Zeke Vantreese doesn’t like to talk about it.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says whenever I bring it up. And I bring it up all the time.
But last week, when Ryan Shell brought to the reality TV show “Shark Tank” an idea he pinched wholesale from Zeke’s fledgling business, I thought he might crack. He did not.
“Write about it if you want,” Zeke said. “I don’t even care anymore.”
I thought everyone knew how Vantreese, while he was a barista at the Green Bean, holed up some of his tip money and ordered a small run of T-shirts he designed, an outline of the state with the word “home” written on it. He did it because he genuinely and earnestly loves North Carolina, Greensboro in particular, in a way that borders on the annoying but never fully makes it there.
He still makes them in downtown Greensboro, one at a time, in a space that has grown 10 times in size since I began dropping papers off there last year.
That first batch sold out, most of them in his space at Design Archives, as did the second. Very quickly Zeke found himself immersed in the T-shirt business. He gave up his shifts at the Green Bean to keep up with demand.
Here’s where Ryan Shell comes in. A footnote in the city’s political history, Shell ran for city council in 2009, first in District 2 and then, in a rare city-election shuffle, at large, where he garnered almost 1,700 votes in the primary, about a thousand more than Latin King Jorge Cornell, but not enough to make it to the general election.
Shell left shortly afterward for New York City, where he worked in public relations and started a fashion blog.
In July 2012, Fox 8 asked Shell to come on the morning show to talk about his fashion blog, which at the time was just pictures of people on the street wearing interesting clothing. Kind of like the New York Times Sunday Styles page.
Kit Rodenbough at Design Archives picks up the story, telling me that Shell came to visit her while he was in town and noticed Zeke’s shirt. Kit says he offered to wear one on TV the next day.
“Well I turned on the TV,” she said, “and there’s Ryan. Only he’s not wearing the shirt.”
Shell’s company, the Home T LLC, was formed in New York State in November 2012, a full year after Zeke sold his first batch of shirts at the Green Bean.
There’s nothing illegal about it — you can’t copyright a state outline, which the sharks pointed out repeatedly to a squirming Shell on TV Friday night.
And while Zeke’s company, Home State Apparel, has grown exponentially to include dozens of products from all 50 states, Shell pretty much just makes the shirts. Stealing ideas is a short con. It’s the having of ideas that’s truly valuable.
Maybe Zeke’s right. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all.