by Zach Matthews
Many outdoor product companies have a great origin story. Patagonia and The North Face (and eventually Black Diamond and ESPRIT) famously had their corporate nascence in a single 1968 climbing expedition to Mount Fitz Roy, on the Chilean/Argentine border. There have even been a few successful attempts to found outdoor companies on the strength of a single logo or sticker design (think “Salt Life” or “Life is Good”). But there may never have been a company founded quite so accidentally as Howler Brothers, which has grown from niche supplier to a player in the outdoor apparel market in near-record time.
“It started with some sketches Chase [Heard] was working on for another clothing company,” explains Andy Stepanian, who co-founded Howler Brothers in 2011 with Heard and Mason Brent, and who also strums guitar for their country rock act, Wrinkle Neck Mules. “Chase is a really talented graphic artist and did quite a bit of painting and illustrating on the side during the height of our band years. He’s originally from Florida so a lot of his work and designs have this kind of coastal vibe. The company we were working with loved the designs but felt they were a little too coastal. He showed them to me and it sparked the idea for Howler Brothers.”
Stepanian, who also plays mandolin and sings, Heard—who shares vocal and guitar duties and also plays banjo—and Brent—who adds the pedal steel guitar to the repertoire—all met in the fourth grade. Friends for life, they attended college together at the University of Virginia, where they must have absorbed the business acumen that allows them to run a successful clothing company by day while continuing to tour and play music by night. With their bandmates Stuart Gunter (drums) and Brian Gregory (bass guitar), they have played venues across the country since 1999, releasing six studio albums so far. Despite the almost overnight success of their company, they remain adamant that the band is “very much a real thing,” and not going away any time soon.
The band’s musical mien is similar to the visual aesthetic of Howler Brothers. Howler’s clothing is famously eclectic, incorporating plaids, vintage ballcap designs, and intentionally retro embroidery and graphic art with modern “technical” breathable fabrics. Similarly, Wrinkle Neck Mules’ music is a mash-up of traditional country, bluegrass, vintage vinyl rock-and-roll and classic folk Americana. Clearly, the magpie quality of both ventures contributes greatly to their success. “Really we’re just having fun and trying to be authentic,” explains Brent (possibly the only executive in the country who can print business cards as a “CFO/pedal steel guitarist”). “Howler has grown quickly, which presents challenges, but we don’t feel like we’ve caught any kind of wave, because being fun and authentic isn’t a trend.”
The company is based in Austin, Texas, a town known for its famous unofficial slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.” While not per se bizarre, Howler Brothers certainly embraces Austin’s offbeat qualities. “I use a bit of everything for my graphic designs,” Heard explains. Starting with freehand drawings, Heard later digitizes his designs, although his art has also been displayed as drawn or painted in galleries and private collections. His favorite efforts so far? “I love the ‘Evolution’ graphic,” Heard admits, pointing to a woodblock etching of a howler monkey wearing a shark fin, strapped saddle-style across its back, “because it depicts a monkey who wishes he was a fish, and I think that’s something we can all relate to.” He also highlights the “Fish Shaka” concept (a human hand, made out of stylized fish, giving the classic thumb-and-pinkie-extended Hawaiian Hang Loose gesture). This graphic is characteristic of the fusion of surfing and fishing influences, which Heard attributes to his Florida upbringing.
Heard’s talents as a designer aren’t limited to graphic art. He is also a trained architect. “You know,” Stepanian says about his friend, “architecture and clothing design are a lot more alike than you’d think. We’re really lucky to have Chase’s skillset and that’s part of why we’re able to put so much into designing and executing each piece.”
Howler Brothers, of course, is not limited to fly-fishing. Surfing is a big part of what they do, too. When not on tour, they’ll try to catch a wave wherever they can. In fact, it was a surf trip to Costa Rica, where they heard howler monkeys in the jungle, that inspired their iconic corporate logo.
After being teased about stealing some of Howler Brother’s looks from 1960s pro golfers, Stepanian merely laughs: “I know what you’re talking about; that’s the Camper Hat,” he says. “We saw a lot of these hipster types wearing vintage clothing like that and thought, Yeah, that would work for us.” The signature piece, though—and the foundation of the Howler DNA—is the embroidered Southwestern “Gaucho Shirt.” “I had this shirt,” Stepanian explains, “with the pearl snap front and these great embroidered flowers across the shoulders. You see them in vintage shops in Texas a lot. I used to play music and fly-fish in it and we all loved the look, but it was this horrible 1970’s polyester thing. When it got wet, bad things would happen. We wanted to recreate that design but with a technical fabric that would be comfortable on and off the water.” Their embroidered offerings became so popular they started receiving unsolicited suggestions from the peanut gallery. “One guy asked us to embroider a shark on both shoulders, each with half of a human body in their mouths,” Stepanian recollects, laughing. “Honestly we ought to just create a custom Gaucho program. Then everyone can have their own thing, Bigfoot, E.T., whatever. Maybe we’ll do that one day.”
Of course, other fly-fishing apparel companies have drawn design influence from Western wear, too, and quite successfully. What separates them from Howler Brothers is that one step out onto the edge. “We’re looking for a balance,” Heard explains. “We want to be between the tweedy and the tattooed; classy, not so edgy it turns people off, but edgy enough that it makes a statement.”
The results speak for themselves. In less than five years a rock band’s merch table has expanded into a successful outdoor industry brand, bringing a little much-needed color and a lighthearted sense of fun to what can admittedly be a herd mentality. “We’ve seen that Bedouin look out on the flats, all covered up in loose-fitting technical fabric,” notes Stepanian. “It’s cool, too, but we just wanted to make something that achieves the same sun protection and comfort with some extra flair.” Clearly, by voting with their wallets, fly fishers like an option, and their message is clear: Rock on!