Northern Liberties shop owner uses ‘Duke’ — his dog — as inspiration

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Matt Godfrey / For the Star
Duke & Winston owner Seun Olubodun folds t-shirts at his showroom in Northern Liberties.

There’s no question that starting your own business can be daunting.

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But even then, if you quit a well-paying job and sell your fancy car to gather a little startup money for your new business, a lot of folks probably would figure that’s downright lunacy.

Yet that’s exactly what Seun Olubodun, owner of Duke & Winston clothing in Northern Liberties, did in 2009.

He thought the decision was pretty simple.

“There’s a guy named Johnny Cupcakes up in Boston,” Olubodun explained. “He was just a kid who started a T-shirt company and would drive around selling at shows. Everything he made had a cupcake graphic on it.”

While at his old job, Olubodun went to hear Johnny Cupcakes speak at a conference about how he shaped his business brand.

Olubodun had graduated from Temple University — he studied business — and Johnny Cupcakes’ business approach made sense to him.

“He has turned down offers from big stores who want to sell his stuff because he wanted to keep it as his own thing,” Olubodun said. “I was really intrigued by him.”

Olubodun spent the next six months daydreaming about how he could carve a similar career path. In December 2008, he registered the name “Duke & Winston,” and the following July he launched the company with a line of T-shirts featuring an image of his English bulldog — named Duke.

He settled on the name after trying a variety of combinations incorporating his bulldog’s name and the man he refers to as the “greatest statesman of his time,” England’s Sir Winston Churchill.

“I knew, because of my British lineage, I had to go that way,” Olubodun explained. “I literally still have a list of a hundred names that I tried.”

Olubodun is Nigerian by birth but lived in England until 1996, when his father, a doctor, came to Philadelphia to work at the University of Pennsylvania. Olubodun grew up in Cheltenham and landed in Northern Liberties after graduating from Temple University.

While in college he started a Web design company out of his dorm room, and it quickly grew to the point that he took on some friends and classmates as employees.

After some time in the real world pursuing Web design full-time, he realized it wasn’t the career for him. That’s when he heard Johnny Cupcakes tell his story, and Olubodun’s mind started racing. Duke & Winston was born.

“At the time I lived not too far from here, and the Piazza was just opening up,” he explained of the entertainment complex.

He accepted an invitation to exhibit at a trunk show hosted by the Piazza. Olubodun had 100 shirts printed and set up a table to sell them.

He sold more than 90 shirts that weekend. Things have been going well ever since.

Last November, he opened his showroom on Second Street in Northern Liberties, using the first floor of the apartment he was renting.

Response has been great, with people coming from all over to purchase his shirts. But people keep asking him for more.

“I’m expanding now,” he said, laughing. “I’ll probably be moving out soon.”

He has bigger plans for the Duke & Winston brand as well.

“Even though it’s just a T-shirt line at this point, it sounds like it could be so much more,” Olubodun said.

He has added other items to his showroom floor, namely dog beds and baseball caps. But to take his company to the next level, he needs to start offering much more.

“I’ve really funded this all on my own,” Olubodun said. “But for you to really build a company and get it out there to people, you need more variations.”

The popularity he has found in Philly has not escaped him, which is why he’d like to follow the lead of Johnny Cupcakes, who has three stores in his native Massachusetts and has added outlets in Los Angeles and London.

“It’s a really well-known brand locally, but outside of Philly, not many people know about it,” Olubodun said of his own business venture.

He’s aiming to change that real soon. ••

For more information, check out Duke & Winston online at www.duke-winston.com

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