Local Pride & Passion: The Story of Portland's Grafletics Apparel

Mt. Hood Oregon - Grafletics
The Oregon landscape and local sports teams serve as inspiration for Grafletics, the Portland-based apparel company.

When he launched Grafletics in 2013, Rick Gilbert didn’t know how his line of Oregon-inspired apparel would be received. The longtime graphic designer had moved to Portland in 2010 and soon fell in love with the city’s proximity to nature, underdog sports teams, and artistic leanings. But he also hadn’t seen another apparel company whose mission was to showcase the best of Portland and Oregon.

So feeling inspired and sensing an opportunity, he designed and printed a handful of Oregon-inspired shirts, and then sold them on consignment to a retailer in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood. The first batch sold out. So did the second. And the third. And, well, you get the picture. “Pretty quickly, I started to realize that I was onto something here,” Gilbert said of the growing apparel company.

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Gilbert opened Grafletics’ first store in 2016, some three years after designing his first shirt, before opening a second location in 2019, this time in the city of Bend. Today, Gilbert’s designs celebrate Oregon’s tallest, most iconic peaks, the state’s sports teams, and some of its most popular natural wonders. Along the way, he’s partnered with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers on exclusive merchandise and was even spotlighted in The New York Times, which wrote about the company’s shop as one of five places to visit in Portland. It’s a story years in the making—and one that couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

Unique and Timeless: Creating Oregon T-Shirts, Apparel, and Accessories

Long before he ever considered launching his own apparel line, Gilbert spent a career doing graphic design for some of the outdoor industry’s best-known brands, including Keen and Columbia Sportswear. But he found himself wanting to try something new, own his work, and connect with customers on a different level. As a recent transplant, he was growing more enamored with Portland by the day.

“The blend of city and nature is incredible,” he said. “I love how you can play a pick-up game of basketball in the North Park Blocks and feel like you’re completely surrounded by a forest—which you are. And it’s really cool to go for a run in Forest Park because you get great glimpses of the city. It’s a perfect blend of opposites.”

He didn’t see much locally designed merchandise showcasing the region—most of what he found was uncreative and printed elsewhere, he said. So Gilbert combined two of his loves, graphic design and athletics, to form Grafletics.

Grafletics: Built from a Passion for Portland Sports Teams

Gilbert made a name for himself designing shirts that celebrate Portland’s professional sports teams, but his first design actually paid homage to another Oregon icon: Mount Hood, the tallest peak in the state. “I’ve always been awed by Mount Hood,” Gilbert said. “The view has always captivated me and still does to this day.” (Even the shirt’s color—navy blue—was designed to evoke the Oregon state flag.)

Gilbert has since expanded his horizons to cover local sports teams, including his beloved Portland Trail Blazers. Gilbert first started cheering for the Blazers in 1992 while growing up in the Washington DC metro area. He owned a Clyde Drexler jersey and appreciated the Blazers’ underdog status in the NBA Finals, where they faced off against the Chicago Bulls (who would win the series).

Soon after moving to Portland, he attended his first game in-person—and the bond was cemented. Among other things, he was attracted to the Blazers’ logo, a pinwheel designed to evoke two teams coming together on the court.

“I think it’s the best sports logo ever made,” Gilbert said. “I love that it’s abstract, but there’s meaning and a story behind it. There’s just nothing close to it in my eyes.”

He soon started cheering on the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer and the Portland Thorns, which plays in the National Women's Soccer League. “I wanted to see what it was like to sit in the stands, hear the Timbers Army (the Portland Timbers’ supporters group), and get the closest thing we have to a European soccer experience in the states.”

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Gilbert also fell in love with the Timbers’ home stadium, Providence Park, which has been hosting soccer matches, baseball games, and even concerts since 1926. “It’s one of the oldest stadiums in the country, and it’s got a really cool history to it,” he said. (In 2017, that love affair manifested itself in a T-shirt sporting the stadium’s blueprint.)

Life is A Sport: How We Celebrate It In Oregon

Since launching in 2013, Grafletics products have paid homage to everything from mountain peaks to sports franchises—all designed through the Gilbert’s daring worldview. “I’m always looking for a unique way to express something about Oregon, Bend, or Portland,” he said. “And ‘unique’ is the big word there. I don’t want to make something that just says ‘Bend’ and call it a day. Everything has a reason behind it.”

One particularly expressive design is the “Oregon is Above California” slogan, which has found its way onto T-shirts, hats, pins, patches, and more over the years. The tongue-in-cheek slogan came about on a trip to Europe that Gilbert had taken with his wife in 2012. Time and again, they’d have to explain where in the world Oregon was—“that Oregon was above California,” he said.

That phrase stuck, especially as he returned stateside and noticed a staunch anti-California sentiment around Portland. “It’s no secret when you live in the city and walk around town, you hear rumblings about how Californians are taking over,” said Gilbert, whose own wife is from California. So he created a design featuring the playful phrase, fully aware of the possible pushback he might receive.

“It’s pretty easy to get corny and safe with apparel because there’s such a risk associated with taking something to the edge,” Gilbert said. “And I want to be the brand that does that. Anyone can put ‘Oregon’ on a T-shirt, but when you put ‘Oregon is Above California’ on a T-shirt, you’re going to get a reaction one way or the other.”

Inside Scoop: Favorite Sports Bars, Bites, Adventures, and More

Having lived in Portland for nearly a decade now, Gilbert has developed a fondness for the city’s sports bars, festivals, and professional sports teams—and with a new store in Bend, he’s quickly fallen in love with Central Oregon as well. Here, Gilbert dishes on a few of his favorites.

Best Portland Sports Bars: He loves the Kingston Sports Bar & Grill, a popular bar for pregaming before Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns matches at nearby Providence Park. “I love that it’s old school, and it’s honest,” Gilbert says. “There’s no gimmick.”

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Favorite Local Portland Restaurants: When it comes to Portland eateries, Gilbert keeps it old school: He loves Jake's Famous Crawfish, a landmark in downtown Portland for more than 125 years, and Kay's Bar, a southeast Portland eatery that first opened in 1934. Of Kay’s, he says, “I’m obsessed with it. The food is unbelievably good, and it’s everything I look for in a bar. It’s got that nostalgic feel, but it’s also ‘with it.’”

Annual Portland Events that Can’t Be Missed: Gilbert is fond of the Mississippi Street Fair, a summertime staple along one of Portland’s busiest streets. “The energy—and the sheer mass of people—there’s no other single-day festival or street fair that attracts that many people in Portland,” Gilbert says. He’s also participated in the World Naked Bike Ride, a summertime tradition in which cyclists get “as bare as they dare” (according to the ride’s website) and take to the streets of Portland. “You ride naked through the streets with 10,000 other people,” he says. “There’s nothing else like it.”

The Incredible Outdoors Adventures of Bend, Oregon: Gilbert calls Smith Rock State Park his “go-to” getaway for hiking and trail running, but he also enjoys the riverwalk along the Deschutes River, mere footsteps from his shop in Bend. “It’s peaceful and just beautiful,” he says of the riverwalk.

Bend Restaurants for Post-Adventure Bites: Having opened Grafletics’ second location in Bend in the summer of 2019, Gilbert has wasted no time getting familiar with the city’s culinary scene. He’s a fan of the Pine Tavern Restaurant & Bar, as well as Crux Fermentation Project, one of Bend’s best-known breweries.

If you liked this article, then you may enjoy reading:

4 Hat styles designed for the place I love

Design Inspiration: Life’s Better in Portland

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Written by Matt Wastradowski in partnership with Grafletics.

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