Fenwick native bringing Delaware Apparel to the masses
He may be in California, but Pete “Pierson” Roenke’s heart will always be in southern Delaware; and he has just launched a new business to pay tribute to his roots in the First State.
Delaware Apparel is an internet-based company that sells T-shirts, hats, jackets and stickers with Delaware-related slogans. The company has also been featured in “pop-up” displays at local stores, including the Lululemon outlet in Rehoboth Beach.
Roenke, a 2007 graduate of Indian River High School, grew up a few yards from the ocean in Fenwick Island, with all that entails — surfing, bodyboarding and just enjoying the beach lifestyle. He graduated from Virginia Tech in 2011 and joined the U.S. Marines that same year.
Now stationed with the Marines at Camp Pendleton, Roenke said it can be challenging juggling his new venture with his military responsibilities. He is a captain; his current assignment is as a logistics officer.
“There have definitely been some frustrating times trying to balance work with the business, but you just accept that some things will take a little longer to get done since you can’t dedicate the whole day toward it. We are growing slowly, but that is just fine for us,” Roenke said.
Delaware Apparel launched its website in June; Roenke’s family has been his “boots on the ground” in Delaware from the very beginning. His mother, Michelle, he said, is the “backbone” of Delaware Apparel.
“She is really what lets me focus on my ‘great ideas’ while she keeps everything running in the background — inventory, shipping, keeping everything organized at our ‘headquarters’ in Fenwick and keeping us all grounded when ideas get a little too bold,” Roenke said.
He said his younger sister Alex, meanwhile, is the “brains” behind the Delaware Apparel women’s collection. Roenke said Alex also “helps me make decisions in general — she is much more decisive than me, so when I’m on the fence on something, she is always there to help.”
Roenke’s father, Peter, has been at the helm of his own business, Coastal Images in Fenwick Island, as long as the younger Roenke can remember. In fact, his parents still live above the “shop” on Coastal Highway.
“I grew up watching my father run his own business and thought that someday I would like to do that myself,” he said. “So, when Delaware Apparel came to me, I thought I could start small and maintain it that way until the Marine Corps gig is over,” he said. “If and when I separate from the service, I could then take the ideas that had evolved and develop the business in a bigger, full-time way.”
The inspiration for the clothing is the uniqueness of the “Delaware way of life,” he said. As much as that can be translated to clothing, Delaware Apparel’s simple designs and styles meant for comfort are intended to convey an ease and a design flair that Roenke said he hopes resonate with those who have lived in Delaware all their lives. The brand won’t be found between the Old Navy and Nike stores at the mall, won’t be sold at Walmart.
Roenke said the clothing line, with its simple, strong graphics, is the result of a desire to create Delaware-centric attire that the transcends politics; appeals to outdoorsy folks and urbanites, business people and farmers alike; is “extremely comfortable”; can’t be found in chain stores; and can be enjoyed by “everyone that lives in, visits or has any connection to the First State.”
Roenke credited photographer Jessica Nowacki with illustrating on the company’s website and Facebook page what makes Delaware special.
“Sometimes, when I am having a tough time describing what the company is all about, I can refer someone to our social media accounts, and Jess’ work can show anyone why we all love Delaware… Pictures truly are worth 1,000 words,” he said.
Nowacki’s work “has caught the attention of several retailers and offered us many opportunities,” he said. “I can say without a doubt that her work is the largest contributor to our success thus far.”
Nowacki’s photographs show off some of Delaware’s most photogenic sights, with a decided emphasis on Sussex County. In her photos on the Delaware Apparel sites, pastel skies melt into luminous ocean and bay waters, and bright red barns are flanked by hay bales lined up like so many soldiers. And, of course, no company whose aim is representing the Delaware lifestyle would be complete without an artful photo or two of chicken houses.
Startup has local irons in the fire
Roenke, who has completed tours of duty in Japan and, most recently, the United States Embassy in Amman, Jordan, said he fits his Delaware Apparel duties in before and after work on the base and on the weekends.
He said his time as a Marine “has provided me with opportunities I would have never had otherwise. Traveling the globe and helping people that are in need around the world has been very rewarding.”
He said he hopes to continue to serve his communities, both local and otherwise. Through Delaware Apparel, Roenke has sponsored the sports-related endeavors of several Delawareans, including Rocky Whitely, whose Super Truck teams can be seen at tracks in Delmar, Georgetown and all over Delmarva this summer.
Delaware Apparel is also working with bass fishermen and recent Wilmington University graduates Tyler Hawthorne and Anthony Pistoria as they compete in tournaments across the region. The company also sponsors Delaware native P.J. Barch, who now lives in San Diego and competes in jiu jitsu tournaments across the country.
Also in the works is a partnership with duck-call maker Ian Thomas of Newark, for production of hand-made duck calls. Plans are to release them in the fall, just in time for hunting season, according to Roenke.
Roenke said he hopes that as Delaware Apparel grows, the company can continue to serve the community, which he said “has been so good to me growing up and is a huge part of who I am. It is very rewarding to receive positive feedback throughout the process as we attempt to give back in some way.”
He said that, while his military service has afforded him the ability to travel the world, he misses all that he grew up with in coastal Delaware.
“We definitely don’t have the best hunting, the best fishing or the best surfing in the world,” he admitted, “but the fact that you can do it all in one day, and there is a huge part of the population that does, makes us different.”
Trying to describe that difference to those who aren’t from Delaware, he said, “is tough. I usually have to get past the ‘Dela-where?’ joke or the ‘Wayne’s World’ reference first, but then when I really try to describe why we’re so special, I still have a hard time putting it into words.
“How do you describe an early morning scrapple-, egg-and-cheese [sandwich] on the way to a duck blind on a cold morning in December, or riding down Route 1 in the summer with the windows down on the way to the drive-on beach?” he pondered.
Delaware Apparel’s early forays into the retail market have provided an opportunity to spread that experience to the world — starting last month with a “pop-up” store at the Tanger Outlets Lululemon store.
“The company was less than a month old at the time, so working with a company as large as Lululemon seemed pretty daunting at first.” Roenke said. However, he added, the experience “couldn’t have been further from daunting” thanks to the support from the team at the store, and even “a couple shout-outs from (Lululemon’s) big corporate Twitter account leading up the event, which he said definitely helped to spark interest.
“Everything about the experience was awesome, and we couldn’t have asked for a better place to officially unveil our products to the Delaware community,” he said.
That opportunity has led to others for the startup company, including an invitation to the Bayside Town Center Market west of Fenwick Island, where Delaware Apparel will now set up on Thursdays.
The company will have another pop-up event at Lululemon at Tanger Outlets in Rehoboth Beach in late August, at the height of back-to-school shopping, and another for holiday shoppers in December.
In addition, look for Delaware Apparel at the Apple-Scrapple Festival in Bridgeville in October and at Punkin Chunkin in November.
“We are currently working on our fall collection,” Roenke said. He added that he and his team have “some great ideas to celebrate autumn in Delaware,” and that there is another “small release” in production that is top secret, but he gave a hint: “Think scrapple.”
For more information on Delaware Apparel, check out the company’s website at www.DelawareApparel.com or their page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DelaWearApparelCompany or on Instagram at @delaware _apparel.