Johnny Smrdel is a man of experience. He is a husband and father of two. He works hard at two jobs. Pre-settling down he traveled the world with his best friends while touring with his band.
Smrdel’s experiences aren’t ordinary.
His day-to-day isn’t normal or regimented. It never is when you run your own business — which for him is a side gig to his full-time job.
Centennial Trading Company, which Smrdel co-owns with Erik Stephens, is a small men's clothing brand and store focused on simple, timeless designs manufactured in the U.S. and run out of North Carolina.
Smrdel’s drive for creative expression and chasing dreams is only illuminated in Centennial, which was the obvious next step in his creative journey.
What is the story behind Centennial?
I've been in and around the textile business since I was a kid. My mother was in the hosiery business for almost 20 years. I had a front row seat when the bottom fell out in our town for manufacturing. I saw one of the hardest working people I knew without a job because her company wanted to make better margins and move off shore.
So when it was time for me to step down from the touring game, I knew I had to keep doing something creative. I was the one that always worked directly with the artists that worked on our album art or T-shirts. I really loved being the guy that did the creative direction.
To me it was fun trying to fit all the different pieces of the puzzle together to make sure it worked and represented the message we wanted to put out. Centennial was just the next step.
What drives and inspires you?
As far as what drives me: I LOVE the feeling I get when I overcome a challenge. I love the feeling of working with a friend or family member or even just a like-minded person and reaching a goal we've set together. I love turning ideas into reality.
It was instilled in me at a very young age that no matter what you do, make sure you do it the best you can. I'm pretty sure I'm not the best at anything but I can promise you that I will do my best at whatever I do.
As for what inspires me? Anyone that understands that life is a gift and that we've been given the ability to be a massive force of change. I love being around people that are passionate. When you are around people that keep pushing forward and have a love for life, it is contagious. And Shawn Stussy — seriously that dude’s so rad.
What kind of time commitment do you put toward Centennial? Are you full-time?
[Laughs] We definitely put in "full-time" hours, but we both have other jobs that make sure our mortgages are paid and that we are productive members of our families. As stressful as this business is, we don't want to add the stress of not being able to pay our bills to that list. I hope in the next year or so Centennial can become a full-time gig.
What are some of the risks you have had to take to get the brand off the ground?
Man, I guess a major one is just taking that first step. Owning your own business is scary, fun, hard and time-consuming. The first two years we were working seven days a week and more than 70 hours a week between Centennial and our "real" jobs.
It's hard but man is it rewarding. Even if it doesn't last I can honestly say I'm stoked that we had an idea and we ran with it — how many people can say they did that?
It's definitely worth it.
What’s a typical day at Centennial?
Every day is different. Since we have full-time jobs on top of Centennial, we wear a lot of hats. For us, we design everything ourselves. We source the fabric and work directly with the factories to have these items produced. We also have a retail store so we have to man that, which is a beast in itself.
I love every aspect of it and wish I could do all of it myself. [Laughs] The reality is I can't. We both have areas we focus on. Erik handles most of the social media, all photography, all web design and we split up sales. I handle most of the design work, sourcing/production management, buying and the other half of sales.
It's a good balance.
Centennial is based out of North Carolina. How has that impacted the brand?
We absolutely love where we live. Around 90 percent of all the items we make are made right here in North Carolina. We love using fabrics that are made here, and we love using factories that are rooted in our state.
On the aesthetic side, North Carolina is a beautiful state and a state that is built on rugged landscapes and hard work. We feel that Centennial encompasses both of those characteristics in our design and production. We want to make great looking clothes that can take a beating and still hold up.
Who are some of your idols or mentors?
I love being around creative people. Like I mentioned before, being around positive people that are always motivated and hard working is such a big part of who we are as a brand. We aren't from the fashion industry and we didn't go to school for design — we just love it and had a vision and did it.
If I had to pick any one person or brand that I thought helped us most, it would definitely be the guys from Tellason. Not only do they make a great product, but they took a chance on us 3.5 years ago when not too many other brands wanted to sell to a little store in North Carolina. They’ve also been a huge help on the business side of growing a brand.
I'm also inspired by a lot of new brands/designers: Rogue Territory, 3sixteen, Railcar Fine Goods, Taylor Stitch, Broken Homme, Topo Designs. And a lot of brands that have been doing it for a long time: Red Wing, Filson, Patagonia, Vans, Levi's, Gitman Brothers, etc.
What is your favorite released Centennial product?
Honestly, everything we have done I've loved. We have designed a lot and only about half of those designs have come to fruition so far. We don't want to just crank out products we aren't stoked on. We want to design items that we want to wear or use and try to have them made with the best materials we can get with the best quality we can find.
In your opinion, what sets Centennial apart?
Let me be the first to say that we aren't trying to break any molds with Centennial. We want to make cool stuff, use the best materials we can find and have it priced reasonably. I think the one thing that sets us apart is that we want to be able to produce all of our products in our state.
What's next for Centennial?
With our new space we want to start producing more of our products on our own. We've slowly been buying machines to open up a small cut & sew facility in our own space. We want to grow our leather and canvas accessories and hopefully start producing two or three clothing items ourselves.
We have worked hard to build relationships with the factories we work with, so we don't want to drop them, but it would be nice to have control over every aspect of the process.
Do you have any advice for other creative entrepreneurs looking to start their own brands?
Oh yeah — DO IT!
If you have an idea, just go for it. You might not get rich and famous but that doesn't matter. I truly believe we were built to dream and to chase those dreams. Don't go through life wishing you had done something else.
Fight day and night to be the best person you can and give all of yourself to whatever you do.
Do you miss touring with your band?
I think about touring every single day. If I wasn't married and didn't have two kids, I’d still be on the road and doing Centennial. I loved it. But there is nothing like coming home to my own house with my wife and kids there.
What is your favorite current hardcore band?
I actually just wrote down my top albums of 2014. [Laughs]
Madball: Hardcore Lives
Criminal Instinct: Fever
Society Sucker: Self-titled EP
Mizery: Survive the Vibe
And my favorite hardcore bands of all time … I’ll have to say:
Buried Alive, Madball, Earth Crisis, Turmoil, Strongarm, Snapcase, For The Love Of ... The list goes on and on. I'm a mid-’90s hardcore kid at heart. [Laughs]
To learn more about Centennial and purchase products, visit centennialtradeco.com
Images and Interview courtesy of Johnny Smrdel. Centennial Trade Co.
This interview has been condensed and edited