Putting On for Their City

Friends turn passion into apparel venture Hoop City Memphis

By Andy Meek

It started about a year ago, with two friends who wanted some upbeat, fun threads to wear to Memphis Grizzlies and University of Memphis basketball games.

Leslie Skelton and Ian Lemmonds are Hoop City Memphis, a boutique clothing designer that did big business during this past Grizzlies season with their “We Grind Here” and “Bluff City Don’t Bluff” T-shirts.  

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

From that, Leslie Skelton and Ian Lemmonds turned their basketball superfandom into a business – Hoop City Memphis.

The just-ended Grizzlies playoff run electrified the team’s fans, and the principals of Hoop City were helping fan that flame with shirts that proclaim things like “Grizz & Grind,” “I Put On For My City” and “Taking Care of Grizzness.”

Hoop City uses a local printer to churn out the designs on its apparel, and the business’ website has been attracting interest and sales from around the country and beyond.

Moreover, the two friends behind the venture – both of whom work together for digital studio Mouse Foundry, specializing in websites, e-commerce and digital strategy – are ramping up to do more.

“We’re going to spend this summer coming up with a lot of new things,” said Skelton, a digital marketer and Internet strategist who also works for Sullivan Branding. “A lot of people have asked us to do kids’ shirts. People have asked for hats. Right now, we’re researching the best quality hat we can print on. We’re also looking into some other apparel-related things our fans have asked us for.

“This was never anything we set out to make a lot of money off of. It was just something we did because we wanted some cool things to wear to games and events around town. The interesting thing is we now have so much traffic from all over the country and now the world. After this playoff run, we’ve gotten a lot of inquiries about international shipping.”

Hoop City also has a big presence on Twitter and Facebook, so fans can connect with them there about both looking for shirts to buy as well as sharing ideas for new shirts.

Anytime the venture makes its money back on a shirt, the proceeds are funneled into designing something new. And ideas for new designs are, in a sense, crowd-sourced.

“This was never anything we set out to make a lot of money off of. It was just something we did because we wanted some cool things to wear to games and events around town.”

–Leslie Skelton

Skelton said Hoop City will throw out several concepts onto Twitter and Facebook. Once they see something catch on – pick up a big number of retweets and Facebook likes – “that’s when we know we’ve got something.”

“Ian and I are both huge basketball fans, and this started out by just wanting some fun things to wear to games,” Skelton said. “So we made a few shirts and gave a lot of them away and found out, gosh, we had a lot of requests. We kind of just started making them for ourselves and our friends – and we found out we had a lot more friends than we knew about. So we kind of put up a website and it just grew from there.”

It’s about more than basketball. The pair of entrepreneurs sees themselves as packaging and shipping a bit of Memphis culture with each shirt that goes out.

“For many of our citizens, economic development means what they see in other cities: strip malls, chain restaurants, and big-box stores selling ‘uniqueness’ en masse at volume discounts,” Lemmonds said. “But that isn’t who we are, and it shouldn’t be how we compare ourselves to other cities. What we are is blue collar. We are hardworking. We have to be. We’ve never had it easy, and our history proves that.”

Both friends also describe Hoop City as a labor of love.

“We love this city,” Skelton said. “We love what basketball has done to unite all kinds of people. I spend a lot of time in the post offices in and around Memphis, and I can’t tell you how many people have on a Grizzlies shirt or a Tigers hat or some combination of that. It’s so easy to strike up conversations as I’m waiting in line and have these awesome conversations with people my path might never cross again. We just want to make things that make people feel proud to be from Memphis.”