BP. Designer Spotlight: Gabe Johnson of Horses Cut Shop

In honor of Record Store Day, we thought it would be nice to profile a designer whose entire business is built on giving back to his community. Gabe Johnson founded Horses Cut Shop to, in his own words, save America.

He travels the country looking for small, independent businesses with cool logos and cool stories, then he makes and sells T-shirts for them and donates a generous percentage of the profits back to the businesses. We’re proud to say we carry two of Gabe’s record-store T-shirts (plus several other, non-record-store shirts), one from San Francisco’s Amoeba Music and one from Portland’s Jackpot Records. (All his shirts are made in the U.S.A., too.)

HorsesCutShopJackpot Records TeeAmoeba Music Tee

We caught up with Gabe and asked him a few questions about how he got started, what his secret recipe for success is and what advice he has for young people who want to run their own show:

HorsesCutShopPhoto credit: Angel Ceballos

BP.: Horses Cut Shop has so many cool T-shirt designs. How did you decide which ones you were going to feature for your women’s line, and when are you going to release more? (That Harborena T is looking mighty fine…) 

GJ: I’ve been spending a lot of time in the desert of the southwest with an Apache friend of mine searching for my spirit animal by listening to old vinyl in an old trailer.  Horse trailers and eagles, records and quiet, desert bones. Inspiration comes in many forms, best not to question it especially on a tight deadline. This summer I’ll be poking around in the big woods of the Pacific Northwest looking for new designs.  More gems from the logging roads less travelled coming soon.

P.S. I started skating at the Harborena Skating Rink in Hoquiam, WA, when I was nine and now when I go home to visit my mom I skate there on Saturday night. Two months ago I beat a dozen Jr. High kids in a Shoot the Duck competition. 30 years between victories. True story.

BP.: What was your day job before you started Horses Cut Shop?

GJ: I followed all the rules for a very long time. Good student, college, fraternity, finance job, Internet job in cubicle, Internet job in office, Internet job in bigger office.  I still remember the day I arrived at work and decided that all the rules from yesterday no longer applied to me.  So I quit the job without any experience in apparel or design, bought a vintage truck and trailer and got lost. The rest is what my mom would call a “strange career move.”

BP.: How did you turn your T-shirt business into a real, live career?

GJ: Simply put, I created a solution to a problem. The problem is that our communities are losing their unique identities, which are made of independent businesses like the local record store, the bait shop, the skating rink, etc. When these businesses close we lose more than just a place run by a guy that sold some stuff. We lose a piece of personal history and a relationship that helps anchor our concept of home. My solution is to combine America’s love affair with the little guy with its passion for fashion and personal brand.

Horses Cut Shop uses T-shirts featuring real, iconic, independent businesses as vehicles of salvation, both financial and moral.  The T-shirt you choose to wear starts a conversation about why Jackpot Records matters and what Portland and America lose if it goes away.

BP.: Do you and your friends really get to cruise around the country looking for small businesses to partner with for T-shirt designs? Like, for your job? How is that even possible? 

GJ: I know. It’s true. It’s that much fun. I meet someone in Seattle who’s originally from Minneapolis and who knows a guy whose family owns a burger joint. Next thing I know, I’m there behind the counter talking to two generations of owners, hearing about how the business came to be and getting to know the regulars and why the place matters. If you look at the people a family business typically serves, you’ll simply see a larger family.

BP.: What advice do you have for young people who want to make and sell their own designs? Or just run their own show, period? 

GJ: My grandfather said we had to think about our purpose in life as a product and ourselves as the company that makes it. If your company is worth investing in, you just don’t do it when skies are sunny and you’re on the up-tick. You invest over the long term, in good times and when you’re about to lose everything.  You keep buying in and buying in. The short term may satisfy but it’s the long term that rewards. I think it’s called dollar cost averaging. [The preceding anecdote was brought to you by my late grandpa Stanley and Business Finance 101.] 

Have a strong point of view, and don’t be afraid to alienate some people. It’s easy to feel like we have please everybody in order to be successful. To be of the people, among the people, but not beholden to people takes an unwavering belief in yourself. It sounds so clichéd, but there’s a reason clichés are true. The reason most small businesses fail is that people give up too soon. There’s an off-ramp every mile and a half, and you have to have faith in what you’re doing. And don’t do it for the money. If you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Money won’t sustain you through hard times—passion will.

BP.: Any other advice to offer about life in general?

GJ: Think about the kind of person you want to be in 10 years and start surrounding yourself with those types of people. And be nice to your mom.

BONUS: In addition to a T-shirt company, Gabe used to run a social club and was profiled by fashion-world darling Todd Selby in a video for Nordstrom. Check it out:

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • cc April 19, 2014, 1:48 pm

    I just bought the “Amoeba Music” tee yesterday! It’s super soft and what a coincidence that I spotted it, because I was just at Amoeba Music in LA earlier this week!

  • Torry April 22, 2014, 9:27 am

    Best idea for a business ever! Love the t-shirts.

  • Doug April 22, 2014, 5:17 pm

    It is a great idea for a business, but he didn’t think of it. There’s another local company that’s been doing this for a long time – Destee Nation Shirt Company. He used to work there and left and copied it. Nordstrom, do your homework. This story is a misrepresentation.

  • Amy Leigh, Blog Contributor April 23, 2014, 9:52 am

    Thanks for sharing, Doug. Glad to hear that this community-lovin’ business idea is spreading and growing! Destee Nation Shirt Company has some awesome T-shirt designs.

  • Madison April 23, 2014, 6:52 pm

    I bought the Indian Heads shirt and it fits great! Hope you come to N. Carolina. So many great places on the Outer Banks that would make a great t-shirts!

  • Jolene April 26, 2014, 9:25 am

    I love that the t-shirts have inspiration and storied behind them. So much stuff out there is just nonsense and noise. Love it!

  • Mike April 27, 2014, 10:45 am

    Doug (from above this entry) makes an interesting note about the Destee shop in Fremont. Unfortunately my experience with this Destee has been less than professional. They have basically stolen the artwork for their shirts and do not pay any of it back to the original businesses. When I learned this— I refuse to support this kind of business practice. It is basically stealing other people’s artwork for their own profit.
    Horses Cut Shop seems to be the real deal. Congratulations to them. I like their designs and the business concept. I don’t have any of their shirts yet, but plan to soon. I specially like to know that I can buy them from Nordstrom. A solid Seattle company that seems to treat their employees well.

  • AnnJule April 27, 2014, 6:39 pm

    I bought two of the Horses branded tee’s and love them. They fit great and are awesome for layering. I’d love it if you’d do some of the logo’s you have in men’s for women too. Please keep adding new designs!

  • Doug April 28, 2014, 6:20 pm

    Mike, I’m actually a small business that is represented by Destee Nation, and they have always paid me promptly and treated me fairly. In fact, they stepped up to pay me when the previous owner (who I understand employed Gabe!) had actually left town. I was approached by Horses Cut Shop as they were trying to undermine my relationship with Destee Nation, and eventually I received a letter from Gabe and his associate, the former co-founder of Destee Nation, Peter Smith, that they were prohibited from approaching any of Destee Nation’s members. My guess is you are the same Horses Cut Shop ‘PR’ person that created the story above!

  • Amy Leigh, Blog Contributor April 29, 2014, 10:42 am

    Doug, I’m sorry to hear that you had a negative experience with HCS. We chose to profile Gabe and his business because we carry his shirts and we like his mission. I’m so glad you have a good relationship with Destee Nation and that your business is getting the promotion and support that you deserve as a small business owner. Thanks for sharing your story!

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