How the Howler Brothers made surf punk western a style – Texas Monthly
In 1999, when Chase Heard and Andy Stepanian started a bluegrass band called the Wrinkle Neck Mules, they combed the shelves of vintage shops for classic western shirts to wear to concerts.
The two musicians, who met at the University of Virginia and bonded over their love of surfing and the outdoors, also wore these shirts when they went fishing, preferring the look to a more technical outfit. “The uniform was pastel, airy and silly looking,” Heard said. From their perspective, western yokes and beaded snaps, with a touch of surf punk, looked better. When the two founded the Howler Brothers clothing company in 2011, they wanted to create clothes that fit their own brand of “ride a horse to the beach then catch some waves” cool.
Ten years into the company’s existence, the Austin-based “Howlerverse” with its embroidered gaucho shirts, swim shorts and fanbase is expanding beyond clothes into a world which encompasses art, music and cinema.
Heard, 43, was born in Houston but raised in Florida, and Stepanian, 46, is from Virginia. Both loved to surf and both adopted the style that surrounded the sport. Their band toured the United States for several years in the early 2000s, even playing SXSW in Austin. When Heard moved to Austin to get a graduate degree and pursue a career in architecture, they continued to perform together.
The duo have always been creative, but when a t-shirt company sponsored the group, Heard wanted to design the shirts himself. Instead of giving the drawings to someone else, he wanted to do it himself. He asked Stepanian to help him. “I had no experience,” Heard said. “It was kind of an instinctive thing that we followed.” Their DIY philosophy extended from music to clothing, as they screen-printed a hundred of each new design at a time and found success in the niche market of fly fisherman with a sense of fashion. The Howler Brothers were born.
The name comes from the roar of howler monkeys, the soundtrack to the surf trips the friends had taken to Costa Rica. They added “brothers” to allude to their connection as friends. Their mantra became “Answer the call”.
Initially, Heard worked from his downtown Austin garage, where he sketched designs and stocked products to sell online. “At first it was just me and my wife Helen and our two little babies,” he said. “We would pack up the goods, write handwritten notes and load them into the kids’ buggies to take them to the post office.”
They started with long-sleeved t-shirts, polo shirts, and sun shirts, designed for customers who liked to entertain outdoors. The company’s signature gaucho shirt, which features embroidered designs of alligators, crayfish, pelicans, piñatas and other designs above the front pockets, came a few years later. At the time, style was seen as a risk. “We wanted to do something that didn’t look like a knife-fighted mango,” Stepanian said. “Something you could use for a day on the water or hike and ride right away and nobody’s going to be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a fishing shirt.'”
Today, the company releases three or four new gaucho models each spring. Some sell out and are never revived; some make longer appearances. They cost $99 new, but discontinued models can attract three or four times more on eBay from collectors determined to own every gaucho model ever created.
“It’s our most famous item,” Heard said. “It’s very identifiable and there’s a whole cult around them. People will call and send a spreadsheet of all the gauchos they have and the ones they miss.
Actors Matthew McConaughey and Will Ferrell wear Howler Brothers gauchos. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel wanted the squirrel design, but sold out before he nabbed one. “He told us, ‘If you ever make one with pizza slices, I’ll buy it,'” Heard said. They made her one, and Kimmel wore it on her TV show.
“Fortunately for us, we weren’t the only ones in the world who thought what we were doing was cool. A community started to grow around what we did, and that community goes beyond people wearing shirts,” Heard said.
Howler fans seemed to share a love of music, the outdoors, and that funky mix of surf and western design. They felt such a strong connection to the company that some began inviting its founders to their weddings. Others sent in pictures of tattoos they got from Howler Brother designs.
The business moved from Heard’s garage to a warehouse. Heard and Stepanian brought in two other partners (Mason Brent, who plays guitar in the Wrinkle Neck Mules, and Rick Wittenbraker, who had worked at Yeti), and opened corporate headquarters and retail stores in Austin.
Today, the company makes pants, jackets, hoodies, hats, swim shorts and vests. “We always talk about things like, ‘That’s cool but we need to make it screamer’ or ‘It’s not screaming enough.’ We don’t know exactly what it is, except we know it when we see it,” Stepanian said.
One thing they don’t make is women’s clothing. “We don’t just want to shrink it and make it pink, make it smaller and more pastel,” Stepanian said. “We will get there, but we are not there yet.
As the company progresses, its offerings become more eclectic. You can buy a Howler Brothers surfboard or flip through a copy of a Howler Brothers coffee table book. You can still hear the Wrinkle Neck Mules play occasionally or catch a performance by Leon III, a psychedelic band led by Stepanian and Mason.
“We have a real desire to change and evolve and do more things,” says Stepanian. “In the world of music, it is like that. You can’t rest on your laurels, you need to add a drum machine.