To a Tee

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

But that still wasn't enough to pay the rent.


Facing debt and trouble getting Soldier off the ground beyond Arizona, Brown packed up shop and headed home from Tempe in the summer of 2002, a year from the day he walked out of Wells Fargo Arena with a degree in marketing from ASU. Jobless, Brown was forced to get in line with corporate America. He took a gig with a local beverage company as a sales rep pushing beer and soda.

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.

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Photograpy by Jackie Mercandetti

He'd retreated for a brief hiatus, but Soldierleisure was not dead, and in fact, Andy Brown's absence from the Arizona nightlife circuit created quite a stir of its own. Remember, people want what they can't have. So during his time off from printing tee shirts, Brown started saving money, sketching designs, planning to break down a few of those walls he would build steps over with his unique designs.

"I mean, you can go out every night and party for that night or you can invest for the future. I was investing for the future and partying on some nights. I was trying to find that compromise," he says.

Brown found that compromise in the late-night corners of Mickey's Hangover and the First Friday scene, where he could be spotted mingling with gallery owners, artists and revelers, shouting out "What's up, doggie?" greetings, exchanging in witty repartees he'd inevitably interrupt with his occasional "How 'bout it, broheim?" lingo.

Brown wanted to throw a party to celebrate the seventh year of Soldierleisure for those who'd supported him over the years. Wayne Rainey, who operates monOrchid Studios, offered to let him use the monOrchid space for a show. Brown agreed and contacted Russell Ramirez from Swell while Rainey brought in Mickey's Hangover to provide drinks.

That night last December, the crowd strolled through the corrugated steel doors and moved to the catwalk cadence beside paintings from Brown's friend Joseph Oursland. Scenesters sashayed across the floor sipping cups of jungle juice as huddles of parents, friends, artists and entrepreneurs bobbed their heads beside ravaged cases of Coors Light.

There in the crowd stood Brown's father, Marc, and his stepmother, Norma. Dr. Brown wore the first Macadamia tee shirt Andy had ever printed. It was a simple design with a flower in the shape of a star holding two other flowers in the shape of stars with a bubbly "M" on the bottom. Dr. Brown recalls that he insisted on paying his son $15 just like the rest of Andy's customers.

"I liked the shirt, I wanted to have him learn to profit from his work, and I knew he was low on money. Besides, I like the guy," Dr. Brown says, laughing.

Andy remembers his father telling him during some of Soldier's tougher times, "Why would you want things handed to you, when working for them is the best part?"

Taking this paternal maxim to heart a few weeks after the monOrchid show, Brown walked into Federal Express, sent off some line sheets to Hollywood, and waited for a response. In January that response came back positive. Andy was invited to showcase his designs at the annual POOL trade show in Las Vegas. The POOL show -- a marquee event for the best and the brightest of the urban fashion world -- allowed Andy Brown, for the first time, to set up shop next to the likes of the revered Stussy International, Adidas, and many other well-known indie labels such as Lemon Twist and Harteau.

Having driven to Vegas on a Sunday with money he'd borrowed from a friend for his hotel room and just $35 to last him four days, Andy packed 20 shirt designs in his trusty old Lumina and checked into a hotel room just four hours before the show started. Midweek he was even forced to switch lodging to the Motel 6, relegated to eating Snickers bars for dinner, but by Wednesday afternoon Andy had an order placed with Japan's United Arrows, the Asian equivalent of Urban Outfitters, for 900 tee shirts.

This past March, Brown's personality-rich designs struck him another deal. After six months of lobbying on Brown's part, Urban Outfitters agreed to carry three of his tee shirts. Then just one month after placing three shirt designs nationwide in Urban Outfitters, Andy Brown received some startling news. In early April, Andy's Bicycle 83' tee shirt reached the best-seller list on Urbanoutfitters.com, which has since placed four re-orders for that same shirt.

While the bubbly designs of Macadamia could be seen as simple and juvenile in their artistry, the Bicycle 83' shirt expresses the progression of Brown's hipster-like commentary as well as the elevation of his graffiti and graphic design skills. In the design, the "Soldierleisure" graphic fades backward in a dizzying reversal while the simple line drawing of a seemingly tranquil cyclist donning the Soldierleisure crown hovers above.

The satire of the shirt comes into play in Brown's text, which reads in small cursive letters "Relaxfantastics Race." Then there is the big "83" in the middle of the shirt. At first glance, people might confuse the placement of the apostrophe in relation to the "83" thinking that it stands in reference to a year, but really, the apostrophe is behind the numerals as it should be, expressing that the "Relaxfantastics Race," in which this relaxed cyclist is racing, spans the paltry distance of 83 feet.

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