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Meet Lee Johnson of Old Bull Lee in Manhattan Beach

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lee Johnson.

Lee, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up back east… New England… winters… snow… didn’t matter… I lived in shorts. I grew up – beer and college, then, I walked the earth for a few years: Taught scuba diving in Thailand, hitchhiked across Australia, whitewashed houses in Greece, carried rocks in Egypt during the Gulf War, nearly had my leg amputated in Borneo. Drank with the Sandinistas. Eventually, I came back to America, drove back and forth across the country six times and ran out of road in California. I worked here in Los Angeles as an architect for 15 years and in 2011, started the clothing company Old Bull Lee – men’s shorts, shirts & boardshorts. For me, it has to do with contribution and courage and standing up and saying: ‘This is the very best that I can do.’ I respect when I see people do that, and I guess I wanted to try.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Actually, a good part of getting to anywhere that is worth getting to is gonna be bumpy. When I started out, I had just come from a completely different career as an architect and for a while, the change was so drastically different that it felt a lot like driving off a cliff blindfolded, while repeatedly being punched in the face.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Old Bull Lee – what should we know?
I think what really sets us apart is the idea of quality for the sake of quality, which means we use the best factories and the best materials. The best factories have very high minimums and we use a different factory for each of our garment types. This high-quality production situation means that we play at a very high level, and all of that is very capital intensive. That’s the scary spreadsheet side of things.

What am I most proud of in regards to Old Bull Lee? That’s easy, we have a very large core group of happy customers and they keep coming back. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s true and I am grateful and thankful. I am also proud that we have stuck to our truth. I see a lot of brands rolling out well-researched manipulations that are wrapped in a smiley face. If a big pile of money is your goal then they are not wrong. The truth is, fashion is a tough world, there are a lot of convincing someones whispering shortcuts in your ear, it can be awfully hard and lonely to ignore sometimes. But, in this one little tiny place in the universe Old Bull Lee is different, it is our duty to have our customer’s backs. People throw the words ‘integrity” around, but that’s what integrity really means – it means, having peoples back, even when they don’t know about it and will never find out. Here’s some proof, our first year in business we did quite well. So, the second year we placed a really huge order with one of the factories that do our sewing. It was a very ambitiously sized order and we were using money that we didn’t necessarily have. When they came back, right before the start of the season, they were wrong. At a glance, they looked correct, but after wearing them a few times, the customer would have eventually realized that there was something not quite right about the way they fit. It was our fault. We tried everything, but there was no way to fix them. We could have sold them – we certainly needed to sell them. We ended up with mountains of shorts that we decided not to sell. It very nearly broke us.

Point of the story, sometimes, it can be hard to see the trees through the forest, but yes, we have stuck to our truth: That we are all on the same team and we have to watch out for the ones that matter.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
I guess we got confused – we thought this question was “What’s your favorite memory from childhood?” and answer below was written for that.

Here comes the lifestyle part and this might not be a “childhood memory”, so much as something that settled in and carved out an important soft spot inside of who I am. On paper, I am not a grandmother kind of guy, but she was really important to me. She was small and soft-spoken, with powdery white skin, from a distance her presence was so quiet it made her almost ephemeral. Up close, she had the deepest blue eyes. You didn’t notice them right away because she wouldn’t be looking at you. Her eyes would be cast down and off to the side, she was listening, she’d lost her eyesight, and she was blind.

She had lived in that house many many years and had created lovely gardens everywhere. In the evenings, she would take my arm and we would go on long walks around the property. Her not being able to see made me more aware of the sounds and the smells. She only spoke when there was a purpose too, so a lot of the time nothing was said. And somewhere in all those times, I started to realize the deep importance of all the senses. I might learn about the flowers, but what I really discovered was appreciation.

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Image Credit:
Old Bull Lee

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