For students searching for vintage Penn State clothing to wear on game day or around campus, Joe Pa’s Closet has become the go-to source.
Zac Cowell started the Instagram account that has now sold over 1,000 pieces of vintage Penn State clothing and has caught the attention of thousands of Penn Staters.
Zac is a senior at Penn State majoring in environmental resource management with a minor in watersheds and water resources.
He grew up outside of Pittsburgh with his family, who were a big influence on his decision to call Penn State home after high school.
“My family has always really liked Penn State. I went a few times with my friends when I was in high school and I had a great time at the football games,” Zac says.
Zac’s journey with Joe Pa’s Closet actually began back in high school. Clothes have always been a big part of his life. Even though he says it drained his bank account, he wore designer brands — like Supreme — throughout high school.
“My first ever piece of clothing that I really liked were Jeremy Scott Adidas shoes,” Zac says. “They had big wings on the back. I bought them for freshman year and I was obsessed with them.”
His junior year of high school he started going to thrift stores with his friends.
“I remember finding a Patagonia that I thought was really cool and it was three dollars and I thought, wow this is cool, like I can find expensive brands for really cheap,” Zac says.
After showing his parents his thrift store finds, his dad, also a big collector, suggested he sell things on eBay — so he did. With his love for fashion and experience selling online, his first semester at Penn State is what really sparked the idea for Joe Pa’s Closet.
“When I came to Penn State I became obsessed with Penn State clothing,” Zac says.
He would make trips to the State College Goodwill store once week every week to collect Penn State clothing. It got to the point where he had so much Penn State clothing in his room that he didn’t know what to do with all of it! When he wasn’t getting the sales he was hoping for on eBay, he decided to turn to Instagram.
“It would be frustrating to me because I knew whenever I went to the football games and parties and stuff, everyone would be complimenting me and people would ask to buy it from me right off my back,” Zac says. “I was so close so I knew that there was some possible way for me to do it.”
He had always been interested in Instagram accounts that had become successful with specific themes, so he thought he would give it a try it for Penn State clothing.
So with that, about a year and a half ago, Joe Pa’s Closet was born.
“At first I didn’t think that many people were too into it, but I’m really happy that it picked up now because I didn’t know that many people at Penn State were into vintage clothes like I am,” Zac says.
Growing the account and getting people to recognize Joe Pa’s Closet took some time, but Zac was up for the challenge. He started by just following as many Penn State students as he could. After that, he started running a few giveaways on his account. The first giveaway he ran wasn’t very successful, but his second giveaway helped him gain around 2000 followers. When Joe Pa’s Closet caught the attention of Penn State Barstool, the account really took off.
“That got the ball rolling and then after that Barstool reached out to me and asked if I wanted to do some giveaways on their page,” Zac says.”Once I got that, things started really picking up because there’s no better audience than Penn State Barstool.”
Collecting all of the inventory that Zac sells on his account takes a lot of time. He started out by thrifting everything by himself, but now he has people who help him thrift — going to garage sales, flea markets and sourcing items online.
“Practically any way you can think of getting inventory, I’ve done. I just want to bring the coolest and most unique items to my page, and I think I do a pretty good job of that,” Zac says.
Aside from selling inventory on the Joe Pa’s Closet Instagram account, Zac has hosted four pop-up sales in downtown State College. He had three at Doggie’s Pub and one at 3 Dots Downtown.
All four of his pop-ups were extremely successful.
“I knew I had a bunch of inventory that I could sell. I was never really planning on having a pop-up, but since my account got popular I thought like, what the heck, let’s try to do this,” Zac says.
At one of his pop-ups at Doggie’s, there was a whole line of people eager to buy his clothing wrapping around the block.
“The fact that people would show up and buy stuff is actually so awesome to me. A ton of people would come up to me and it’s cool to put a face to the name,” Zac says. “When I was a freshman I didn’t know anybody was interested in vintage clothes, but it’s so cool to have people to talk to that are interested in the same thing that you’re interested in.”
Today, almost anyone you ask on campus knows Joe Pa’s Closet. The catchy name for the account took some thinking on Zac’s part. He wanted the name to include something that everyone would associate with Penn State, and to show people that he’s selling vintage clothing.
“Most of the people that go to Penn State now weren’t here when Joe Paterno was the football coach, so they immediately think old, and then ‘closet’ is kind of a tribute to clothes in general, so it was kind of the perfect name for it,” Zac says.
On having his own business, Zac says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I didn’t really plan on it happening like this but I love it. I’m obsessed with it,” Zac says.
This summer, Zac will be participating in the Summer Founders Program with Happy Valley Launchbox to work on turning Joe Pa’s closet into something more.
“I’m going to get a job with my major, but for the time being, this summer I’ll just focus on this and see where things go” Zac says. “I feel like things are meant to be and when I got the opportunity to do this it was just a sign that I should give it a shot.”
Throughout his experience with Joe Pa’s Closet, Zac’s family has been his biggest influence. His dad taught him how to run a business — how to be an entrepreneur, how to get inventory and how to sell things — but his whole family has always believed in him.
“I think my whole family in general is very supportive of me. I think that if i had different people in my life that it wouldn’t have gone the same way it did,” Zac says.
His girlfriend has also been there to encourage him along the way. Last summer she let him store piles of inventory that he bought at her house.
“My girlfriend has always been super supportive of me. If she had been like, ‘this is weird, you know,’ it would’ve been different,” Zac says. “Even if it was just one person in the equation that was like, ‘maybe you should think about this a little bit more,’ then it would’ve been totally different.”
During his time at Penn State, starting Joe Pa’s Closet has taught Zac the importance of following your passion and setting goals for yourself.
“Whatever your passion is, if you really try as hard as you can you can make it into something really great,” Zac says. “I had the idea and I think by setting ambitious goals for myself I really made something incredible out of something that started as nothing.”
Zac wants other Penn State students to know that they also have the power to turn their passions into something great, just like he did.
“To have this many followers on my account and to have this many people into it is such a blessing,” Zac says. “If someone else puts that much effort into something they’re interested in, they can do something great too.”