Shirts and Stones brings bling to Lakewood Ranch Main Street

jbartolone@bradenton.comDecember 6, 2013 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Matt Vassallo knows about bling.

He and his wife, Laureen, former physical fitness teachers at Lakewood Ranch High School, started spicing up shirts with flashy rhinestones and selling them online out of their spare bedroom back in 2008.

Their side business, and the interest in how they made their creations, eventually grew so big they needed a 4,000-square-foot warehouse on Lena Road to headquarter The Rhinestone World, their online distributor selling rhinestones, supplies and starter kits and offering instructional videos to more than 6,000 clients worldwide.

With business booming, the Vassallos had cut back on making custom shirts and other blinged-out products for locals to focus on the distribution side. But now they think the time is right to bring their bling to Lakewood Ranch Main Street and are opening a storefront there, Shirts and Stones, in Suite 102.

"It can open us up to an entire new clientele, the ones that may not be into Facebook or online," Vassallo, 39, said Thursday as he and his staff feverishly completed the finishing touches at the store. Among them: a "wall of bling" at the back of the 1,300-square-foot shop, featuring more than a million rhinestones.

Customers will be able to choose from about 3,500 designs loaded into a computer, then pick from dozens of colored rhinestones and have them adorn men's or women's shirts, handbags, car decals or just about anything else. There's even

a Keurig coffee machine on display that's been tricked out with silver rhinestones.

This isn't your mom's Bedazzler from the 1970s, either. Two CAMS machines, roughly the size of washing machines, located right there in the store can do the rhinestone setting in just a minute or two while you wait.

"We want it to feel like they're basically building their own custom shirt they can't get anywhere else," Vassallo said.

Shirts and Stones is licensed to use the logos of Florida's major universities -- Florida, Florida State, Miami, USF and UCF -- and makes sparkly Gators handbags and Bulls shirts.

Other big sellers are items featuring the logos of the area's high schools. The Vassallos have filled orders for shirts at Lakewood Ranch, Manatee, Braden River, Southeast, Out-of-Door Academy and Saint Stephen's for school fundraisers. They've also worked with Braden River Elementary and Willis Elementary to create shirts that would fit those school's uniform policies for students on dress-down Fridays. The Vassallos plan to give a portion of the proceeds from every school logo item they sell back to that school.

"Obviously being teachers, we know how hard it is to raise money," Vassallo said.

The family has more ties to the local teaching community -- Matt's mom, Barb Maechtle, is a retired teacher from Sarasota who now works part time at the warehouse, and his stepdad is Paul Maechtle, the legendary Southeast High football coach who recently announced his retirement. Just don't expect to see Coach Maechtle slinging shirts at the store anytime soon.

"I think he's gonna be doing his golf thing," Vassallo said.

Laureen's two brothers are also among the 19 employees hired at The Rhinestone World warehouse as the business has expanded in the past few years.

"It just kept growing and growing and we were getting so much walk-in business that we couldn't accommodate," said Dan Ferber, director of operations and Matt's brother-in law. "We decided it was time to branch out."

Shirts and Stones should be open by the end of the year, Matt Vassallo said. The storefront will also be open during tonight's Music on Main at Lakewood Ranch with limited products for sale so visitors can stop by.

The opening leaves only two vacancies on Main Street, said Julia DeCastro, director of leasing and sales.

"It's kind of neat to be able to walk in and have something custom made right there that night," DeCastro said.

Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.

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