Perfect Fit

Matt Casperson, a recent SMU grad, wears one of the T-shirts he and a group of friends are designing and selling.
Mark Graham

They "bug out" to reggae. They wear skater clothes. Some of their grades aren't good. One of them has dropped out of Southern Methodist University. Two more have yet to graduate. Still, they dream big. They think about "the greatest job in the world." Like, what exactly would that be? Where exactly would you find it?

Well, the thing is, it's nowhere to be found. So these four kids are creating it.

Militree is its name. It's a clothing line--for now--that sold its first 440 T-shirts as quickly as the boutiques of Houston and Southern California could rack the brand. (Dallas, Militree says, is too corporate to take it in.) Its new line comes out this summer. And the four SMU kids who created it are, as they say, "stoked" about it.

Because worldwide recognition is that much closer. Because after the second line, there's the expansion into Asia, six months from now, with the help of powerful friends. And there are also the music videos they're editing, the schools they want to build, the political prisoners they want to free.

But back up a bit. First there is Skip Buringrud, the one who dropped out of SMU. Starting Militree was his idea. He's lived in San Diego for a year now, met more people than an election-year politician and carried out the daily operations of Militree while the others finish school.

The others are Sean Briel, Scott Alexander and Matt Casperson. Briel graduates in December, Alexander next May. They work the business side of Militree. Casperson graduated from SMU this month and moved in with Buringrud last week. Casperson and Buringrud oversee the design of each line. Each borrows heavily from the Jamaican culture that Casperson and Buringrud adore. None of the Militree guys is black, nor did any grow up in Jamaica. Still, Casperson and Buringrud love its culture, its music and the politics that shape both.

For the initiated, it's evident in the T-shirts. On one from the first line, under the picture of a dreadlocked man, is the tagline "Original Root Boy," a term coined by the youths of Bob Marley's generation. The term means grow out your "roots," or dreadlocks. Be a rebel.

Of course, for the uninitiated, "Original Root Boy" on a T-shirt meant nothing. It was just a cool phrase. And the product sold accordingly. "We couldn't keep it on the racks," Buringrud says.

The second line this summer, however, will at times be more blatant, commenting on issues that affect not only Jamaica but the world.

"There's one where there is this illustration of a cop, and he's in the foreground," Buringrud says. "And behind him are three or four cops beating up this guy. And it says, 'Your tax dollars hard at work.'"

When he says this, you can hear the pleasure in Buringrud's voice. He--all four, really--wants Militree to be political, to discuss ideas greater than the company's self-interest. That's why another T-shirt shows Mumia Abu-Jamal behind bars above the tagline "Free Mumia." (Abu-Jamal is on death row in Pennsylvania for killing a cop. Numerous people--Nelson Mandela, Paul Newman and Maya Angelou among them--think he's innocent. Portions of Militree's sales this summer will go to the Free Mumia Campaign.)

Still, Militree says the company is apolitical. "We don't try to be preachy about [our politics]," Buringrud says.

And their supporters say that's why their shirts are selling.

Joseph Kraft owns Flagship, a popular boutique in San Diego. Militree sells well there, Kraft says, because the design of the T-shirts is different, and the message, if not ambiguous, stops just shy of partisan.

"People are waiting for the second line," he says.

Buringrud says the first run of the second line is scheduled for 1,000 shirts. "That should sell out within a month or two," he says. After that, reorders--as many as his budget and a store's demand allow.

Still, how can these four kids expect to expand into Asia by winter?

Simple: They network.

None more than Buringrud. He met Kraft at a showing of the graffiti artist Dave Kinsey. After he'd built a rapport with Kraft, Buringrud e-mailed Kinsey himself.

Dave Kinsey is a powerful man. The design on cans of Mountain Dew? That's Kinsey's. The summer campaign for Absolut Vodka? Kinsey's. The album covers of Black Eyed Peas and N.E.R.D.? You get the idea.

Now Kinsey's designing shirts for Militree. Says Kraft, "People are like, 'Wow. They've got Dave working for them already.' People are getting psyched on it."

Kinsey writes via e-mail: "I believed in what Skip was doing, liked the direction he wanted to take the brand and admired his interest in reggae culture...He is a very ambitious, premature entrepreneur and really finds his way to meeting people. You know, that persistent charm is hard to ignore."

It's why Andy Howell agreed to help Militree sell in Asia as well.

For Militree, Howell is just as huge. A skateboarding legend who has had books document his life, Howell founded 411 magazine, did creative work for Warner Bros. and Coca-Cola and has, like Kinsey, "ridiculous connections in the Asian market," Casperson says.

The Asian market could treat Militree well. Japan in particular is fascinated with all things Western. T-shirts there sell for six times what they would here. And the boutiques are everywhere.

There are, of course, no guarantees--in Asia or, for that matter, in the States. Briel's dad worries about his son wasting his education on a pipe dream. Buringrud is working three jobs to make ends meet. So is Casperson. Any extra money is put into Militree. Yet a large demand from, say, Asia would at this point overwhelm the company. "You really need six figures to start a company like this," Buringrud says.

But the Internet helps.

There are some designers, like Paul Frank, maker of the Julius the Monkey T-shirts, who rely on the Internet to push product. Last year, Frank's T-shirts reaped $37 million in sales, according to Fortune magazine.

"I feel online sales are a huge contender...and a great way to reach people all over the world," Kinsey says.

Militree plans to use the Internet as much as it can and pour the money into the music videos the company is making with reggae artists such as Florida's Mikey Dredd. Casperson, who graduated with a degree in film, says the first video is almost done. The goal is to make Militree "a multimedia name," Casperson says. (It's a concept that Mark Ecko, founder of Ecko Unlimited, used to push his brand beyond T-shirts and into an international corporation in the 1990s. Ecko started smaller than Militree did.)

And then there are the schools Militree wants to build in Jamaica. To give back, as Buringrud says, to the culture from which Militree's taken.

"I think it's good to set your goals high," Alexander says.

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