To a Tee
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.
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.
So as a freshman at North Canyon High School, he made himself mobile -- and within the course of a typical weekend Brown could be spotted playing sand volleyball Friday afternoon, out at a football game that night, and at a skateboarding contest after that. A normal Saturday would include a morning of snowboarding in Flagstaff, an early punk rock show in Tempe, and, later that night, a b-boy competition in downtown Phoenix. Designs and homework were reserved for Sunday evenings, following an afternoon trip to an art gallery. As he puts it, Brown was always "making movements, not absorbing energy."
Even before Andy Brown could drive, he decided to become a tee shirt designer. He says he was initially inspired by the clothing styles worn by Phoenix's own Turtle skate crew, one of the Valley's pioneering skateboarding crews. With encouragement from his best friend, Brad Pringle, who had an idea for a tee shirt label called Macadamia, Brown took a white Hanes undershirt and drew a big green "M" on the front with a Sharpie marker. He employed the same bubble letter style he'd hawked to his grammar school friends for milk money. The color of the "M" faded dramatically (from dark green at the edges to bright yellow in the center) and Brown wore the design to school the next day. His friends loved it.
At the behest of Pringle, Brown drew another shirt with a picture of a burnt-out matchstick on the front. Brown wore this one to school as well, garnering even more attention. One request turned into two, and before they knew it, Andy and Brad's designs were showing up on kids' shirts throughout north Phoenix. It didn't take the teenagers long to hire JMS Enterprises to silk-screen the designs on tee shirts, and by the ripe old age of 15, Andy Brown and Brad Pringle had their first tee shirt company, selling each shirt for $15 apiece.
"Brad and I were never like, Let's make millions.' We just knew we had great designs and we had great ideas; why not put them out there? And if I'm making money doing what I love to do, awesome, and if not I've got plenty of other skills," Brown says.
Soon after the initial tee shirt craze, Brad and Andy both got girlfriends and Macadamia fizzled. Today, Brad Pringle is the fleet manager for Right Toyota in north Scottsdale.
But Andy Brown was only getting started in the tee business.
It's no surprise that Andy Brown's design roots come from the streets, since he's really a graffiti artist at heart.
During the early '80s, New York City's hardscape experienced the revival of graffiti art with the advent of a vagrant man known only by his tag name, SAMO (short for Same Old Shit). Regarded for the harsh beauty and unparalleled frequency of SAMO's rough slang poetry and vagrant code-symbols, Manhattan soon became his playground, his canvas.
The world would soon after come to know SAMO as the urban art legend Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat rose to international superstardom after hawking his self-proclaimed "ignorant art" to the likes of Andy Warhol on the streets and in the restaurants of New York City. His paintings are now printed on tee shirts that are sold at Urban Outfitters, in the same spaces Andy Brown's tee shirts have occupied.
At the age of 15, Brown, much like Basquiat before him, became a notable presence in his own local underground hip-hop and graffiti worlds, seeking refuge in the dark landscapes of downtown Phoenix.
While most of his high school contemporaries were going to boondocker parties in the desert, Brown was busy perfecting his skills in the city. But Andy Brown, still a great distance from the whirlwind of superstardom, has managed to avoid the hard living that truncated Basquiat's brilliant career. Brown is inspired instead by the hip-hop music he grew up on, the speed of business, and a flair for providing relaxed atmospheres through his urban fashion sense and dry humor.
For fear of offending anyone, Brown kept his graffiti from walls, houses and buildings, relegating it to the concrete supporting the north Phoenix canal banks and irrigation ditches, where only other graffiti artists might see it. As a result, Brown's success in Phoenix hails not from his notoriety as a tagger (a label he brusquely rejects) but from his affable personality, which has afforded him a rather large and eclectic circle of friends, including Joseph Oursland, a painter whose work has appeared at the Icehouse and monOrchid Studios; Michael Pringle, a skateboarder and chef; Ryan Ingraham, a dancer with the Furious Styles crew; Justin Porter, a former graffiti artist who now works as a painter and furniture designer; and his best friend, Brad Pringle.
"We had friends who were graffiti artists, friends who were preppies, jocks, skaters, and some were trying not to be sellouts, staying in the underground punk scene, which was way underground at the time," Pringle adds. "It's just funny how some people stayed ahead of it and some people ended up following it. What's interesting about Andy is that he could stay ahead of it on many different levels, but at the same time get people to follow him."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now Andy Brown is poised to make a choice between settling as a hometown hero or striving toward international success. If he stays small, he might be surrounded by a good number of Soldier fans and friends but remain riddled by "What if?" scenarios. If he continues onward, he'll be faced with challenges as he attempts to grow his brand through image building, drawing overhead, and pulling in investors, all without saturating his market.
"It's one thing to be a graffiti artist, but it's another thing to be a businessman and a designer, and there's a lot of things to learn in between," says Frank Sinatra, co-founder of the industry standard, Stussy International, which grew popular during the '80s for its Stussy "Eightball" shirts that could be seen around the globe on the boards of world champion surfers to the backs of world-renowned movie stars.
Brown believes he's well aware of the difference.
"I'm not trying to be Stussy because you can't," he claims. "I'm going to have to give over control of Soldier if I want to get to that next level. Eventually, I'll have my own life away from Soldier. But my time spent being cool in the small pond is done."
Still working his day job, pushing beverage in Phoenix, Brown now puts about 15 to 25 hours a week into Soldier. As the phone keeps ringing, Brown keeps clocking. He's also got an impressive sponsorship list, which includes the internationally renowned break-dancing crew Furious Styles; skateboarder Michael Pringle; and East Coast surfers Tom Gore, Chris Scully and Redeye.
He's moved into the women's market, with tee shirts and underwear, and this winter plans to expand into terry-cloth jumpers. Passage, a boutique recently opened in central Phoenix that features the work of local designers, now has a big rack of Soldierleisure goods for men and women.
Though Brown talks about moving to San Diego, L.A., Las Vegas or even as far away as Vancouver, he so far has stuck true to the notion that Soldierleisure will remain a Phoenix-based label. Having traded in the Lumina for a new Nissan Maxima -- which he keeps packed full with sketches, demo shirts and hats like George Costanza's wallet on Seinfeld -- Brown drove to his second pool show this August, where he sold another thousand shirts to Japan's United Arrows and picked up new accounts with Yellow Rat Bastard of New York City, L.A.'s American Rag, and Moda Express of Seattle.
The August issue of Stuff magazine featured one of Brown's trucker-style mesh hats, and now he's got orders from all over the world. He's also received new interest from trendy boutiques like Vintage Nine in Modesto, Sway of Berkeley and Dusty in Hong Kong, so it's obvious that the Valley's own Soldierleisure is on the rise.
"I thought it was a passing interest at first, but seeing the last couple years I think he will keep at it long term," Brown's father says. "I always hoped Andy would find a way to integrate his artistic abilities with a career. Hopefully, Soldierleisure will do that."
Brown says he wants to share the wealth -- if he ever gets any.
"I'm never gonna take all this money so I can get diamond earrings. It will never be to the point where I'm trying to sell one more tee shirt to get curb feelers on my car or a gold-plated toothbrush. That's not the kind of life that I want to live. But I want a pool on my roof where the whole neighborhood's invited." How Andy Brown took his tee
shirts from the halls of North Canyon High to the racks at Urban Outfitters
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.