To a Tee

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

While the short rise and quick fall of Macadamia could be looked at as a string of missed opportunities, child's whimsy or spendthrift creativity, Brown took his lessons and invested them full force into the concept of Soldierleisure in 1996. Soldierleisure quickly gained notice with Brown's trademarked "Fame" logo, featuring the "Soldierleisure" moniker printed upside down and backward over an upturned crown logo.

"I never thought of a definition for Soldierleisure, but it's come to be a lifestyle, kind of like living the life you want to live. The upside down crown is like I'm not trying to be king; I'm just doing what I want to do. There's a couple hearts involved in the crown; it means spread the love," Brown says.

The "Fame" graphic, now a staple on the malls of ASU, the bars of Tempe and the clubs of Scottsdale, is a constant reminder of Soldier's presence in the Valley. But local fame was never enough for Andy Brown.

Brown smiles in an abstract design.
Brown smiles in an abstract design.
Soldierleisure, on the fashion case.
Soldierleisure, on the fashion case.


Photograpy by Jackie Mercandetti

Three months after high school graduation, Brown teamed up with a group of Soldier junkies who'd been hanging around him since the Macadamia days and hit the road. Brown packed up his designs in the same milk crates that doubled as speaker shelves and nightstands, bundled stacks of tee shirts and sketches in shoeboxes, and crammed it all in the trunk of a paint-chipped maroon '92 Chevy Lumina.

Some fledgling designers move to New York. Others to Los Angeles. Andy Brown drove himself and his fledgling tee shirt business to Tempe, where he sold tee shirts out of his backpack, outside the doors of his classes at Arizona State University's College of Business. Idea rich and cash poor, Brown was initially cornered into distributing limited runs of his shirt designs.

Yet it was Brown's relative failure that wound up making him a success.

"See, it's effective monetarily to sell six shirts to a single group of people, but it's more effective in terms of longevity to sell one shirt to six independent groups. You can make more money on eight hands of craps instead of placing big money on one. It's like spreading a rumor," Brown says, asking, "What's the fastest way to spread that rumor? Tell one person or tell six different people?"

In essence, he just wanted to find people like himself, people "making movements" in their particular circles, whether they be jocks, skaters, hip-hoppers, fraternity boys, artists or people off the street, and he sold shirts to these people who, though in a group, moved separately from that group -- "rocking their own style," as Brown is fond of saying.

"I look at tee shirts as art. Anything's art, art's all over the place, and I just express myself through these tee shirts. I guess it's my statement and it's about wearing flip-flops when you want to wear flip-flops, it's about relaxing, it's about rocking your style (pausing), not rocking anyone else's," he says.

If you're not ready to "rock your own style," then you're probably not ready to rock a Soldierleisure tee shirt, according to the designer.

"I wouldn't exclude anybody from buying my clothes," he says. "I'd just make limited runs. It's a very indirect way of exclusion. If someone thinks it's cool, they can have it, but I don't want everyone who thinks it's cool to have it." And in that, Brown appeals to those who might have urged him to sell those first six tee shirts

to the same group and flood his market for their sake of "fitting in."

Despite the inundation of Soldier hype on campus at ASU, tee shirt proceeds hardly paid the bills, and Brown was forced to cut corners on a few of his amenities during college, such as vehicle security. So during his sophomore year, he befriended a crew of homeless people, including an older married couple who lingered around ASU. In return for safeguarding a 1970s Schwinn beach cruiser he'd painted black with green and yellow flames roaring down the frame, he'd throw his vagrant friends a dollar, a sandwich and a bottle of Boone's Farm if necessary.

At the outset, these exchanges were neighborly, fun, practical. But it didn't take long for Brown to figure out that he could employ these people to work for Soldier. Just as fast as he could draw up the signs, "Trashcan Advertising" was born.

At ASU, Soldier was a dorm room operation that only ran when Brown had some extra money to pull a new design off his computer and print it on fabric. It was only years later, in 2002, that Brown had enough cash to apply for a trademark.

It's hard to imagine how Brown kept his one-man operation from running into the ground, which nearly happened on a number of occasions for the simple reason that Brown could only afford to print as much as he sold.

But as the buzz in Phoenix began to grow around Brown's designs and the "trashcan ads" behind them, others besides Brown's friends were willing to spread the word for him. By 1998, he had his first shirts in four of Arizona's better-known urban clothiers. His first designs made it into the now-defunct hip-hop store Style Rock, followed by the also-defunct 522 Bad Luck, formerly on Mill Avenue. Later he placed designs in Sounds Fresh of Tucson, and most recently at Swell Records & Clothing on Mill.

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