To a Tee

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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.

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Michael Slenske
Contact: Michael Slenske