At a school with more than 15,000 undergraduate students and an impressive list of alumni, it’s no real surprise there’s a business is being formed from the ground up on the Syracuse University campus.
Cole Smith, a sophomore in the prestigious Bandier Program for Music and Entertainment Industries, is a deeply driven entrepreneur whose vision is expansive and unstoppable. He’s the mastermind behind Rad Hombre, which he calls an “experiential brand,” that began as simply a doodle of an astronaut during his junior year of high school.
“I was 16. I was literally just looking at pictures of astronauts,” Smith says. “I’ve always loved space, and I just drew up this little cartoon astronaut and called him the ‘Moon Man’ or the ‘Space Man.’ Rad Hombre has evolved, it’s gone from just a picture to an entire brand.”
Smith is a Philly native with a distinct way of speaking — both in dialect and in syntax — that clues you into the fact that his mind is constantly churning out new ideas, organizing business plans and figuring out what it’s going to take to make his dreams reality. He has a very cool, nonchalant demeanor, but it’s clear within minutes of interaction that he’s a serious individual making a beeline for success.
But what does a “space man” have to do with a “rad hombre?” When I first found out about Rad Hombre, my mind went immediately to Donald Trump’s infamous “bad hombre” comment, but it’s in no way related and is much funnier (although he did create about 10 “bad hombre” t-shirts bearing the astronaut logo when the comment made headlines).
“The name “Rad Hombre” came before I drew the astronaut dude,” Smith says. “I was making some weird graphic design of this dude skating in a pool, and I superimposed it over a cartoon of the city. And I was like,‘what would a skateboarder say to another dude about a cool trick, or whatever? And I was like oh, ‘rad, hombre.’”
At first, Smith took his astronaut doodle and had it embroidered onto some hats, t-shirts and sweatshirts that he gave to his high school friends with no intention of selling them for a profit. Things changed when he came to Syracuse and wore one of his hats while out and about.
His friends at Syracuse were so enamored by the design, they encouraged him to make something more of it. Following their advice, he had 23 hats made during the winter break of his freshman year, which sold out in a flash upon returning to the snowy city for spring semester. When he sold out of the 76 more hats he’d brought back after spring break, it was obvious the little moon man had the potential to be something much more than a fun sketch.
Merging the moon man logo with the concept of Rad Hombre was natural. To Smith, the moon man is an emblem of being one’s own person, which ties in directly to Rad Hombre’s celebration of and search for different forms of expression. Smith explains it as such:
“(Rad Hombre) explores the intersection of all art: fashion, music, visual art. It’s about bringing all of these people together in an environment that they can create in. So it’s more than a clothing brand — it’s clothing based — but it has so many different facets. I’m working on a comic strip which features these characters Ahmad and Ben. They’re two teenage dudes from a city with no name, and they find themselves in the midst of an intergalactic odyssey. It’s going to include brand integration and artists that sponsor. That’s, like, the whole point of this, finding artists and working as an A&R in a sense, someone who just spots talent. I’m working with people who can do such things along with myself. It’s raw. That’s what the brand focuses on, raw talent. Even the logo is raw, it’s not fine tuned or anything. It’s not supposed to be perfect, it’s not supposed to be Polo or Supreme. Those are good things to model after, but Rad Hombre is its own unique thing. No one’s really doing this, so it’s kind of special.”
With so many aspirations for what Smith wants Rad Hombre to be and do, it’s hard to imagine he’d handle the entire business alone. Even at this stage, Smith has experienced some disappointments and letdowns when trying to bring others on board. On the flip side, it’s led him to learn a lot regarding communication, relationships and his own passions.
It takes muddling through some failures in order to achieve success in any area, and Smith has finally teamed up successfully with a close friend turned business partner. Fellow Bandier sophomore Lucas Markham approached Smith after he sold out of his second run of hats last year, and their professional chemistry has proven remarkable – collaboration and creativity are the key descriptors of their partnership. Markham has been invaluable in the process, which is as much about running things smoothly as it is about learning.
Of that process, Smith has a lot to say:
“Starting a business, you realize how much you have to plan out and account for. If you’re not clear and you don’t have your shit together, you’re not gonna get anything done. I’m the biggest procrastinator out there. All my life I’ve done things last minute, but this has taught me to process things and have a meticulous method and approach, rather than just jumping in and being rash in my decisions. It’s all on my shoulders and my teammates’. Communication is so important. If you and your teammates aren’t communicating well, if you don’t know how they’re feeling, if you don’t have roles set up, you’re screwed. We’re making a business plan right now. You need to know a lot. You need to have answers to questions on revenue streams, what’s the target market, where are you marketing. You have to do research on comparable clothing lines and things. Adult Swim — who’s watching adult swim, who’s going on these websites, who’s reading these articles, that kind of stuff. We need to know the people who are doing things within our realm.”
The “realm” he references seems to be vast — one of his key principles for Rad Hombre is inclusivity — but more than anything it’s the realm of art. The brand seeks to represent and encourage all forms of art, but for Smith there’s a special place there for music. He draws much of his inspiration from music and fully intends for Rad Hombre to embrace aural artists.
“I’m a music fanatic, first and foremost. Really, music is my life, so it needs to be part of the brand,” Smith says. “Rad Hombre dives into the music work just through sponsorship of artists and believing in people that mainstream America or the mainstream world don’t know about. It’s almost like a makeshift label because we provide clothing, but simultaneously all these different activations, in a sense, of what an artist can find themselves immersed in.”
An artist himself, Smith sees Rad Hombre as a vehicle to execute his own ideas as well as propel others forward. In the future he hopes to publish a children’s book (thereby extending his demographic to 3-10 year olds), put together a South By Southwest showcase and create a weekly comic series featuring the characters Ahmad and Ben. He’s bursting at the seams with ideas and goals.
“I want to be making clothes for really important people. We need an iconic figure. It’s about finding the right people to get the clothing in their hands,” Smith says. “I want to open stores, I want to be global. I want to have an outreach that can make a social change as well. I’m really big on activism and always have been. I want that to be a big part of our mission.”
Make no mistake, Cole Smith and Rad Hombre are not Syracuse’s Tyler, the Creator and Golf or Kanye West and Yeezy. The concept behind Rad Hombre is so much more than a funky clothing brand, and it can be said without hesitation that this second-year college student nestled within the tundra that is Central New York has the ambition, ingenuity and discipline to spawn and grow a creative empire.