Lawson (pictured center) caused some buzz online and in Chapel Hill Tuesday when he showed up at Thrill City's Franklin Street store to pose for picture and sign autographs for at least 200 fans.
The new business deal is catapulting Thrill City into the national sphere and helping it become a well-known brand in time for the beginning of basketball season. Founder Ryan Cocca hopes the brand will create a streetwear renaissance in North Carolina.
"Now, with his (Lawson's) presence, a number of things become more accessible so I expect to put Thrill City in more stores, as well as increase our product offerings," Cocca says. "We're not seeking to be mainstream by any stretch though. The things I design tend to engage a certain audience—it isn't supposed to be understood by necessarily everyone."
But Lawson's involvement (and that of his manager Marc Campbell, who also invested in Thrill City) certainly legitimizes what Cocca had only planned to be a hobby three years ago.
Then a UNC transfer student unsure of his major, he could not have imagined he would be fulfilling 30 to 50 orders each week of 2014 or shipping t-shirts, hoodies, tank tops, stickers and posters to over 40 states. He was just a novice playing around with Photoshop, designing his own shirts. The company's original Twitter account and website were based on his first t-shirt design, "Pass the Butter" (in reference to former UNC point guard, Kendall Marshall).
After sales of the original shirt took off, Cocca spent $1,000 of his own money to design more shirts and stock Thrill City with a few items. He used social media and word of mouth to secure pre-orders on designs to pay for the production. Shirts are printed in Atlanta and Carrboro.
"That's how we got by and grew for a while," he says. "There wasn't the financial security to make the product so I put it on Twitter. That's part of why I think it's grown somewhat slowly, but it's been a consistent growth."
Much of the marketing for Thrill City apparel happens through social media, through viral posts like this on John Henson's Instagram.
Campbell said Lawson' presence on social media will help promote the brand.
"Now you have the opportunity to know exactly what people want through Social media," Campbell says. "People really love Ty out there. I think that 'School of Law' shirt is going to be really good momentum going into the season."
Cocca opened the Franklin Street store in Fall 2013 and welcomed Co-owner and Co-creative Director, Rohan Smith (pictured left) to the team in 2012 after they met in a photojournalism class. Together, they began to grow the company. Thrill City's Spring Collection included 13 different t-shirt designs with at least 50 shirts available per design.
So how did the deal come to be?
It all began with Thrill City fan and former UNC forward Deon Thompson.
"He was one of the first guys of local prominence in Chapel Hill who got into the brand and bought stuff from me," Cocca says. "He triple overpaid for stuff to support it and gave me a lot of my early NBA contacts."
Thompson lived with Lawson and Campbell during their time at UNC. So when Campbell came across the original "School of Law" shirt, he asked Thompson about the Thrill City brand he had been tweeting about. And the rest was history. Lawson and Campbell were already planning their own line, but decided to partner instead. Talks began at the beginning of the year and an agreement was reached in March or early April.
T3L t-shirts are already for sale at Thrill City's physical location, on Lawson's website and inside the Pepsi Center in Denver. More designs will be coming soon.
The terms of the deal cannot be disclosed, but Cocca says that Lawson and Campbell's financial stakes are contingent on the production and fulfillment of the T3L line.
"They're doing most of the day-to-day stuff," Lawson says. "When it comes to the product and what the colors are, I'm heavily involved."
The new business partnership gives Lawson a platform for his growing, personal brand. He also recently launched a YouTube series called "Life of Ty", giving a behind-the-scenes look at his life.
Thrill City is quick on its feet, basing a lot of its designs on current events. But moving forward with Lawson as part owner, the company also wants to create seasonal lines in advance.
"We want to offer more products, from hats to socks to pants, and from there really lock down a presence in North Carolina to the point that most fans of basketball, hip-hop, and graphic design in the area just some of our biggest influences—are familiar with the name Thrill City and respect our work," Cocca says.
Lawson hadn't been back to Chapel Hill in a year or two. So his visit to the Southern Part of Heaven wasn't complete without stopping by Roy Williams' Carolina Basketball Camp. A new episode of "Life of Ty" will be coming out soon, documenting his visit to Chapel Hill and the launch of the new brand.