by Sarah Nagem | photography by Smith Hardy
The way John Pugh tells it, his T-shirt business never would have taken off without a Fritos lunch box. Pugh crafted that metal pail from his childhood into a guitar that he played during gigs as an amateur musician in downtown Raleigh bars more than a decade ago. Often, he’d bring along a small screen-printing kit to make T-shirts on the spot when he was strapped for cash. The goal: “Sell two shirts so I could drink some beer,” he says.
Fast-forward a few years; now Pugh and his wife, Jessica Robinson, run House of Swank on Hargett Street. You’ve probably seen their T-shirts, many featuring North Carolina and Raleigh-centric phrases like “919, Y’all” and “Bless Your Heart.” But don’t let the store’s moniker fool you—there’s nothing particularly swanky about it. House of Swank got its name from Pugh’s former stage name, Johnny Swank. (One of his earliest shirts said, “Johnny Swank Blues.”)
Pugh started out making T-shirts that he wanted to wear, avoiding the colors of local universities. He experimented with North Carolina-themed designs, including a mason jar for moonshine and an outline of the state. Soon Pugh and Robinson were spending their weekends hawking shirts at festivals and other events, and they moved the business into two other downtown locations before it opened on Hargett in April 2018. Pugh says he is always coming up with new designs, and he takes pride in helping customers express themselves and where they come from. He’s created designs for many towns, including Garner and “Wiltson” (that’s Wilson, if you’re looking at a map). One shirt says “Raleigh Not Charlotte” in a nod to the not-so-secret competition between North Carolina’s two largest cities. “John found a way to monetize his snarkiness,” Robinson says.
At the heart of House of Swank is an intense love for North Carolina. Pugh grew up in Guilford County and has lived in cities from the mountains to the coast. Robinson, an Ohio native who met her husband in graduate school, spent a summer traveling North Carolina to document the area’s largest trees as part of a state project. While they share an adventurous spirit—Pugh has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, and the couple once spent 10 weeks paddling down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico—they’re happy to call the Old North State home as they raise their sons, ages 2 and 5. “We are an incredibly diverse state,” Pugh says. “I’m totally smitten by it.”
Pugh and Robinson are smitten by Raleigh in particular. “Raleigh is weird. Raleigh is awesome,” Pugh says. They live about a mile from the store and have witnessed the area’s explosive growth over the past decade or so. Robinson, who handles the finances for the business, said that at first she figured House of Swank would have a five-year lifespan, but it clearly has more staying power. As the business evolves, House of Swank is finding a new way to honor Raleigh: by bringing in local artisans to sell their goods at the store, including locally-made postcards and tourist paraphernalia (a recent visit uncovered Wicks for Wags, a chemical-free candle company that donates part of its proceeds to animal-rescue efforts). Being in the state they love, growing a business and supporting others who are just getting started is a just-about perfect trio for the couple. “I truly love what I do,” Pugh says.