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Photo by Jack GouldMy roommate the fashion designer crapped in the shower. He puts his company stickers all over the toilet. He somehow cultivated a pungent fungal cloud that lingers in the bathroom to this very day. And though unable to understand the barest fundamentals of conventional bathroom procedure—if you do not stand barefoot in the toilet, why would you crap in the shower?—Charlie Rose still manages to be the idea man behind bodyboarding clothing company American Hero.
"Where do I get my ideas?" he asks, sitting on our couch while his cheeseburger slowly cools. "Crapping in the shower. Driving on the freeway. Going to the beach. Definitely while sleeping. Watching things on TV—like old A-Team episodes and stuff. And definitely just sitting around bullshitting."
He and the rest of the American Hero team—Ian Hornstein, Scott McKimmey and Nick Calvert—are in an enviable position: they are their own target market. If they like their clothes, odds are that kids who are like them will like their clothes. And in Orange County, there are a lot of kids driving on the freeway, going to the beach, watching TV and sleeping (but, we must hope and pray, not crapping in the shower). It makes running the business almost instinctual, and it somehow makes the fashion industry—at least the little slice I happen to live with—seem a bit less glamorous. Behind American Hero's T-shirt graphics and endearingly slapdash website is a battered computer on a bedroom floor, a big box of sweatshirts, and a dirty, dirty bathroom. Welcome to the new economy.
"It's a serious hobby—I mean, it's a business, but we don't have time to make it full-fledged," Rose explains. "We just wanna do our own thing. If people like it, oh, well; and if not, whatever."
And that explains it all. Yeah, the bathroom and everything. Yet people—not lots of people, granted, but a small knot of people with valid credit cards—do like it, even though American Hero holds to this laissez-faire aesthetic philosophy so closely that they've never even bought an ad anywhere. It seems like a simple process: when seized with inspiration, Rose cranks up Adobe Illustrator, scribbles out his idea, attaches the company name, prints it out and has it screened on T-shirts he buys at some mysterious shop in Costa Mesa or somewhere. "If you give that stuff away, then everyone fucking learns from it," he says. "You don't want to give anyone a shortcut." And then people give him money. American Hero is in the black enough to consider renting an office, even.
True, they are a very small company. Since 1998, they've moved units by the dozens, not the hundreds, and they do cater to the less-than-burgeoning bodyboarding market. "It's like the outcast sport," says Rose. But while dot-coms tumble, American Hero stands tall. Who better to understand the disaffected, suburban-adolescent market than a bunch of disaffected suburban adolescents, right?
"Obviously, your friends are going to like it," Rose says. "But other people are into it, too. Like when we made mesh hats, we didn't know if people were going to buy them. It takes the right kind of person to wear a mesh hat; it says class, but it doesn't say what class."
American Hero has always had a knack for class. Rose says it all started with a watercolor painting of O.J. Simpson golfing, which reeks of class as tangibly as our bathroom reeks of something vague and fungal. It was part of a series he painted in a high school art class—which also featured Saddam Hussein and Ronald Reagan—that he inexplicably dubbed "American Hero." "There's some sort of connection," Rose says, "but I just can't figure it out." Then, that summer, while toiling in his brother's screenprinting shop, he suddenly took in the piles of shirts, the silkscreen ink and the yards of virgin screen and knew he had an opportunity. And he called in his friends Ian and Scott.
"I said, 'Dude, we should do something—we have all the stuff.' And they said, 'We need a name,'" he says. "And I just said it. They were skeptical because of how many syllables it had—they were just clapping their hands, saying there were too many syllables."
But more polysyllabic heads prevailed, and they squeezed out their first design—an AK-47 T-shirt with the company tag line "American Hero"—later that summer after they'd rushed a rudimentary Web page into production. It took three years, but the procedure remains largely the same. Almost despite themselves, they're doing something right. So now my roommate who crapped in the shower is a fashion designer. I ask him if he's going to pursue a career in the industry. Maybe, he says.
"I want to save up enough money to be able to blow it, so I can see what I can do," he says. "I have a lot of ideas I can't afford—and I didn't crap in the shower! We ran out of toilet paper, and you can't push crap down the fucking sink. I was trying to do my bit for the environment by not using paper. I don't want people to think I just go around crapping in the shower."
American Hero can be reached at www.ahclothing.com.