Norwich — In normal times, a street festival with hundreds of young adults flooding downtown to patronize hip new businesses, hear music and spend hundreds on exclusive wares would be city leaders’ dream.
During COVID-19 restrictions, the impromptu festival on Aug. 7, with a big crowd, many not wearing masks, shocked and scared city officials who have prided themselves on being so cautious about public gatherings during the pandemic. Critics complained to the City Council.
City leaders affirmed there will be no more festivals until further notice.
But what happened that night wasn’t a planned festival, nor was it a formal business grand opening ceremony for the small shops in the Sunlight Building retail arm of the Foundry 66 business incubator at 66 Franklin St.
It was a live demonstration that the booming trends of streetwear and skyrocketing resale market for exclusive wares have found a hotspot at the corner of Franklin and Bath streets in downtown Norwich.
Products of Supreme apparel, the top streetwear company, hang on racks at Woombs & Wankle. Exclusive Nike Jordan and other limited edition sneakers priced in the hundreds are on the shelves in the shop. At The Main Avent custom apparel shop on the Bath Street side of the complex, shirts designed for rapper 50 Cent are for sale.
At the same time, Ashon Avent, owner of The Main Avent explained, local artists, apparel makers and designers are marketing their own exclusive goods to thousands of social media followers, creating a buzz for products shoppers can't get anywhere else.
“It’s streetwear, pop culture, hip hop,” Avent said. “The way people promote is different than normal media. Each of us has followers on Twitter and Instagram and other social media. You take a picture, create a buzz. 'I have this, only 50 of them, and they’re here tonight.’ The response you get is: ‘I know what that is. It’s an exclusive item.’”
Christian Cepeda, 25, of Norwich, a 2013 Norwich Free Academy graduate with a business administration degree from Eastern Connecticut State University, has a passion for exclusive sneakers. Cepeda buys top-line limited edition sneakers at retail prices in New York and sells them in Norwich at re-sale values of $500 or $800, and one pair for $1,600.
Supreme brand T-shirts can go for $50 or $80 each.
About 10 small businesses decided to promote that First Friday as their reopening night for their shops. They spread the word to their followers through social media platforms. For Avent, that’s 18,000 Instagram followers. Rose City Tanks has 4,000 followers.
“Long day of printing at American Stitch Lab,” Rose City Tanks' Instagram Aug. 6 post said, with a photo. “These will be dropping tomorrow for the First Friday art and car show, 6-9 on Franklin St. Come thru.”
Customers came from throughout Connecticut and beyond. Artisans not yet established set up “pop-up” shops with everything from jewelry to apparel to custom wood-burned skateboards.
First Friday in downtown Norwich, sponsored by the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce, normally features art gallery openings, artists’ tables, music and antique cars parked along city streets. Even pre-pandemic, the event normally drew casual crowds.
Suki Lagrito, liaison for Global City Norwich, a grant-funded entity created in 2018 to promote ethnic diversity through street festivals and to grow downtown storefront businesses, expected the same turnout for Aug. 7, the first event since the pandemic.
Lagrito works closely with the Foundry 66 entrepreneurs and set up tables spaced 15 feet apart in the Bath Street parking lot. She said the event went well until music started shortly after 8 p.m. One popular song, which lasted just over two minutes, brought the crowd to a head.
Lagrito and some performers warned they would have to shut down if people didn't space out and wear masks. After 10 minutes, she asked the DJ to shut it down.
“People asked me: ‘What were they celebrating? A grand opening, ribbon cutting event?” Lagrito said. “No, it wasn’t. We’ve never done this before, and historically, we all know that First Friday has never had that kind of attendance. It’s something everyone has always wanted for First Friday, and it happened. And unfortunately, it happened during COVID.”
Avent too was surprised by the crowds. But while he understands the city can’t have crowded street festivals during the pandemic, he stressed that these entrepreneurial businesses who have put their faith and money into downtown Norwich need to market themselves to survive.
Avent at age 41 has served as mentor for many of the younger entrepreneurs at Foundry 66, some of whom started as his interns through ECSU and Mitchell College. Avent teaches them to use their creativity to design products or marketing plans to start businesses.
And they taught him the world of social media platforms and influencers.
Originally from Hartford, Avent started two years ago as a flex-space member of Foundry 66. He specialized in selling sports team uniforms, working with two manufacturing companies in Asia and the Middle East. After a personal health scare several years ago, he turned to fitness and until COVID-19, he ran a training gym in North Stonington and worked as a health trainer for the Mashantucket tribe.
His T-shirt business got a boost through the Global City Norwich international festivals. Avent set up a table at the Global City Cape Verdean festival in 2019. People there urged him to go to the much-larger Providence Cape Verdean festival, and at that event, they told him he should sell at the even larger Cape Cod Cape Verdean Festival.
Avent recently purchased his own screen-printing machines and opened his retail shop two months ago. He designed his own slogans for T-shirts, hoodies, and now face masks. His slogan, “No Luck, All Hustle” has caught fire. He also makes and sells shirts with other artists’ designs. He recently printed championship shirts for Norwich Night Flight Basketball tournaments.
“One of our clients is 50 Cent,” he said of the celebrity rapper. “We make some shirts for him. He sells as pre-sales on his Instagram. You only make what you sell.”
When the sports uniform business crashed in the COVID-19 pandemic, first with the shutdown of Avent’s overseas manufacturers and then with the shutdown of sports locally, Avent printed pandemic-inspired shirts with messages of faith, hope and perseverance. Then he made Black Lives Matter shirts, tweaking slogans and fonts to avoid copyright issues.
The shops at Foundry 66 work in concert with one another, Richard Thompson, owner of Rebel Wear Apparel, said. If a customer doesn’t have a design in mind for shirts, a Foundry artist can help with that, and another can help a business with marketing.
Heather Pigg, 30, owner of Midnight Media Management, a graphic design and marketing business, Thompson and Avent all arrived at Foundry together. Pigg and Thompson are both “Navy transplants” who moved to Norwich two years ago.
Without the on-street festivals, the entrepreneurs said they will continue their social media marketing and will ship goods by mail and bring customers to their shops in trickles rather than floods. But, sneaker specialist Cepeda said: “That party was our best day selling ever.”
“For them to say, ‘no more festivals,’” Avent said, “I say, ‘what am I going to do?’ We have to be creative. We need to find a way to work together. How do we embrace this as a whole, post-COVID?”