To a Tee

How Andy Brown took his tee shirts from the halls of NorthCanyon High to the racks at Urban Outfitters

Say you want to break into the urban clothing market. It probably won't occur to you to slap stickers on garbage cans, call it "Trashcan Advertising" and invent your very own marketing campaign. But that's exactly how a 25-year-old from north Phoenix has taken his clothing label, Soldierleisure, from the halls of North Canyon High School to the racks of Urban Outfitters and the pages of Stuff magazine.

Andy Brown invented trashcan advertising when he was a sophomore at Arizona State University. First, he made some logo stickers from hand-drawn designs that a guy he met at a swap meet cut onto sheets of sticky vinyl. He plastered those on garbage cans all over metropolitan Phoenix. Then he went to the Kinko's at Rural and University in Tempe and bought some big pieces of poster board, wrote www.soldierleisure.com on them, and Scotch-taped the posters to the 10-speeds of a well-known homeless couple who hung out on Mill Avenue. Brown gave his advertisers a couple of bottles of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill wine and some Mexican food from Macayo's for their efforts and waited for business.

And business came. In fact, this method has worked out quite well for Soldierleisure, Brown's fashion label, especially if you're measuring success by Phoenix standards, a city that had no urban fashion scene five years ago. Last spring Brown's work was showcased at a fashion show at monOrchid in downtown Phoenix, which solidified his spot as one of the top dogs of the local urban fashion scene.

Even with his success in the tee shirt business, Andy Brown takes a relaxed approach.
Even with his success in the tee shirt business, Andy Brown takes a relaxed approach.
Top, Brown strikes a pose behind a model wearing a variation on his signature, Soldierleisure. Bottom, models show off Brown's styles for both sexes.
Top, Brown strikes a pose behind a model wearing a variation on his signature, Soldierleisure. Bottom, models show off Brown's styles for both sexes.

Russell Ramirez, who owns Swell Records & Clothing on Mill Avenue in Tempe, once commissioned Brown to design tee shirts for his store.

"He's got kind of a '60s, '70s rock star kind of style," Ramirez says. "He's a great artist. There is no one like him; literally daily he could put out something new, and it sells, it all sells. His stuff sells as well as any other lines I carry, lines that have millions of dollars behind them, just like Diesel or anyone else."

But Andy Brown no longer marks his success with a Phoenix measuring tape.

"I'm not getting stars in my eyes to be the tee shirt king of Phoenix. It's cool, but that's not what I want," Brown says, chuckling, as he sips a Corona atop Lookout Mountain on a breezy May evening, not too far from his childhood home in the quiet north Phoenix neighborhood of Moon Valley.

Andy Brown may very well be on his way to becoming the tee shirt king of the world. In a short period of time, Brown's turf has spread beyond the desert -- all the way to Japan and off into cyberspace.

"I think he's doing so well in Phoenix because he's such an amazing person, and people want to be a part of that," says Emily Blanche, branch manager at the venerable Los Angeles-based American Rag boutique. "And I think that will spread from person to person and from city to city. About once a week, at least, I see someone wearing one of his shirts, in and out of the store."


To hear him describe it, Andy Brown had a pretty average childhood as a doctor's son, born in Iowa and raised in Arizona. But one thing set him apart. While his classmates excelled at sports, Brown -- with the exception of a brush with tae kwon do in high school -- stuck to the pen. From the sixth grade on, Brown was getting paid in milk money to draw pictures for his buddies. For two dollars in quarters, he'd scribble his own original cartoon characters on the back of homework assignments during English class or write the names of his classmates in bubble letters on their folders. While this penchant for drawing might have taken him away from his grammar lessons, Andy Brown was working toward something much bigger, even if he didn't realize it at the time.

Fast-forward almost two decades. In a small room in a rented home he shares with a friend, Brown sits on a half-made bed going through pictures from one of four Nike boxes stacked on a bookshelf housing worn copies of Reefer Madness, Nickel and Dimed, Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby and Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. Clean, unfolded laundry is strewn across the coverlet. A sunburned miniature palm tree sits on the desk, big wooden subwoofers are balanced on milk crates filled with stacks of The Economist; the magazine covers are scribbled with phone numbers of clothing buyers. From the Nike box, Brown pulls snapshots of his childhood bedroom. The old room is practically identical to this one, excluding the polychromatic bundles of limited-edition Soldier tee shirts he now reserves for close friends and loyalists of his label.

For Brown, fashion success was not silver-plattered by trust-funding parents or instructed by the faculty at Wharton, the Rhode Island School of Design or Harvard. As the second in line of four siblings who all moved in different crowds with separate interests, Brown honed his business acumen and artistic eye out on the streets of Phoenix.

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