10 Sep 2023 Shirt designers remind us of experiences unique to the 501
By Donna Lampkin Stephens
Rock City Outfitters makes it its business to keep up with the 501 and all of Arkansas.
The business — and the shirts — are literally made in the 501.
Its website is irreverent, sassy and cool. According to rockcityoutfitters.com, the company, founded in 2008, is “an Arkansas-based purveyor of locally relevant clothing.” The shirts are distributed through the website, local festivals and small boutiques throughout the state.
The 501-area references on shirts for sale on the website include Pinnacle Mountain, Toad Suck, Burns Park Rocket Slide, Lake Conway, Conway roundabouts, Ray Winder Field and War Memorial Golf Course. The website also includes a school spirit section, including early University of Central Arkansas logos and “the beloved bear,” and another group of Conway Wampus Cat shirts. Naturally, the inventory includes a number of Arkansas Razorback references, many of them vintage.
How does Rock City stay locally relevant?
“We’re just very in tune with what’s going on throughout the state,” said Ryan Ritchie, who with his best friend from childhood, Matt Jones, bought the business in 2012. “Our shop (at 1012 Oak St. in downtown Conway) is just a large building, and we’re all together every day, constantly talking. We’ve got the radio on. We’ve got a huge white board, kind of an idea bank, and somebody hears something and they jot it down.”
Other inspiration comes from people suggesting topics.
Ritchie said Jason Duncan, the business’ head printer “who has been with us forever,” is a big driver of the designs.
“The way we stay fresh and keep moving shirts is by staying current with things going on around the state, current news events and sporting events,” Duncan said. “Then when you catch on to the current buzz around town, the next thing is to come up with a funny saying or light-hearted comment on the event. This is always the fun part. Whose toes are you gonna step on? Who’s gonna love it? Or maybe who’s gonna see it and agree with it but just shake their head and smile? This part of the job never stops for me. It’s 24/7 — anything can spark an idea.”
Ritchie, 43, said Rock City’s clientele generally includes people with a tie to the state who, when they see a certain design, have a story about it.
“Sort of, ‘I remember going to this place as a kid,’” he said. “Nostalgia is a huge part of it.”
Before buying the company, he was a small-business consultant, dealing with entrepreneurs and helping them get their companies heading in the right direction.
“I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur — this was what I wanted to do,” he said. “We were fans of the business. It was different than anything we’d seen, focusing on the parts of Arkansas that were kind of weird, a little different and what made each community kind of its own.”
Under Ritchie, the business has grown, especially its online presence and custom screen printing and design work. According to the website, it does special design and custom orders as small as 12 pieces.
“We’re starting to become more of a household name as far as being known for quirky Arkansas T-shirts,” Ritchie said. “Our custom printing business is from people who’ve purchased from us online. The custom printing is a growing part of our business.”
Rock City employs five, and Ritchie said he would be looking to hire another one or two people soon. The biggest part of the business is the Shirt of the Month Club, in which members get a new shirt a month. “We were generally putting out a new shirt every month, so we decided, since we have a lot of repeat customers who were buying whatever shirt came out, to make a club, with a discounted price and free shipping,” he said. “It’s something they could be surprised by. They don’t know what’s coming.”
Aside from the website, boutiques and festivals, Rock City Outfitters also rents booth space at various places around the state. Ritchie stays busy on the road restocking.
“We’re, of course, focused on Arkansas as a whole, but we definitely have a deep connection with Central Arkansas,” he said. “The 501, obviously, resonates with us for sure.”
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