Lee Johnson is what you might call a maverick. An architect turned apparel entrepreneur, the founder and owner of Manhattan Beach-based clothing company Old Bull Lee, he was born and raised on the East Coast in a quiet spot where he relates that “most of your friends are trees.” He’s now something of a SoCal icon, or at least his clothing is. And if you talk to Johnson, you won’t find that to be much of a surprise.
“The idea of most things is made up of the process plus outcome. Architecture and apparel are similar in that they both are creatively-based thus they share the artistic struggle of that lonely tumble through infinity while we are searching for answers amongst all the darkness,” Lee Johnson
Old Bull Lee officially began on a small scale in 2011. Johnson creates shorts, shirts, and board shorts with a cool beach-centric vibe; relaxed, wearable clothes that are also stylish enough to wear in the city.
“The only thing that architecture and clothing share in common is that to get something made well, you have to know what you are doing. That is one of the things about me, I have a lot in common with an acorn. My nature is to put my head down and grind it out till I’ve gotten to where I want to go.”Lee Johnson
According to Johnson,
“Architecture is heavy on function, response, reason, symbolism. Some might say you are articulating society’s values at that particular time; and because of the endurance of buildings, the vocabulary of these things determines the shape of perception in what is going to become a sociological scrapbook. That is a very high calling. With fashion, the largest business in the world, you find expression, identification, tradition, emotion, and it also is a collective mirror of sorts to society, but fashion expresses society’s moods more than its values. It is more granular, it is first person. We all get dressed, what we wear separates us into groups. There is a wordless message in the way that we dress,”Lee Johnson
Johnson is something of a philosopher as well as a fashion designer these days,
“I think most of us see ourselves as individual thinkers – we want to express ourselves, but also by the nature of being human, we also all need somewhere to belong. Big clothing brands used to hand down style from a higher place. Their business model was a yearly, ‘here is what you want.’ But social media changed all that. It connected and gave powerful voice to individuals, and this shifted the paradigm. The collective mass started to determine what was worthy,”Lee Johnson
Johnson notes that one of the simpler realities and bigger differences that separate architecture and fashion is production. “How many are you making? Making one thing well is usually a lot easier than making many things well,” he asserts.
“Every day I talk with our customers. They are straightforward people, and their happiness is important to me. They are not numbers, they are not dollar signs. I am honestly proud when they choose our product. They are expecting something and they are willing to pay for it. I love the simplicity of that,” he attests. “I am happy to spend the time to make them happy. And honestly, I am more interested in them being happy when they wear our stuff than a big pile of lonely money.”Lee Johnson
With that in mind, both the cool style and the quality of Johnson’s Old Bull Lee clothing are vitally important to him and his company.
Some patterned street short designs are printed in France by a 150-year-old company that uses Persian WAT roller printing to provide a soft and layered depth and great color performance. The material is lightweight, with a tight weave and substantial feel. Solid color shorts may utilize superior Japanese-made Duck-weight cotton, with vivid color that’s over-dyed to last long. Board shorts feature a similarly meticulous way, some in rich tapestry florals, some in an undersea look, some using work from internationally renowned artist Eduardo Recife.
“We even put quality in places that no one will ever find out about. For instance, we just short-fused all the waistbands and then I realized that they still didn’t have the adequate substance that I like the waistbands to have. They were fine, we could have righteously sold them. But I do think ‘quality beyond reproach’ is gonna put you in lots of places where there is an easy road and a hard road. We went back and we double-fused those waistbands, it cost us three days and cost us a bunch of money, but we upheld a deeper truth about the quality of our product.”Lee Johnson
The bottom line is that for Johnson, it’s all about quality – of design, fabric, color, and of an almost spiritual nature. He’s a maverick. And we could use more like him.