Devotees of Runaway gear are standing in line outside 212 W. Main Street in Durham. It’s the morning of Saturday, April 2, and Gabriel Eng-Goetz and Justin Laidlaw are ceremoniously unlocking their first brick-and-mortar store. After selling their wares online, in boutiques, and in pop-up shops for several years, the small company known for its “Durm” shirts and stickers is ready to stake its claim downtown.
“We’ve been in here the last month trying to figure out what items we were going to put in and what atmosphere we wanted to create,” says Laidlaw, Runaway’s twenty-five-year-old media director. “All the elements of Runaway and Durham are here.”
The store, right next to 21c Museum Hotel, fills a small corner of the Trust Building, which became one of Durham’s first skyscrapers when it was built in 1905. It’s fitting that a brand built on the city’s past would find a home in a historic building. There’s a neon sign in the window and local art on the walls. Among the T-shirts, hats, and socks on the shelves is a new collection created for the opening, including shirts emblazoned with Durham landmarks, bulls, and leaves that say “Durham Grown.”
Eng-Goetz, Runaway’s thirty-year-old creative director, founded the company five years ago. He describes the Runaway aesthetic as “hood chic, comfortable and stylish, with a street edge.” At the opening, he and Laidlaw are both wearing their own supply, which looks like it was made for themand, in a way, it was.
Eng-Goetz and Laidlaw are cool and soft-spoken, even as they talk about achieving world domination. Still, they seem somewhat surprised that they own a store. Customers, some of them friends, trickle in throughout the morning. One can’t decide between a tank top featuring kissing fish and another with “Durm” on a bull silhouette. Others wander in to check out the clothes, meet the owners, or chat with Raj Bunnag, whose art is the first to be displayed in the store, which doubles as a gallery.
“The vibe has been great, with a large array of people, both long-standing fans of the brand and newcomers,” Eng-Goetz says. “It’s great to showcase our stuff in a space that we fully curated, and interact with our audience in a way that’s like, ‘Welcome to our new home.’”
At five p.m., the hoopla moves down the street for a party at Ninth Street Bakery. The crowd spills onto the patio and into the parking lot, drinking beer, petting dogs, and nodding along to DJ sets. Wool E. Bull is firing Runaway shirts out of a T-shirt cannon. (The company will design the Durham Bulls’ uniforms for a game on June 9.) As the evening air grows chilly, some people pull on Durm sweatshirts, celebrating a company that grew out of the inextricable link between its founders’ struggles with their own identities and a strong identification with their native city.
Durm written across a bull, Durm in the shape of a train, Durm in block letters representing the Durham flag, Durm on a floral pattern. You’ve seen the shirts, hoodies, hats, and bumper stickers everywhere, even if you don’t own one. They’ve become an omnipresent sign of local pride. Not everyone sporting them has lived in Durham for very long. But for Eng-Goetz, who coined the spelling when he launched Runaway in 2011, the brand is very personal.
“The whole campaign behind Durm is a very hyper-localized type of movement,” he says. “This is a local pronunciation of the word, for people who have grown up here. I just hope people see it’s coming from a very real place.”
Born and raised in Durham, Eng-Goetz left to study art at Syracuse University, but moved back after he graduated and started making clothes for himself and friends.
“Growing up as a mixed-race person in the South, I had a lot of questions about identity, and I found that art was a great way for me to explore that and figure things out,” he says. “Soon I saw that [the clothing] was speaking to other people.”
Laidlaw also grew up in Durham, in a predominately white neighborhood, before attending Winston-Salem State and North Carolina Central University, both historically black institutions.
“I didn’t really have the black identity a lot of people might associate with me, so I went through a lot of similar issues as a kid and into my adult life,” he says. “I felt like Runaway was an opportunity for me to explore those same identity issues.”
Runaway strives to represent a community of people with unusual careers, talents, and backgroundspeople who are “running away from convention,” in the words of one of the company’s mantras. Beyond the Durm line, which makes up about a third of Runaway’s currently available stock, you’ll find lots of darker iconography, heavy on skullssome of it also locally focused, including the N.C. state seal cast in skeletons and a “City of Medicine” T-shirt with a caduceus surrounded by alcohol, condoms, and drugs.
Another Runaway mantra is, “Say it like you’re from here.” But the changing nature of Durham makes it difficult to say what, exactly, convention is, and who is from here.
Is “Durm” a wealthy mainstream city of new transplants or an edgy underground one populated by longtime locals? Eng-Goetz fondly remembers participating in a pre-revitalization art show in an abandoned building that’s now a hair salon. He founded Runaway for people who remember the city the way he doesas a scrappy, self-sufficient place where people were creative by necessity.
But as young professionals are moving to Durham in droves, charmed by its historic vestiges even as they spur downtown’s transformation, Runaway gets to have it both ways. Thirty-something parents at baseball games wear the brand, as do Duke students, hip-hop artists, and teenage skaters. Some proudly wear the Durm logo, embracing the city they’re from or the one they just moved to; others opt for Runaway’s edgier designs, which are more reflective of Eng-Goetz’s personal taste.
Selling clothes is only part of Runaway’s vision. Eng-Goetz and Laidlaw also want to highlight unconventional voices among the Triangle’s artists, musicians, and other creative types.
One of their projects is a documentary series called The Runaways, where Durham filmmaker Ned Phillips sheds light on local characters like burlesque dancer Miss Bliss, skateboarder Tahir Troublefield, and Joe Miller of the Baxter arcade bar in Chapel Hill. The series can be viewed on Runaway’s website, along with interviews with artists, articles about local musicians, and recaps of events.
“It’s always interesting to learn what drives passionate people,” Phillips says. “Runaway has always been about blazing your own trail and doing it with style, and I think the people featured in the docs are doing just that.”
Runaway also applies its brand to “underground, makeshift events” that don’t attract mainstream attention but are nonetheless selling points of Durham, such as the Raund Haus experimental beat showcase at The Shed.
“We see that as something that probably won’t get major press, but is essential to the type of scene people talk about in the Triangle,” Laidlaw says. “We have a lot of coffee shops, we have cool hotelsa lot of cities have things like that. But these more unique outlets that people are starting to create are the things we want to highlight.”
That’s the idea behind Runaway’s gallery, too, which Eng-Goetz says favors art that pushes boundaries and questions social norms, rather than just providing ambiance while you shop for a Durm shirt. Bunnag, the first featured artist, is a Durham-based printmaker and research fellow at Supergraphic whose intricate work features skulls, skeletons, and commentary on the “war on drugs.”
“He’s the perfect person to debut in the gallery,” Eng-Goetz says. “He’s this Thai dude with dreadshe’s not your typical character you see in North Carolina, but very much embodies the Durham spirit.”
Runaway will collaborate with each of its featured artists on a T-shirt design. The idea is to “bring fine art to the streets” and make it more accessible, giving people who can’t afford to buy a painting from a gallery the chance to own a piece of local art for $26, the price of any Runaway T-shirt. Bunnag’s design features a meticulously drawn skeleton warrior, dragons, and a macabre take on Runaway’s logo, which depicts a rabbit and a boy with his belongings in a kerchief on a stick.
“I feel like [Runaway] is something bigger than just streetwear,” Bunnag says. “It’s something that the Durham community is proud to be a part of. Through this collaboration, I hope to show that our art scene is much more than just landscapes and stuff that looks good over your couch. We make art that has a message and a meaning.”
Though Runaway’s vision is more ambitious than skyline T-shirts, that’s what jump-started its mass appeal. Diverse customers and inclusive projects aside, Eng-Goetz and Laidlaw have taken on the role of commodifying the city’s identity, name, and history, to create an image of Durham street culture that people can buy in to. Building their brand on Durham’s name didn’t require any legal wrangling, though Runaway has issued cease-and-desist letters to imitators.
In some ways, Runaway aims to re-create the gritty aura of an earlier Durham by positing itself as an underground enclave while relying on mainstream appeal to support it. For some, “Durm” connotes the city that Eng-Goetz has in mind. For others, it represents only New Durham. And others still can’t afford a $26 T-shirt, which makes the brand more accessible to the well-off people flooding into Durham than to those who helped create the city Runaway is selling, and who are now being pushed out.
If there’s a contradiction, Runaway’s spokesmen aren’t fazed by it. In fact, they welcome it.
“We have a business model that works,” Laidlaw says. “Art is of the highest importance, but for us to sustain what we want to do, there has to be a model that’s scalable.”
“Anyone the brand speaks to is welcomed with open arms,” Eng-Goetz adds, “whether it’s the grandma buying organic vegetables at the farmers market or your sixteen-year-old skater at the skate park. As long as our intentions are authentic, and it speaks to the people buying it, then I’m all about it.”
And there’s the hope that someone who buys a Durm shirt will then be drawn into Runaway’s other projects. Maybe that person will watch the documentaries, support the underserved artists they highlight, or learn about Durham’s history.
It’s an optimistic, if somewhat vague missionone not out of place in a city undergoing its own identity crisis, as new luxury condos and skyscrapers jostle with new underground art spaces and venues. While the Triangle’s art scene is already much more than wall-ready landscapes, Runaway does seem well poised to lead people to dig a little deeper and explore the unconventional.
Since the store opened, Runaway has hired two more employees, doubling its staff to four. The next step might be to spread into other parts of North Carolina, and then other states and countries.
“There are other places in the world where people feel conflicted and want to find an outlet to do something against the grain,” Laidlaw says. “We want to push the art, the media, the clothingand we want to give Durham an opportunity to have its time in the national and international spotlight.”
For now, though, they continue to conquer their home turf one T-shirt at a time, with a steady flow of customers in the store in the weeks since it’s been open.
At Bunnag’s Third Friday reception on April 15, the store is packed, just like on opening day, with a diverse crowd: middle-aged women making the gallery rounds, teenagers with skateboards and backpacks, young professionals, and fans and friends already decked out in Runaway. Eng-Goetz and Laidlaw greet them all with a wave and a grin. Bunnag stands in the corner talking to people about his work while others buy clothes, drink beer, and study the art. Downtown gleams outside the window, as confused, perhaps, about its identity as Runaway’s founders once were about theirs. As the city continues to develop, the shop is there to sell its loyal following, and passersby alike, a piece of Durmwhatever that means to them.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Naming Rights”