When you see Leo Brown flipping through magazines in the bookstore, he isn't simply browsing. He's hard at work. As a self-taught fashion designer and urban clothier, Brown builds on his inner inspirations by checking out the imagery in magazines like GQ, Vi Menn
"I also find inspiration from life itself," says Brown as he sits immersed in the technology and tools of T-shirt production in a print shop near REO Town. "I observe people's attitudes, the times we live in, and see lots of things going on in the world."
Those inspirations, Brown says, have helped him create a clothing line that has caught the eye of rappers, TV hosts, athletes and comedians. His T-shirts and shorts are also part of the wardrobe of the fashion-conscious in Lansing, Detroit, New York, Chicago, California and Italy.
"I can't describe how this all comes to me," says Brown of his LE&O Collections
that merge biblical, royal and Greek iconography with current events and trends. "My themes reflect that everything in life is in continuous motion and repeats itself."
Never take no for an answer
Brown came to Lansing from Albion, Michigan in the early 2000s to learn the personal grooming trade through Lansing Barber College. And while he attends to satisfied clientele at the south side Mo-Cuts, Brown stays sufficiently caffeinated in his off-hours to follow his passion for fashion.
"My barbering goes hand-in-hand with style and fashion," says Brown. "I like grooming people and making them feel good. If you're looking good, you're feeling good."
Brown says his calling to design came well before his professional adventures in barbering. His mother, Lillie Brown, was a constant inspiration, and showed him how to dress up and look good wherever he was headed. "She taught me to be kind and humble and to put God first in everything," he says. "She said everything will follow after that."
Brown held tight to his mother's wisdom and to the steadfast belief that being an entrepreneur means you can never take no for answer. That hunger, he says, is what led to celebrities like Kanye West and J.B. Smoove wearing his shirts, as well as TV personalities from BET donning and promoting his urban clothes on-air.
Brown leans back in his chair to recount how he devised a strategy for promoting his boutique clothing line after several years in the business. Armed with his fashion portfolio, he hopped a plane to New York and made his way to the building and office lobby for BET. Once there, he asked to see the fashion editor. The receptionist smiled and told him to take a seat. So Brown sat. And he waited. One hour passed. Then two. He waited some more.
"Finally someone came to greet me," he says after four hours of occupying the lobby. "It was a security guard."
That guard, Brown relates, actually opened the door for Brown and led to LE&O Collections shirts being worn by Bow Wow and other hosts of 106 & Park.
"He admired my determination," says Brown of the security guard. "And he put me in touch with the show's fashion director. The next day, the hosts were wearing my shirts and bracelets and giving me credit, too."
The lion king
Brown's designs reflect both his spirit of determination and the sense of respect and reverence from his upbringing.
"I brand most everything I do with a lion," says Brown, who uses the short form of his given name Leonard to honor the big cat, create his business name, and build his business slogan "Life Evolution & Circles." "I just love his strength and power. He's the king."
Many of Brown's designs include signature elements like a lion with a full mane and wings, royal scepters and crowns, and flowing Greek key borders. Some of his T-shirts become canvasses, displaying museum-quality renderings of a lion's den, Christ on a column, or stained glass windows in the Italian basilicas. Gold, bright vivid colors, and large format images are also part of his trademark.
"I feel I have something for everyone," says Brown whose prices for T-shirts range from $30 to $400. "My clothes are meant to provoke thought and to make you feel good. You're gonna get attention from wearing it. Trust me."
Brown says he has amassed a catalog that will take him through four or five seasons. His current fall collection consists of 13 different looks in both tees and tanks. All his shirts are American-made and screen-printed in Lansing through Flat Out Graphics. Distribution and marketing are handled locally through two key staff.
While Brown acknowledges that T-shirts are the most common thing that people wear, he wants to branch out to other product lines that include cut-and-sew designs and casual dress wear for men and women. Hats are also on the horizon.
"I'd like to reopen my boutique again," says Brown, who had a storefront in REO Town up until a few years ago. "As my company name shows, everything in life is a continuous motion and repeats itself."
For now, Brown is focused on his customers and continuing to expand his market to innovative-thinking teens and 20-somethings, professional and collegiate athletes, celebrities, and creative artsy types who like to step out of the box. Promotional plans are also in the works that include Lansing fashion and comedy shows featuring celebrities, artists and athletes sporting his clothing line. Some of the proceeds of those events, he says, will go to benefit the Lansing Lions—his youth wrestling program for kids 4 to 15 years old.
"My proudest moments are when I see someone wearing my clothing," says Brown, reminiscing on the day he saw Kanye West in concert clad in a LE&O Collections design. "It's breathtaking and leaves me speechless."
Ann Kammerer is a freelance writer living in the Greater Lansing Area.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.