under their belts and Jeff unemployed, the duo decided it was time for a mortar-and-brick presence as well. Though they are both self-described "central corridor cats" - Randy lives in the Skinker-DeBaliviere area with his wife, Lauren, and 1-year-old son Benjamin; Jeff, who plans to marry Meagan Tyrrell this fall, is in the Central West End - they opted to open STYLEhouse at 3155 Cherokee Street, west of the South City antique district in an emerging, but not yet gentrified, area. In July, Randy joined Jeff in the full-time venture.
Though they are constantly adding new products to their inventory-most recently a "LouFest" shirt to promote the two-day August "rock-o-rama" last weekend-the Vines are quick to point out that their true passion is not the rag trade, but rather the promotion of their hometown.
"We definitely have an agenda-we are not just peddling T-shirts," says Jeff. "We want to refresh St. Louis' image. We may never be known as a hip, happening place like Seattle or Austin, but we have the bones of a great city with a strong history and culture, amazing architecture and incredible educational organizations. If we can renew our civic pride, we can revitalize the city."
To that end, the brothers have become strong city activists as well as businessmen. They sit on Mayor Francis Slay's "Vanguard Cabinet," a group of young professionals trying to better city life. They are steering committee members of City Affair, a monthly St. Louis forum for sharing ideas about sound urban planning and progressive public policy. And they are active in Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), a coalition dedicated to taking the "rust" out of "Rust Belt" cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo and, yes, St. Louis.
Lately, the Vines' T-shirts have morphed from purely nostalgic to political as well. Last spring they printed a "Support Transit in StL" tee to tout Proposition A; this summer they released a "Paint the Town Blue" shirt to support the city's efforts to land the Democratic National Convention in 2012.
It's all part of their theory that St. Louis is currently a city with the opportunity to either reinvent itself as a great urban environment-or to squander that chance.
"At the moment the city has a real ‘DIY' [Do It Yourself], creative culture," says Jeff. "Through STL-Style, we hope to play a part in its revival."