After giving their employees a snow day, Dave Horesh and Brett Mikoll get to work, but not at the office.
The owners of Oxford Pennant, which makes colorful wool felt pennants, banners, flags and more, throw shovels in a beefy Toyota Tundra equipped with a 5.7L V8 engine and a red V-plow emblazoned with the words “too cold for them, just right for us.” It has flashing lights and booming subwoofers blasting the beat of Buffalo’s own “Super Freak” Rick James so loud that people can feel the vibrations.
Meet the Oxford Pennant Touchdown Plow — a vehicle deliberately designed to be a backdrop for selfies and social media. It was originally conceived as a collaboration with the Buffalo Bills, but that day, Horesh and Mikoll used it to help them dig out Buffalonians who were dealing with the the snowstorm. “It was honestly a blast,” Horesh said.
Buffalonians love their city — its history, sense of community and its recent resurgence. But there's also a niggling sense of inferiority and a hair trigger defensiveness that accumulates like a rolling snowball whenever they meet out-of-towners who almost always know the city for two things: dramatic snowstorms and a football team that lost four straight Super Bowls. (Never mind the accomplishment of being the only NFL team to get to the big game four times in a row.)
But Horesh and Mikoll have managed to turn Buffalo's reputation on its ear. Through promotions like the Touchdown Plow and contests in which the grand prize was a trip to Buffalo in the winter, Oxford Pennant has made Buffalo’s challenging climate cool, fun and something to celebrate.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 16, 2022
The company also stands tall for the Buffalo Bills. For the past two seasons, it has had a partnership in which it designed a different pennant for each game. At the end of a winning game, players hold them for photos, which are then posted on social media. With the team on an upswing and the beloved quarterback Josh Allen at the helm, their timing couldn't have be better.
The personality of the city of Buffalo is woven into the Oxford Pennant brand — so much so that every tag hand-sewn onto a pennant, banner and Christmas stocking does not read "Made in the U.S.A.," but rather "Made in Buffalo."
"I think Buffalo is our secret weapon," Horesh said. “Buffalo is very much a part of our identity of a brand because I see Buffalo as fun-loving, hard-working, community-oriented place.”
The side of the four-story brick building that houses its production facility in downtown Buffalo is painted in white with the words "Keep Buffalo a secret" painted in blue blocky letters. On Saturdays, you'll find wedding parties lining up to take photos in front of it — which will wind up on social media, further spreading the word of the city as a place worth knowing.
The company's activities in Buffalo are posted on its Instagram page — which has 193,000 followers — and people take notice, far away from the Rust Belt.
'You want to be in their world'
Interior designer Max Humphrey grew up in New England, spent a decade in Los Angeles and is now based in Portland, Oregon.
His high-end residential designs have been featured in publications like Architectural Digest, Domino, Dwell and The Wall Street Journal, and he is the author of the hardcover decorating book "Modern Americana" (Gibbs Smith), which was published in April. People magazine recently featured the nursery he designed for cool celeb dads Lance Bass and Michael Turchinart.
Humphrey’s style is influenced by the old homes and preppy, vintage looks that were a part of his childhood in New England. In many of his designs, you'll find a banner or a camp flag from Oxford Pennant. He likes using “raise hell, kid” in nursery designs and created a custom piece that said "color outside the lines," which Oxford Pennant added to its product line.
“I like that sort of '50s collegiate look," he said. "I thought it was an accessible way to buy art. I think of what they sell as an art piece.”
It's gotten to the point where his customers have come to expect — and look forward to having — a cool pennant. They look great in a modern San Francisco condo and also complement other vintage items, he said. And with so many customers attuned to sharing their décor online, they photograph especially well because they aren't behind glass.
“It’s a lot of look for the money, which is really appealing to me as a designer," Humphrey said.
Humphrey has only been to Buffalo once. (“It was cold," he said. "I don’t remember much.”)
But he follows the company's social media, and he has found himself taking an interest in Buffalo — not so much the Bills, as he's not a sports fan, but more like the city's debate over whether to save its hulking grain elevators.
“You sort of want to be in their world,” he said. “I want to go to Buffalo. They make it sound awesome.”
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) December 26, 2021
From promising start to peril
Oxford Pennant has also been noticed outside the interior design community.
Since 2019, Oxford Pennant has worked with bands like Wilco, My Chemical Romance and Goo Goo Dolls (the latter are Buffalo natives) as well as brands like J. Crew, Harley Davidson, Adidas and Gibson Guitars.
The company was conceived while Horesh and Mikoll — acquaintances in the advertising agency business — drove to and from Boston in a Fiat 500, an 8-hour trip each way.
While in Boston, they came across a pennant — the triangular kind that bring to mind Arnold's Drive-In on the set of Happy Days, but now are cheaply made overseas using synthetic materials. Horesh and Mikoll thought there could be a market for the wool felt products associated with the first half of the 20th century.
At the end of that time together, they had hatched a plan to start an entrepreneurial venture.
In 2013, they had a few pennants made using contacts Horesh had in the printing industry. They also offered custom pieces, such as for weddings. They added rectangular banners and pointed camp flags to their product line, many of them emblazoned with cheeky messages. The creations were posted on Instagram, and grew a following.
A retail shop opened in downtown Buffalo in 2018, followed by a manufacturing facility a block away. Everything seemed promising until early 2020, when the pandemic hit. Sales were down 85%, closings were mandated and they laid off their entire staff of about a dozen employees.
To help morale, they created a pennant inspired by a World War I slogan. "Together we will see it through" was printed on a camp flag in navy blue letters on a white background framed in red.
"We weren’t trying to capitalize on any sort of feeling," Mikoll said. "It was what we felt at the time.”
The response was immediate, and within days they found themselves calling employees, asking them to sew the banners from their homes. The owners went from house to house, dropping off materials for the banners, which came with suction cups so that people could hang them on windowpanes, facing out.
“That one felt important," Horesh said. “It felt like something the world needed.”
Because the owners felt uneasy about whether it was appropriate to profit from their sales, they lowered the price of the banners to $35. They sold 5,000 in all, and donated $20,000 from the proceeds to local charities.
"It makes me happy when we drive around and see it in people’s windows," Mikoll said.
A couple of years later, a companion banner was issued with the same design: "I can't believe we're still doing this."
Since that stressful time in 2020, the company has grown to 50 employees. Several have their own creative endeavors away from work.
Ashton Warner, for example, sews some of Oxford Pennant's more intricate creations three to four days a week. "I absolutely love it," she said. When she is away from work she works on her own clothing line, called ARW. "I don't sleep," she said.
After college, she lived in New York City, but eventually returned to Buffalo. When she sells at local pop-up markets, Horesh and Mikoll inevitably show up and take in interest in her work. "It's a small city where all the creatives know each other," she said. "It's nice to be in a supportive environment."
As for the touchdown plow, Horesh continues to drive it to work. Its most recent Instagram post reads: "JOSH ALLEN REVENGE TOUR."
The partners plan to renew their partnership with the Bills in the coming year. One banner not likely to be unveiled is the one that had been scheduled to appear at both playoff games that the team ultimately lost.
"Whatever it takes," it read.
"We’re always going to be in Buffalo," Horesh said. "Ride or die. We’re not going to take a tax credit and move to Missouri.”
Tracy Schuhmacher is food and drink reporter and a storytelling coach for the USA Today Network's Storytellers Project. Email her at TracyS@Gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram as @RahChaChow, or sign up for her weekly newsletter.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Oxford Pennant flies high by celebrating Buffalo Bills, love for city