Thrill City: Chapel Hill’s Chapel Thrill


Several days ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Thrill City’s founder and CEO, Ryan Cocca. Thrill City took the world by storm several years ago. Out of nowhere this online boutique blew people with their original designs pertaining to the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Thrill City was no holds barred. They poked fun at the Duke Blue Devils, took on the NCAA and worked with notable individuals like Tywon Lawson. Thrill City was the cool kid in class who did not have to study for the test, but still made a 100. Digable Planets may have been the “Rebirth of Slick” back in 1994, but Thrill City epitomized what is referred to as being “savage” from 2011 to 2015. Thrill City brought an edge to the city of Chapel Hill, amongst all the wine and cheese.

Keeping It Heel: Why did you name your t-shirt/clothing apparel business, Thrill City? What is the meaning behind the name?

Ryan Cocca: I was into streetwear brands and he wanted to do something different. Thrill City name came from a friend who had Thrill City on his Nike shoes; a play on the Chapel Thrill phrase. I was born in Rochester, NY, but was raised in Chapel Hill.

KIH: Who designed the logo? What is the story behind the iconic Thrill City “TC” logo? I loved the Thrill City pennant logo. What was the inspiration behind this look?

Ryan: I designed the logo along w/Rohan Smith (from the UK). Ryan and Rohan came up with the logo together. I am a self-taught graphic design artist. My mother used to do it. I was photojournalist at UNC. The business started sometime in 2011. The store opened in November 2013.

KIH: Why t-shirts? What was intriguing about this idea for a business? What did your parents think about this career choice?

Ryan: My parents did not discourage his t-shirt idea. They did not realize how big it would become. Hip hop music inspired me to design t-shirts. I was interested in people wearing streetwear. Karmaloop inspired me. Originally, Thrill City wasn’t going to be a UNC-inspired business. I thought about the Thrill City concept while attending high school.

KIH: What was your first t-shirt idea that you sold? You’re your source of inspiration for your designs?

Ryan: The first t-shirt idea was “Pass the Butter,” inspired by Kendall Marshall, circa spring 2011. The t-shirt was based on Marshall’s “Butter” nickname. I connected this to Sherwin Williams logo design. Thrill City wasn’t even out then. I started an online store when I did this shirt. John Henson or Kendall Marshall retweeted this. I studied abroad in England when this took place.

KIH: What were your favorite t-shirt ideas and why?

Ryan: SCAM, the Memory Lane poster and NC in LA (UCLA idea).

KIH: How did it feel to have your SCAM t-shirt featured in Sports Illustrated? What is the story behind the SCAM t-shirt idea?

Ryan: It was a political joke and political statement. Frustrations with the NCAA system. I am not done with the SCAM idea. There is more to come from this. Henson retweeted the SCAM idea, pictured here:

KIH: Who is your favorite basketball player from UNC and why?

Ryan: Danny Green because of his story. He is so humble. All these hotshots came out of UNC and UK, but no one would’ve thought he [Danny Green] would be one of the best Tar Heels along w/Tywon Lawson and Harrison Barnes. I was texting Danny Green on the day of the NBA Finals about the “Money is Green & Green in Money” t-shirt (drawn by a friend who has a t-shirt business) the day of Game 6 in 2013.

KIH: Why did Thrill City close? Do you have plans to re-open it? What emotions did you feel when the store closed?

Ryan: There were several reasons. My partner Rohan Smith had a VISA and it expired. Rowan had a student VISA. He graduated from UNC already and had a year left. Ryan moved to Durham when the store closed. Ryan was commuting from Durham to Chapel Hill, while working on another business. Collectively, our careers were going in different places. Rowan is a poet with opportunities in Africa and other places. We  decided to close the store to pursue other opportunities. It was a slow buildup. Rowan and I discussed the closing of Thrill City in March 2015. It wasn’t under bad circumstances. We were able to close the store on our own terms. We didn’t do a blowout sale. Everything was full price, which is indicative that things were okay financially with us.

KIH: What are you up to nowadays? Any new business ventures? What sparked your interest to enter the furniture business? How does this venture compare and contrast to Thrill City?

Ryan: My furniture partner David Baron started a cap company called “SEA” and both of us met while attending UNC. Baron’s SEA Brand company had a PR campaign w/Waka Flocka. Baron had this furniture idea that was easy to assemble and carry; something different that could be used in various places. The “Nugget” logo was made in January 2014. I am the creative voice behind the Nugget. We chose “Nugget” because of how it sounds. When you think of a nugget, it is a small thing; something compact, bite-size. The business is an alternative to a couch or futon. It isn’t hard edge. It’s bouncy and cool. Nugget is a term used to refer to a cute little kid. The “Nuggets” are geared towards a certain audience because of the bright colors. It’s completely different from Thrill City. Nugget will be exclusively online, direct to consumer. The couches will be vacuum-packed. Rooms To Go and WayFair have come aboard. Nugget will be available in some Rooms To Go locations in NC.

Ryan Cocca breeds success. Call him King Midas, because what he touches turns to gold. Best of luck to Ryan, Rohan Smith and David Baron in their future endeavors. If the success of Thrill City is any indicator, we will hear these names for many years. This is the perfect story of someone who has a dream and it comes true. What do these types of people do? They continue to dream because their hard work will pay off. Keep dreaming, guys!