When Nick Bernardo and Garrett Bernardo returned to the University of Maine campus in August 2012, they didn’t arrive emptyhanded.
The brothers, baseball standouts from Glenmont, New York, had spent the summer playing in the Jersey Shore League where they sublet an apartment from a friend, Scott Klimchak.
The friends decided to try selling some shirts to their college friends. They included as a trademark the word NOVUS and a picture of a crown. Novus is the Latin word for “new.”
“We started out with 12 crewnecks [sweatshirts] and 12 tank tops,” Garrett Bernardo said. “They were only two colors, but we went around our locker room and just asked our teammates, ‘which color do you want?’”
Those were humble beginnings in business for two sons of former Black Bears baseball All-American Rick Bernardo and Brewer native Mary Jo Murphy.
On Tuesday, the NOVUS Clothing Company based in Albany, New York, founded by the Bernardo brothers and Klimchak, achieved a milestone. It launched its “Butker” clothing line, a selection of custom-made casual apparel created for place-kicker Harrison Butker of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
“I’m their first NFL player that they’ve partnered with and I know they’re going to hit it off with a lot more,” Butker said, “because I don’t know of any other clothing line that is doing stuff of this quality for this price where I can completely customize whatever I like.”
Butker’s football aspirations and the Bernardos’ dreams of taking their clothing line to new heights proved a great match.
“We want to do this at the highest level, being a national brand outfitting sports teams, organizations and athletes across the country,” Garrett said.
“The kind of special dynamic is that we’re in it for the opportunity to make an impact with our platform.”
Claim your crown
Whether on the baseball field, in business or in life, the Bernardos have leaned heavily on their Catholic faith. Nick, 28, and Garrett, 27, shared a bedroom growing up and drew strength from a poster hanging on their door that featured a Bible passage from 1 James, chapter 12.
It reads (from the Revised Standard Version), “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.”
From that passage emerged NOVUS’ motto: Claim Your Crown.
“It’s something anybody can relate to,” Garrett said. “Everybody has their own trials in times of adversity, but we wanted to build a brand that was based on living your passions with conviction.”
At first, selling clothing was a hobby. Their products were basic shirts with a screen printed NOVUS logo.
Their hope was simply to build relationships with like-minded people, including fellow students, athletes and parishioners at the Newman Center, where UMaine’s Catholic community gathers to worship.
It was through the church that the men made the next important connection. Late in 2012, with the help of Rev. Bill Labbe and campus minister Kris Moody, the Newman Center community paid for the brothers to attend a conference of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) in Orlando, Florida.
“It introduced us to this organization that really ultimately has had a huge impact on our lives,” Nick said. “We’ve had tremendous opportunities from this organization.”
FOCUS would later become an important client, in addition to an organization through which the Bernardos could enrich their faith.
Building a business
The brothers completed their respective college educations at Anderson University in South Carolina. Nick graduated from UMaine in 2014 with a business degree, then pursued a master’s at Anderson, where Garrett had transferred to continue his baseball career and business studies.
The brothers began thinking about how they might expand the company, formalizing the NOVUS branding and the “Claim Your Crown” concept. Despite having no training in art or fashion design, Garrett had been sketching his own vision for the clothing in his notebook.
“All the products that you see in our shop started in the notebook,” he said.
Interest in their clothes grew among friends and teammates at Anderson and through connections at FOCUS, so Garrett and Nick started researching clothing materials and manufacturers with the aim of boosting production.
“By 2017, we kind of came to the realization that we could build our own products,” Nick Bernardo said.
“We focused more on who we were as a company and being able to offer our own unique performance shirts and joggers and uniforms.”
Although their dreams of playing professional baseball didn’t pan out, they realized they might be able to stay in the game by providing uniforms and clothing to teams.
NOVUS, which had done some shirts for a New Jersey soccer camp, also tried out their products with the baseball travel team of their younger brother Cade. But the larger market began to open up after Garrett worked for two years as a FOCUS campus missionary at Seton Hall University.
Garrett pitched his clothing line to organizers of Varsity Catholic, the student-athlete division of FOCUS. They began producing shirts for the group and later hooked up with FOCUS to outfit representatives from 30-40 college campuses with apparel for the annual conferences.
“It was the people who made it so comfortable and natural for me, really encouraged me to pursue this dream,” Garrett said of the increased interest.
The relationships, both personal and professional, continued to grow. Friend David Hill is a minor league baseball player in the Colorado Rockies organization and a former FOCUS member. Last February, he was sporting a NOVUS hooded sweatshirt during spring training and it caught the eye of a team executive.
A few weeks later, the Rockies placed an order of NOVUS hoodies for the players and staff.
“That was definitely a moment for Nick and I to reflect on how the relationships over the years have been pushing us to keep the NOVUS dream alive,” Garrett said.
As the orders have increased and the company has grown, NOVUS has continued to stress quality materials and workmanship in producing their custom-made clothing. Those factors, and the company leaders’ focus on faith, weren’t lost on Butker.
Proceeds from his clothing line will directly benefit the Butker Family Foundation in Kansas City. The specially designed products are available for a limited time and will be made to order.
The Bernardos hope to continue building momentum with NOVUS but won’t forget all the people who have helped them along the way.
“It’s incredible,” Garrett said. “This is beyond anything we could have scripted.”