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The Self-Made Man: Orv Madden

I haven’t been inside a Hot Topic in years, but that store was central to my high school experience. Hot Topic shoppers were disregarded as fad-chasing dorks who weren’t really into underground music, which is hard to imagine today when the stores are 90% anime and Insane Clown Posse merchandise. Still, now that I’m older and less of an idiot, I can understand what Hot Topic was trying to do.

orvtopic3I can also see how the chain’s founder, Orv Madden, fits into TSB’s idea of what a Self Made Man is, which is why he’s this week’s subject.

Orv was born and raised in Alton, Iowa, and got his MBA from the University of Chicago, eventually landing a job as a high-level executive at Children’s Place, which doesn’t sound like the pedigree of the guy who founded Hot Topic. Hell, you’d think a store like Hot Topic wouldn’t be founded by someone with a pedigree at all, or that he’d be named Orv. The world is a strange place sometimes.

Anyway, a career path in retail gave Orv a pretty good idea for how that industry works, and at the same time, MTV was blowing up and exposing modern youth culture to a wide and impressionable audience. Orv, who apparently liked the stuff playing on 1980s MTV, saw the potential for a national chain that sold music-influenced clothing and accessories, and so Hot Topic was launched in 1989, opening its first store in Montclair, CA.

Before then, if you wanted a cool band’s t-shirt you had to attend a live performance or go to a hip record store or head shop that sold them. This was possible if you lived in an urban area, but everyone out in the suburbs was kind of screwed (remember, there was no Internet to help them find this stuff). That was the demographic Orv was trying to attract with Hot Topic, and it worked.

Orv is an exceptionally driven man, and poured his life savings into that first store. From there, he relentlessly scaled Hot Topic to a national level, opening storefronts ornamented with low, gothic lighting in otherwise upscale malls. Each store’s look—which combined the aesthetics of music videos, nightclubs, and neon-lit teenage hangouts—was tailored to delight kids, especially teenagers, and shock parents without completely repelling them.

Orv was walking a very thin line, and maybe he shouldn’t have succeeded, but he did. Hot Topic broke even in its first year, and Orv raised over over $11 million dollars in capital to expand Hot Topic stores all over the country. The chain’s inventory was almost constantly in flux due to the fickle tastes of his primary clientele, but Orv was somehow able to keep up with it, and by 1997 every teenage boy who wasn’t totally lame owned at least one pair of huge bondage pants and one shirt with skulls all over it.

Hot Topic was sold to Sycamore Partners last year, and it doesn’t have the same amount of social capital that it did 20 years ago, but it’s still around, both in malls and online. Orv Madden basically clothed an entire decade’s worth of rebellious teens, and for that he should be saluted.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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