Old Bull Lee: Shorts and Shirts that Channel the Beats

When Lee Johnson enrolled at California’s SCI-Arc in the mid-1990s, one of his initial assignments was to first make ink, and then paper.

“I thought it was juvenile, but in hindsight it was one of the coolest things I ever did,” he says. “It was a very intimate thing – to learn things from the inside out.”

It was an experience that would pay off in spades during the Great Recession of 2008-09. Out of work when the firm that employed him shut down, he spent about a year looking for a new direction. “I woke up one day and decided to start a shorts company,” he says. “All my energy went into making my face look like I knew what talking about.”

He made his first pair of shorts just like he made that ink and paper in school – and never looked back.

His is no ordinary shorts company. It offers up a literary reference in its name, one Johnson purloined from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” He named it for Bull Lee, the New Orleans-based alter ego of William S. Burroughs, author of “Junkie” and “Naked Lunch.”

Now he’s got an uber-prep line of clothing for men – shirts, shorts, and boardshorts that are made in Italy and North Carolina. His material of choice? Exquisite cotton – grown in the states, woven in Malaysia, and shipped back here or to Europe for tailoring.

The pieces hold up because he believes in integrity and craftsmanship and making things that last – from the inside out. “The intent is not to be trendy – it’s to make it good and stand the test of time,” he says.

And he’s got his customers’ backs, too. “The people who come to us, I feel like we’re on the same team,” he says. “And my little piece of the world is to make these shorts for the people on my team.”

That translates into a product that’s as durable as a new pair of blue jeans. “Your relationship with them is like a girlfriend – it gets good over time,” he says. “They’re a little bright at first but by summer two or summer three, they turn into butter – you’ll instinctively grab them off the top of the clothes pile all summer long.”

Like a girlfriend? Well, yes. His target market, after all, is young men in their 30s.

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