by Hannah J. Phillips
Photograph by Aaron Pinkston
Co-founder, Howler Brothers
An initial glance around the sunlit storefront at the Howler Brothers HQ matches the easygoing vibe you might expect from an Austin-born retail brand. Art lines the walls, and Howler’s signature embroidered button-downs hang above a custom YETI. It all seems to have bubbled right out of Barton Springs — until you see the surfboards in the window. Nearby, photographer Kenny Braun’s “Surf Texas” book shares a display with the brand’s Baja-inspired Shaman hoodies. So how does a coastal-living brand end up in landlocked Austin, right in the heart of Clarksville, and explode into one of the most recognized outdoor retailers on the market?
Wearing one of Howler’s guayabera shirts (a Mexican wedding shirt updated with a vented back yoke and technical fabric), co-founder Chase Heard walks me through the shop. Before Howler, Heard was a practicing architect, artist and touring musician. Suddenly, the puzzle pieces start to connect: design-driven, with a love for travel and live music — sounds like Austin.
Heard and co-founder/fellow band member Andy Stepanian “cooked up” the idea during their tours. They got to know each other both creatively and in pressured situations, laying a great foundation to form a business together. They also traveled frequently to Costa Rica, whose resident primate inspired both the branding and the company’s slogan, “Heed the Call.” Heard describes the howler monkey’s cry as the soundtrack of those trips, and not the soothing jungle noises you might find on a sleep-sounds playlist, either. “They’re scary,” he laughs. “When you first hear it, you’d think it was a freight train. But it’s such a signature part of the experience, and we wanted to capture that energy.”
Founded in 2010, Howler Brothers started in Heard’s garage and backyard. As the brand grew, they moved into a warehouse in North Austin before settling into their current home in 2015. Across the street from Caffe Medici and surrounded by restaurants like Jeffrey’s and Josephine House, Howler loves its community for its perfect combination of neighborhood vibe and proximity to downtown. As Heard describes the foot traffic Howler sees daily in the store — everyone from Clarksville residents to ACL visitors, cyclists bound for Lady Bird Lake or tourists from downtown — another piece of the puzzle slides into place: Beach or not, Austin appeals to adventurers and storytellers from all walks of life.
“We talk a lot about the in-betweens,” Heard shares. “It’s not about catching the biggest fish or biggest wave, or doing the most rad solo ascent. It’s the flat tire on your way there that makes for great stories, or the tequila shack you find before or after.” In a city that draws both East and West Coast transplants, that sense of the in-between resonates, attracting a customer base diverse in both geography and age. Heard hesitated to pigeonhole just one core audience. “The fun thing is that it’s been a pretty wide spectrum,” he says. “A lot of people share our common interests and get the vibe, and other people think fly-fishing, surf and travel don’t quite click with Texas at first.”
Matthew McConaughey might disagree. Austin’s patron saint favors the Yellow Rose collection, calling it “one-of-a-kind cool” in People magazine earlier this year. Heard attributes the brand’s recent boom to these special collections and collaborations with groups like ACL and Studio 6A: Released in limited batches, the vibrant patterns are one of Howler’s biggest differentiators to the olive-and-tan palettes of bigger outdoor companies, and the exclusive lines sell out quickly.
Apart from these collections, Heard also draws a parallel between the brand’s growth and Austin’s explosion in the past few years. There are a lot more eyes on the city now, he thinks. And as the city continues to grow, Howler plans to grow with it.
“We immediately have a cool factor that comes with just being from Austin,” says Heard, “and the fact that we’re now a part of that identity and story — we’re pretty happy about that.”