Thriving on a Thread

Thriving on a thread

By Jeff Roedel | Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jared Loftus, a tall straight-talker from Somrall, Miss., shares a table at The Chimes with real estate agent Don Hanagan. It’s his first-ever meeting with a Realtor about his first business concept. Loftus takes one last swig of water and leans his elbows on the table. “Let’s go look at the property,” he says.

“Okay,” Hanagan replies glancing out the window and across Highland Road. “It’s right there.”

This was the informal meeting three years ago that put Loftus, now 25, and his Tiger District retail store in a prime spot for selling inexpensive original T-shirts and licensed LSU regalia within spitting distance of Pleasant Hall at the North Gates of LSU.

For a young entrepreneur whose first foray into T-shirt design was making unlicensed Southern Miss shirts to raise money for his Student Government President campaign—which he won—his success with Tiger District is a welcome shock. His original designs are what keep Loftus competitive with more established game gear depots like Tiger Mania and the bookstore in the student union. His designs are minimal, clever and occasionally biting. One shirt proclaims “I Love New Orleans” as the back punchlines “But I don’t love The Wave.”

He’s also not afraid to shake things up. His most radical idea depicts Mike the Tiger looking just like the iconic image of Cuban Revolutionary Che Guevara. The Collegiate Licensing Company rejected that one, but he may remove the LSU text and resubmit.

“You can tell which one’s I didn’t do,” Loftus says pointing to a hyperactive shirt over-cluttered with a cartoon Tiger, cartoon stadium, cartoon fans, cartoon everything. “I like to keep them simple.”

While shipments of Loftus’ designs like the popular John Deere LSU logo go fast, some Tiger die-hards might bristle at the idea of buying their game gear from a former Southern Miss Golden Eagle. That notion is painfully outdated. The most hotly debated topic at Forum 35’s most recent (re)Inventing Redstick symposium was not how to keep Baton Rougeans from leaving, but how to bring young, educated outsiders with new ideas into the city. Statistics show Louisiana is on par nationally for stopping brain drain, but lags far behind as a magnet for new talent.

Beating those odds is Loftus, who researched a litany of southern colleges, the size of their stadiums, attendance figures, and intangibles like school spirit and how much emphasis a city puts on athletics. The result of his research: he set his sights on LSU.

And despite Loftus’ inexperience—“This is my first real job,” he admits—Tiger District is a hit. True to Forum 35’s vision, the Mississippi native has plugged into the city. He owns a home in the Garden District, is active at Christ the King Church and serves as the youngest member of the North Gate Alliance, a group of neighborhood business owners that produced the popular North Gate Festival.

This fall Tiger District staked claim of the entire Chimes-Highland corner by ceding the abandoned Claire’s space. The expansion doubled the size of the store and increased its visibility to match the increased foot traffic from the hundreds of extra residents of the new deluxe condos nearby.

“I never had in mind to just open a little shop at LSU and then that would be it,” says Loftus, his ambition as wide as his smile. An admitted nerd when it comes to the thread count, blend and feel of the T-shirts in his own drawer, Loftus has kept the focus of Tiger District clear: selling unique LSU shirts at a discount.

“I’m not Wal-Mart in any way, but it’s a similar concept of selling in volume,” he says. “Our original shirts are not the name brands, but we print them all in Baton Rouge, and people seem to like them.”