Project Erie Entrepreneur: Iron Empire

Project Erie Entrepreneur: Iron Empire

Leaving a Legacy | The Iron Empire

It’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, or rather its skin. If you live in Erie, PA you’ve seen R.J. Messenger, you may own one of his shirts (you probably know someone who does) or have even seen his TEDxErie talk. But you definitely know who he is “the guy with the tattoos” the co-owner of Iron Empire (click here to connect on facebook). 

 “...the business has helped my image and look almost become acceptable especially when it comes to being successful in life with whatever it is.” 

Beneath that beautifully inked surface there’s so much more. Let me introduce you.

Lounging on his custom blacked out motorcycle that sits outside the Empire store, R.J. acknowledges he's starting to get recognized outside the city (Cleveland and Pittsburgh) from attending and promoting events, but says, "You never wanna let it get to your head."

Lounging on his custom blacked out motorcycle that sits outside the Empire store, R.J. acknowledges he's starting to get recognized outside the city (Cleveland and Pittsburgh) from attending and promoting events, but says, "You never wanna let it get to your head."

R.J. Messenger is the co-owner of Iron Empire, a clothing brand that supports building your own life on your own terms with the skills you were born with. He’s a firm believer on relying on yourself to get things done right and overcoming your obstacles. Because if he can “work his ass off” on the back of a garbage truck and turn his hobby into his dream – so can you.

Inside the shop shirts are custom (and hand) screen printed, ready for this week's Roar on the Shore event. Iron Empire is the FIRST local screen printing company to land the Roar on the Shore account.

Inside the shop shirts are custom (and hand) screen printed, ready for this week's Roar on the Shore event. Iron Empire is the FIRST local screen printing company to land the Roar on the Shore account.

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In fact, Iron Empire isn’t just a clothing brand – it’s a following. Strangers wearing the clothing line give each other the “Iron Empire nod”, or wave hello the way bikers signal each other on the highway - a sign of comradery. I met with R.J. and asked him why he believed people were so supportive. His answer was simple. 

“I think it’s the personable feeling that people like, the realness behind it. We really do what we do because we want to make a difference in people’s lives.” 

For R.J. it’s a job of passion and dedication. He didn’t go into it for the fame or money, he does it because he likes to. To date he hasn’t turned down a donation yet; he knows the values of giving small now can lead to being able to do more as the company grows. Erie is home, and he doesn’t take that lightly.

“If it wasn’t for Erie I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”

A quote taped to wall reads "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." John F. Kennedy

A quote taped to wall reads "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." John F. Kennedy

Screens for the new Roar on the Shore tees #shoplocal #erieentrepreneur #ironempire

Screens for the new Roar on the Shore tees #shoplocal #erieentrepreneur #ironempire

Why build your business in Erie, PA?

R.J. could’ve started this business in another city, but he doesn’t believe it would’ve been as successful. 90% of the reason is because of the story.

“It’s a pride thing…Erie is so homegrown and tightknit. If you get one person behind you, you’re gonna have the whole city behind you.”

Erie has clearly gotten behind Iron Empire. The brand has sold to forty-seven states and dropped off their fourth order to Field and Stream, making their Erie branch the most successful because of the Iron Empire Brand. “They can’t keep it in stock.” R.J. said.

If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. 

“If you think Erie’s dying you clearly aren’t getting involved. Everyone thinks that Erie is dying and on the verge of failure but all those people that think that aren’t involved in what’s going on.”

It’s a good thing R.J. is got involved. He’s had opportunities in Hollywood appearing not only in a Jay-Z music video but also the movie Warrior. What started as a small part as an extra lead to a red-carpet appearance in Hollywood and his own section in The Men of Warrior. But R.J. is a hometown boy at heart. He gets homesick if he’s away for more than a few days, preferring familiar faces and places where people don’t look at him strangely. 

Appearances can be deceiving. 

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Before his Iron Empire Days, R.J. was in the orchestra at Mercyhurst Prep, they had received the rites to perform Les Miserable and he played the drums - his response? 

“I don’t know if I’m gonna like this.” (BTW He now owns every single DVD of the musical) 

It opened his eyes to musicals and Broadway and he spent a few years touring the country in a van with his straightedge band. 

Tattoos? Fughettaboutit.

“I don’t like getting tattooed anymore. I think I did way too much too quick.”

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A small Iron Empire Tattoo is probably one of his most recent and last tattoos. He says he’s not trying to erase his past, but rather they represent where’s he’s been and where he’s going. 

His ink - phrases, images, and the memories – represent a large part of his life that he credits with turning him into the man he is today. Some represent R.J.’s previous straight edge life style – no alcohol, drugs, tobacco – (he didn’t have his first drink until he was 25 years old.)

It wasn’t a subject he wanted to go into at length, and I didn’t pry. If you’ve ever had any ink, you know how personal they can be. 

“It’s almost kinda like a therapy,” R.J. said. Most were completed by personal friends he’s known from his travels.

He acquired the majority of his visible ink between 19-24 years old, starting when he was sixteen and becoming quickly addicted, covered his legs, shins, and a half sleeve by the time he graduated high-school. After realizing a “normal lifestyle” wasn’t in the plan he went on to cover his face.

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R.J.’s father, a supervisor with the city, got him a part-time job with the city opening doors to pension, benefits and an income. He knew it was a good opportunity, and while he accepted those offers from Hollywood he always came home. After getting in trouble with the law in Cleveland and Canada he was fortunate to keep his job with the city. But it was a wake-up call. He realized he didn’t want that lifestyle. R.J. quit the band, stopped hanging out with his friends and acquired his CDL license and “worked his ass off on the back of a garbage truck” for three years before being awarded a full-time position with the city. But still he knew he wanted more. 

Not Your 9 - 5, the Struggles of Owning a Small Business

R.J. admits it hasn’t always been easy. As an entrepreneur he still faces obstacles. 

It’s not your nine to five job. It’s a balance between your business and personal life. R.J., who started the business with co-owner and ex-wife Jamie Messenger, says there’s a lot of stress to owning and operating your own company. 

“Whether you work with your significant other or not it’s really hard to own your own business and cut off. Hey I’m done at 5 o’clock today. I’m going home. That doesn’t happen. If you think you’re gonna have a small business and its gonna be ‘I’m going into my store today at 9 and leaving at 5’ you’re not, and if you are, you’re not working hard enough - you’re not busy enough.”

There are still times where he has to decide whether to pay the mortgage or his employees. 

“What if we have two bad weeks in a row or not enough custom jobs coming in?”

As the business expands R.J. has had to start delegating responsibility as his time is pulled in different directions. Meetings, phone calls… he realizes one person just can’t do it all.

R.J. is a visible presence in the day to day operations, more than likely if you visit the store you’ll be dealing with him, and while he has a support system and staff, he doesn’t believe on complete reliance on others. 

“… the more you start relying on other people for yourself or your business the more chances you have of getting let down… (other people) don’t have that same drive as you…When you start relying on other people you almost get used to it, it’s just a mindset I never agreed with.”

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Thinking about starting a business?

R.J.’s advice? Just do it! “You’re really not going to know if it’s going to work until you just do it. From there adapting and overcoming.”

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Co-Owners R.J. and Jamie Messenger have publically and cordially announced they are going in different directions, this year’s Roar on the Shore event will be Jamie’s last event with Iron Empire. 

R.J. will be taking over the business by himself. He admits this will be new to him but is relying on those around him to “keep doing what they’re doing.”

Empire Expansion?

Can we expect to see more from the Iron Empire? R.J. thinks so, he’s planning on more online sales and an increase in custom screen printing as more companies outside of Erie discover their services. This year Iron Empire will be the FIRST local screen printing company to get the Roar on The Shore bid. Looking for something fresh and new, ROTS approached Iron Empire and asked them to put in a bid, “we like what your brand stands for, we’ve seen what you’ve done.” 

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We’re thankful R.J. and Jamie got involved, we got behind them and turned their hobby into a business that gives back. Iron Empire makes you feel good about yourself, about where we live. A wave of hometown pride built on hard work and dedication and the proof that any obstacle can be overcome if you want it bad enough. So, the next time you see another Iron Empire subject wearing a tee, tank or hoodie – give a nod. You’re part of the Empire. 

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Erica Whiting is a Pennsylvania based portrait photographer specializing in creative portraits celebrating individuals, couples and special moments. Whether you’re celebrating a major milestone, life event or just want to celebrate yourself Erica Whiting illustrates your individuality. We are all unique! #whatsyourstory #everystorymatters  | Instagram: ericawhitingphoto

Project Erie Entrpreneur: Pointe Foure Vintage Boutique

Welcome To The DOLLHOUSE

Emily Lynn George, is the blonde, bubbly, effervescent Owner/Operator of Pointe Foure LLC., Creator of the D.O.L.L. Project, and Treasurer of Independence Hill Collaborative of Erie LLC. Her mission is “to teach others how vintage is truly a trend on saving the planet, teaching the awareness of poor work conditions to make fast fashion, how it creates jobs, and educates us on the value and beauty behind the scenes of each piece.” She is that and SO MUCH MORE!

There’s a reason Emily was named Erie’s 40 under 40! She is also working to revitalize Erie’s Independence Hill while empowering self-confidence. Her D.O.L.L. Project was inspired by the story of a young anorexic girl, whose mother contacted Emily with a simple request. Could Emily style her daughter in an effort to improve her self-image? What happened next inspired a movement. 

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Emily George, photographed in Pointe Foure Vintage Boutique, and recently named one of Erie's 40 Under 40

D.O.L.L. | Dare to Own a Life You Love

“Everyone has a talent and it kills me not to see them shine. We all have a purpose on this earth and we should all dare to own a life we love one day at a time.

“Everyone has a talent and it kills me not to see them shine. We all have a purpose on this earth and we should all dare to own a life we love one day at a time.

When I questioned Emily about the D.O.L.L. Project she literally lit up. “THIS is the story!” she said. Emily admits she struggles with being an introvert/extrovert and still has her own insecurities, she said she went through the process with them. “It helped me too. Every day I dare to own a life I love, and I truly want that for every walk of life. Depression, low self-esteem, traumatic pasts experiences should not define your present nor your future... I want others to hold their heads high and with confidence because I understand how hard it is to do daily. Being mad, sad, hopeless is draining and feeling good is so rewarding. 

“Everyone has a talent and it kills me not to see them shine. We all have a purpose on this earth and we should all dare to own a life we love one day at a time. Every day is a fresh start to make that happen. My talent is to make inner beauty shine from the outside in.”

What is the D.O.L.L. Project? Twelve women, ages seventeen to thirty-six, were styled and photographed. Each woman was nominated by someone else or themselves with an explanation why they should be chosen. These weren’t women who thought of themselves as models, they were outsiders. Emily was looking to help build their self-esteem. Emily, her assistant Morgan Destefano, the makeup artists and photographers chose which photos to reveal to the women. Each D.O.L.L then chose a single photo to represent themselves. Empowering and inspiring it helped each one of them come out of their shell. 

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What is Vintage?

“Vintage is anything that’s 20 years or older,” explains Emily. “During the 50’s and 60’s clothing was made by hand and more durable.” In a world of fast, disposable fashion where consumers find it increasingly easy to purchase more for less, Pointe Foure, provides authentic, unique and sustainable fashion.

Old is the New, New

“Fashion repeats itself just like history. Major fashion labels such as American Eagle and Anthropologie search vintage shops taking old clothing from decades before us and pattern their clothing from the designs. At Pointe Foure what you’re getting is new versus vintage. Vintage has withheld time, most of it has lasted over 20 decades because it was made with love. It’s owners treasured them because they were either hand-made, came from a big city boutique made of the finest fabrics, and or hand tailored.

They truly are pieces of art which, just like anything, will become extremely rare to come across an authentic roaring 20s piece of clothing. We have a few museum pieces at the store. It’s always amazing to have older people come through the door and take a step back in time. A piece of clothing from the past will make them giggle and bring back old memories. It’s not all about purchasing the clothing at Pointe Foure, it’s about leaving an imprint when you walk out the door.” 

Emily is passionate about making sure her store supports local.

“95% of my merchandise is sourced locally. Which means I have historical pieces from some of the old amazing boutiques we had here. Like Trasks, London’s, Kaufman’s, The Boston Store, Kramer’s, P.A Meyer’s & Sons, & Halle’s. I love that I get to showcase the pieces, tell the history of them and then give them a second home!”

Behind the scenes in the Pointe Foure Vintage Boutique storage room, Emily says they "constantly make fun of this room"

Behind the scenes in the Pointe Foure Vintage Boutique storage room, Emily says they "constantly make fun of this room"

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How important is sustainable fashion and how do you feel it impacts our community?

Throwing away those “last-season” fashions costs an average of $45 per ton to dispose of and equates to the amount of water needed to fill 1,000 bathtubs or carbon emissions from a modern car for 6,000 miles. Emily explained that many clothing brands are unethically made outside the U.S. by under-paid workers and, in some cases, children. 

“95% of clothing that is thrown away, taking up our landfills, can be reclaimed, recycled, or repurposed! A new survey found that the average American will toss out 81 pounds of clothing this year. That amounts to 26 billion pounds of textiles and clothes ending up in landfills — so I want to keep the community educated on the environment shopping smart, sustainable, local, the effects fast fashion has on us, and on the opportunity to give clothing a second life… whether it be via hand me downs, secondhand shopping, upcycling old clothing articles to make new products, or donating your old clothes to others in need. It’s like doing your part to save not only our earth but our hometown and all the beauty it withholds.”  

Who inspires you?

When asked what inspires her, the answer was no surprise. 

“Truth be told vintage inspires me. The blood sweat, time and tears it took for a team of people to create one piece of art. Someone has to grown the cotton/ then pick it and or manufacture it, make it into fabric, dye it, make a print, a design, a pattern, sew it, and then it becomes what makes the first impression when others see you. To me fashion is more than just a piece of clothing it is a representation of how we feel and who we are. And I solute all those who have dedicated their time to making us feel and look fabulous even if it’s a paper bag. A team of people had to work hard to me that. Lol. Fast fact I actually use to make outfits out of paper bags and have fashion shows when I was like 6 at my parents’ house lol. 

What is your Philosophy on Supporting Local? 

“We can’t survive without each other period. Love hate and all the emotions aside. A village takes a tribe to survive and thrive and why not do it together. We all are so different and bringing our talents, duties, and knowledge to the table can only make us stronger. It’s like pieces to a puzzle and we are all just trying to fit in, and grow within.”

If you’ve attended a recent or past Erie ARTrageous event or Gallery Night you’ve likely witnessed Emily herself or one of the DOLL’s in person. She’s actively involved in the art scene and collaborates with other female entrepreneurs. Emily is the epitome of collaboration over competition.  She recently brought together a host of female artists for the most recent and probably ambitious ARTrageous event to date.

“ARTrageous for me is the big event where I get to showcase my ever so artsy side, my fashion designer side….This year was truly ARTrageous because a lot of the models I have watched grow since they were 14 when the boutique first opened its doors. This year they all graduated high school… I had my Event Flagshipflea, an outdoor local artisan marketplace that I host once a month up on Independence Hill during the day a couple months out of the summer, and then at night seeing 16 Avant Gard pieces myself, my team of Pointe Foure, Head Cases, and Rachel Berlin of RLB, come to life was everything! A dream team collaboration of some of Erie’s most creative female entrepreneurs! I asked these women to come on board and mesh our artistic abilities tighter because that’s how it should be done.”

Why Did You Choose Erie To Build Your Business?

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For this single mother and entrepreneur, you could say fashion is in Emily’s blood. Her mother, Regina George, was her inspiration. “For as long as I can remember…I was always tagging along with her when she would go ‘treasure hunting’ Her motto was ‘you’ll never see one like it again… so you just have to get it!’”

“My first vintage obsession was and still is scarves! Each and every single one is uniquely beautiful in its own way. They truly are pieces of art. I probably have over 100 in my own personal collection. I would say they inspired and sparked my love for all things vintage.” 

Emily’s grandmother was a tailor for Halle’s, a high-end boutique in Erie, and saved buttons and trimmings to repurpose later, which inspired Emily’s clothing line for her portfolio in college. Emily, who always knew she wanted to open a boutique, earnedan Associate of arts degree in Fashion Designat Bauder College in Georgia, then went on to receive her Associate of Arts Degree in Fashion Merchandising. 

She then moved back to Erie, worked a number of retail jobs and quickly found out the corporate world wasn’t for her. After having her son Cy, who she calls the "apple of her eye and the reason and blessing as to why I have a wonderful boutique in my hometown” she realized it was time to follow her dreams and open her own boutique. But she admits it wasn’t always easy.

Emily explains that for most female business owners there seems to be a shift in power and juggling between business and family can be difficult. It is “meant for survival.” In her experience many small business owners in the Erie area wouldn’t be able to stay afloat without second jobs and the stress can create problems in relationships or strengthen them. 

 “There is no turning back. If it was not for my family...for Cy and how much he believes in his momma I couldn’t do it all. He is our future and I want him to grow up knowing about the importance of hard work, dedication to make a change, difference, and an impact on this world. How to be a leader. Bluntly...It’s not an easy life…" She admits she cries daily, and the future isn't certain. But she will tell you Cy understands it all... “For instance he always wants to go to work with me, proudly tells people that I own Pointe Foure as soon as he meets them…”

There is little question as to why this real-life wonder woman was named Erie's 40 under 40. Single mother, Entrepreneur, supporting local artisans and strengthening female self-esteem and self-image she is a force to be reckoned with. 

 She says, "I’m here to take on interns from our surrounding colleges to show them what real life is like being a small business fashion design merchandising major in a small town and how to be creative and business like with the bare essentials and a creative mind. Through the tough and fun times. How to laugh while being kind and I’m here to help the Erie economy... One day I will find balance but for right now I’m okay with being off balance because I’m weird like that.”

And THAT, is what Keeping Erie Weird is all about.  

Erica Whiting is a Pennsylvania based portrait photographer specializing in creative portraits celebrating individuals, couples and special moments. So whether you’re celebrating a major milestone, life event or just want to celebrate yourself Erica Whiting illustrates your individuality. We are all unique! #whatsyourstory #everystorymatters  | Instagram: ericawhitingphoto