Portrait: Luke Hackney of RetroDuck.com
Twelve years ago, RetroDuck moved their then 2-year-old business into 210 Abbot, with an extensive collection of vintage iron-ons, and brand new screen printing equipment.
Sean Maday, Adam Van Lente, and Arun Das, and Luke Hackney were the original founders of RetroDuck; Hackney is current CEO and president. “It’s a huge part of my identity at this point,” says Hackney,” It’s been the central focus of my life since 2007.”
Hackney was born in raised in Holland, Michigan before moving to Grand Valley to attend Grand Valley University. After completing a journalism major, Hackney served as Arts Editor at the Grand Valley Newspaper before transferring to Wayne State, where he freelanced for the Detroit Metro Times, Issue Media Group and CREEM Magazine, an online publication that attempted to resurrect the seminal music magazine.
After graduating from Wayne State in 2007, Hackney moved to East Lansing to join his business partners and childhood friends at RetroDuck. When asked about the meaning behind the name “RetroDuck.com,” Hackney spoke of his friend and colleague, Sean Maday. “RetroDuck was his brainchild,” he says. The name came about during their sophomore year of college, when the business was just getting off the ground.
In the early days of RetroDuck, Hackney wrote descriptions for the website, composed the newsletter, ran the blog, and helped Das with social media relations. “The first summer we were open I would help take photos of the shirts and package orders in Sean’s parents’ basement in Jenison, a short drive from my apartment at GVSU.”
While the word ‘duck’ was random, Maday wanted to incorporate ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ to reference the age of the iron-ons they’d acquired. “It’s still a kind of ‘retro’ art…so it kind of makes sense in that way, and we kept the ‘dot com’ even though we are more than just a website, now,” Says Hackney.
Although he continued his writing career by freelancing for City Pulse, he says “eventually RetroDuck took over my life. I don’t think I was as good a writer as I wanted to be—I wanted to be David Foster Wallace, someone bigger and better than I was.” Four years ago, following the departure of his partner Adam Van Lente, he took over Retro Duck as CEO and President.
In 2013, Hackney participated in the East Lansing Emerging Leaders Program: an eight-week course in civic engagement to prepare citizens for local government positions. “I was interested in doing more for the community,” Says Hackney, “which is why I signed up.”
During this time, Hackney was also on the Advisory Board at Scene Metrospace, a downtown art space owned by the City of East Lansing but operated now by MSU’s Art Department. The transfer of control of the City-owned art space to MSU in 2015 was and remains controversial among those active in local arts and entertainment. When he perceived a need within the City-funded art scene, he decided to get involved and became the co-chair of Lansing Art Works. The group of socially-minded artists organized pop-up art exhibits and music performances at members’ houses, The Avenue, and Metrospace as a way to self-fund their art production.
The group was composed mostly of students who “wanted to collaborate on different things like dialogue, and activism,” says Hackney, “We wanted to create a platform for artists and non-artists to empower themselves and how they see the creative process.” Their event “Sunday Soup” provided artists with a chance to pitch their ideas to an audience, all of whom paid a five-dollar fee for a meal and participation in the event. The artist with the most well received idea collected the money at the end of the event, and was then able to use that small grant to fund their project. Hackney notes that Lansing Artworks was “a way to immediately inject finance into some kind of art project.”
Hackney’s tendency to gravitate towards the art scene eventually led him to apply for an opening on the East Lansing’s Art Commission. During his time on the Commission, the group was responsible for various ventures like the new bike racks around town. In May of 2014, they worked with artist Imran Qureshi, who was doing an exhibit at the Broad Museum at the time. Qureshi installed a piece entitled “Fragmented” by splattering red paint up and down the streets of East Lansing so that it appeared, at first glance, to be blood.
Later that year Hackney applied for a position on East Lansing’s Downtown Management Board, which allocates funds for projects like downtown events and public art. He became the Vice Chair in January of 2015 and was elected Chair in July of 2016.
Hackney says he’s always been politically minded. “[I like] to help in any small way I can to make the City that I love—the City this business has been in forever—better, somehow.”When asked about his influences, Hackney mentioned NPR commentator Jack Lessenberry. As the head of the Journalism department at Wayne State, Lessenberry’s political activism inspired Hackney to further his own goals. “Growing up I really wanted to change the world, be a vegan, [and] get as much political literature as I could get my hands on.”
Historically, the Downtown Management Board has done things like advertising for downtown events and offering local business a chance to participate. Hackney reports that right now, their efforts are focused on “trying to ‘rebrand’ the downtown, for lack of a better term.” Part of this involves maintaining a relationship with residents through their website and social media pages.
The Downtown has a new slogan, too. “Daytime, Nighttime, Anytime.” “[We want] to acknowledge that there are students here who are going to have their fun, but there’re other things too. Downtown East Lansing has a lot to offer.” The Board is responsible for recent events downtown such as the public ice skating rink, and the Chili Crawl, which was an effort to bring residents into East Lansing restaurants they might not have tried before. “I liked the idea of trying to help grow, shape, and market the downtown,” explains Hackney.
Lately, he has become involved with downtown parking, by serving on the Parking Task Force Committee and the Parking Requirements Task Force, which decide whether or not parking requirements in the area should change in light of possible new development. The Committee is currently recommending a 50% decrease in parking requirements for incoming businesses. “We want to encourage a lack of cars downtown and not hinder new development.”
Revenue has increased by over 50% since Luke Hackney took over at RetroDuck four years ago. He describes the business as remaining a fairly modest operation, and the people that work there as a small family. When asked about the future of the company, Hackney says “I certainly hope and think we will exist 10 years from now…I see us staying here in East Lansing if not growing and expanding to a second location.” The success of the company means that they are finally in a position to “have the big conversations about expanding and taking on big projects.” Hackney emphasized that he’d like to grow the business and reward his employees for their hard work and dedication.
Retro Duck has come a long way since the days when it was just four guys pressing vintage iron-ons onto blank T-shirts in their parents’ basements. “It was a lot of fun then and now,” says Hackney, laughing.
Disclosure: Hackney is an ELi donor.