Photography by Elizabeth Jochum
The brothers call it the “Red Brick Mama”—St. Louis, that is. What started out as a way for identical twins Randy and Jeff Vines to express their hometown pride, after they found themselves surrounded by Chicagoans at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., has transformed, more than a decade later, into a full-time career—times two. They now feature approximately 90 quirky, St. Louis–centric designs at STL-Style (3159 Cherokee, 314-898-0001), printed on items from classic T’s to posters, onesies to undies. But for the Vines twins, it’s always been about more than just selling T-shirts.
Do I dare ask—where did you two go to high school?
RV: Parkway North, class of ’97. We grew up in Creve Coeur, but we were those kids in high school who would catch the Bi-State bus and take it downtown, before downtown was revitalized. And we were always so inspired by the history of the city, the built environment—
JV: —and by the characters we’d encounter. We used to come to Cherokee Street with our friends to buy bongs.
RV: It really was a red-light district. And you know, Cherokee still retains some of that. It’s definitely not whitewashed or sanitized; it still has a very palpable element of “This ain’t your mama’s city.”
JV: What initially got us interested in the city, though, was our dad. He would take us to his old neighborhood on the North Side, which is in bad shape now, but he would point out where his grandpa’s shoe store was, where the streetcar went, all the different businesses he remembered. It kind of painted a picture of life like it was Brooklyn or something. It was sad that it had gone downhill, but we noticed the bones of what made those neighborhoods great were still everywhere around us.
RV: That led to a kind of nerdy obsession. We used to look at almanacs,at where St. Louis ranked in population throughout the years, and we were so proud that it was such a big, flourishing city, so important. We always kept that in the back of our minds, that they just don’t build cities like this anymore. St. Louis has such an amazing legacy that newer cities like Phoenix, for example, can never replicate.
Looking at St. Louis’ past and its trajectory has inspired flat-out disappointment in a lot of people. Why not in you guys?
JV: We’ve always been the kind of people who really root for the underdog. Where a lot of people see depression and desolation, we see opportunity. Living here, we don’t sacrifice sense of place, quality of life—
RV: —night life.
JV: Right. You’ve got this great built environment with plenty of creative people who want to be here. The people who were going to follow the crowds to the next hot city are gone. The ones who are left are the ones who want to be here and who enjoy the challenge of being part of a work in progress. Cherokee Street really exemplifies that: It’s this critical mass of creative people who all have an understanding that we’re building something together.
Your T-shirts and other stuff are the epitome of local—not only are they produced here, they also represent St. Louis in a way that you almost have to be a local to get it.
JV: It really was about giving people a new way to view their city and a new way to express how they feel about it. Before, St. Louis T-shirts were—
RV: —touristy shit.
JV: Yeah. There was nothing to express the edginess that we saw here.
RV: It’s interesting how something as simple as a T-shirt can change people’s psychology about where they live. Our real goal is to build pride and to give people a stylish and fun way to essentially become walking bill-boards for the love we have for our city.
I saw a Gallup poll recently that found 84 percent of St. Louis–area residents are at least “satisfied” with their city, but only 59 percent said it is “getting better.”
JV: I think it depends on where you live here. I’ve found that a lot of suburbanites haven’t the slightest clue about what’s going on in the city now. Just yesterday, we talked to a girl our age who lives in Wildwood. She had never been to The Grove; she had never been to Cherokee Street. And she lives here; she’s young! What excuse do you have for not taking time to explore where you live?
RV: Yeah, I don’t think you’d come across too many people in the city itself, particularly on the South Side or in the central corridor, who would say St. Louis isn’t better today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. There’s just so much going on, it’s almost overwhelming.
What is St. Louis doing comparatively right, and what do you think we need to improve on?
RV: The door is so open here. In a lot of other cities that have already “arrived”—the Austins or Seattles—the narrative has already been shaped; you already know what to expect.
JV: In terms of things we can do better: a greater sense of regionalism, more dynamic leadership. I think transit needs to be a No. 1 priority for the region—and I’m talking about rail transit, not some half-assed bus plan. Rail transit is what separates major-league cities from mi-nor-league ones. We have a start—and it’s better than a lot of cities—but the North Side–South Side MetroLink should be the region’s priority. That would serve a very dense, transit-dependent population and would connect neighborhoods where people want to be, and it would single-handedly put us on the short list of cities where new college grads want to live.
RV: Watching the city continue to invest in things like Ballpark Village—these big-ticket “silver bullet” projects—is very frustrating, because that kind of development that supposedly promises revitalization has been disproven time and again. The greatest successes are the Cherokee Streets, the Delmar Loop, The Grove, Lafayette Square: the smaller, organic, human-scale, block-by-block, bootstrap approach to urban revitalization. We should be capitalizing on one of our biggest strengths, which is that St. Louis is a rare combination, in that if you have an idea, you can try it and fail and still have a roof over your head… At the grass-roots street level, there’s a lot of risk-taking going on—space is so cheap! There was a store across the street that sold handmade beanbags with faces on them—I mean, it didn’t really make it, but St. Louis is a city where if you have a crazy idea, you can afford to try it. It’s doable here.