Dionte Johnson had dreams of becoming a professional athlete like many who have come through Ohio State’s football program. Instead, he found himself in another field.
Johnson, a former OSU fullback who played from 2004 to 2007, owns streetwear store Sole Classics, located at 846 N. High St. in the Short North.
After graduation, where he received a degree in marketing in 2008, Johnson attended the Arizona Cardinals’ training camp as a rookie in the NFL but was waived before the season began because of an ankle injury.
He realized he needed to begin transitioning away from the game he loved.
“(I) ended up getting hurt in camp my first year, so I realized it wasn’t an easy task to even get attention. Once you get hurt, you kinda turn off a lot of people,” Johnson said. “Fortunately, the Sole Classics opportunity came just as I was transitioning into life.”
Johnson purchased Sole Classics in 2010 from the two original owners four years after its inception. He worked immediately at implementing his vision of what Sole Classics could become.
“If you were one of the people that saw Sole Classics when we first had it as compared to now, it’s a lot more in every aspect,” Johnson said. “From our involvement in the city to the amount of apparel and shoes we have. Everything is more.”
Two years after he purchased Sole Classics, Johnson opened a second store, Kingsrowe Gallery, the namesake of his urban clothing line inspired by the East Side neighborhood in which he grew up.
Johnson said he always wanted to start his own clothing line, and he wanted something that embodied the culture of Columbus.
“You see what it’s like in New York. You see the identity of (Los Angeles). You see what it’s like in Chicago. I wanted (Kingsrowe) to be that for Columbus,” Johnson said.
The Short North has watered Columbus’ growing fashion scene over the years. Sole Classics manager and Columbus native Valdeaz Scales said he remembers when the Short North’s name was associated with the city’s negative aspects.
“When I was younger, I knew about the Short North, but I knew about a very different side of the Short North,” said Scales, who is affectionately known as Dez Arnez. “When I heard Short North, I’m thinking of Fourth (Street) and Eighth (Street), and really the parts that people don’t want you in.”
Scales said he did not get into the Short North’s culture until Johnson took over Sole Classics.
“I’m definitely starting to see people getting more in tune to the streetwear culture,” Scales said. “I would definitely say Sole Classics is the forefather of pushing the streetwear culture to the forefront.”
As its inventory expanded, Sole Classics moved to a larger (and it’s current) spot on North High Street to help accommodate different customers. It is now split into two sides: One side carries new editions to the store, such as its New Balance and Asics brands, while the other side carries traditional brands, such as Nike and Reebok.
Frequent shopper Nathan Tweed, a 25-year-old Columbus native who previously attended OSU, said he likes the new style of the store and the fact that Johnson always reaches out to his customers.
“The biggest thing he does to make Sole Classics and Kingsrowe successful is to connect to his fanbase,” Tweed said.
Johnson made a connection with another frequent shopper, James Drakeford, a Dayton, Ohio, native who moved to Columbus in 2007 when he decided to attend OSU. Drakeford had already been a Sole Classics customer when Johnson took over, and when the two met, they immediately saw a working relationship.
“We kinda clicked. We have similar visions,” Drakeford said. “The sky’s the limit.”
Drakeford began working part-time when he was still in school and now works as a manager for Sole Classics. He and Johnson want to continue to expand the store and brand.
“We’re always trying to take it to the next level and produce the best that we can do,” Drakeford said. “We don’t wanna be last place or in the middle or even second place. We always want to strive to be the best.”
Drakeford said a lot of what you see when you walk into Sole Classics comes from what goes on behind the scenes.
“When you walk into the store, everything is in place,” Drakeford said. “From the floor layout to deciding what brands to bring in to the art… Everything around here evolves very quickly, so you kinda have to stay on your toes and pay attention to blogs or brands.”
Johnson attributes much of his success to getting into the real world and learning from his failures. He said there is no substitute for the relationships he built at OSU, but there is no “real-time scenario” in college.
“Once you’re done with school, you realize the cliche term, ‘Life comes at you fast,’” Johnson said. “I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. I still make mistakes on a day-to-day basis, but I don’t get discouraged. I fight forward.”
Johnson said he believes Sole Classics is replicable in its business blueprints, but he always plans ahead.
“Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.”
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