CHAPEL HILL — The owners and operators of Thrill City, a new clothing shop on Franklin Street, have dreams for the future but a present and past deeply rooted in Chapel Hill.
Co-owner Ryan Cocca has lived in Chapel Hill since he was 6 years old, living behind and graduating from East Chapel Hill High School.
He met his business partner, Rohan Smith, a Morehead-Cain scholar from London, in a photojournalism class.
Smith also played on the Carolina JV basketball team for two years, and Tar Heel sports are very much an inspiration at Thrill City.
Former UNC basketball player John Henson posted a photo on his Instagram page of himself wearing a Thrill City T-shirt, with the word “Scam” over the National Collegiate Athletic Association logo.
Cocca’s first Thrill City design is simply the words “Thrill City” printed over an image of the UNC bell tower.
Other designs include a takeoff of the Air Jordan logo of UNC and NBA megastar Michael Jordan “taking flight” to the basket.
They also have designs in honor of Carolina players Danny Green, now in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, and Kendall Marshall, now with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Thrill City started as an online-only operation in 2011 and opened its 422 W. Franklin St. location in November.
In the small space, shoppers will find such T-shirts, and also socks, hats and shoes from other brands.
Cocca got into graphic design through his photojournalism major at UNC.
He’s kept all his old designs, some of which he says he’s not so proud of, on an old hard drive.
“I wondered what it was about those designs that made me keep going because it isn’t very impressive stuff,” Cocca said. “But whatever it was, I’m glad.”
Cocca does all the designs. Smith does photography for the website. Both do day-to-day upkeep of the website and the store.
“I love all clothes,” Smith said, but especially clothes with a “street wear aesthetic,” rooted in surf and skate culture, as well as hip-hop.
He said he is often seen sporting Birkenstocks.
“I’m trying to bring it back,” he said.
He also wears dreadlocks under a hat.
Cocca sports Nike Air Max sneakers with shorts revealing colorfully patterned socks.
The name Thrill City might remind Chapel Hill locals of the saying “Chapel Thrill,” which Cocca and Smith were going for. But Cocca said that he wants to make future designs less Chapel Hill-specific to reach a wider audience.
As it is, Cocca said they have had orders from 35 to 40 states.
He said the store has reached students first, but he’s begun to develop an older clientele base as well.
Town Councilman Lee Storrow has been an early backer, happy to see two UNC graduates make a difference in the community.
“They bring a lot of life and energy to Franklin Street,” Storrow said.
A regular customer, Darius Dukes, really liked a design that paid tribute to the many Carolina point guards who have worn No. 5, including Ed Cota, Kendall Marshall, Marcus Paige and Ty Lawson.
“Hopefully it’s going to grow into something bigger, something that can be around for generations,” Dukes said.
Thrill City also includes installations from local artists the owners like on their walls.
Cocca said that if he took his work to Ackland Art Museum, he thinks he would probably get laughed at, but he’s proud to display it on his own walls now.
“We have our own audience, I think,” Cocca said.