Conservationist turned T-shirt designer fishing new waters

08/28/2014 7:00 PM

08/28/2014 7:25 PM

For her back-to-school clothes shopping, incoming high school sophomore Casey Warren had a simple request.

“All she wanted to do was go to Bass Pro Shops and get Guy Harvey T-shirts,” said her mother, Bonnie Armstrong-Warren.

Guy Harvey – marine artist, angler, conservationist and entrepreneur whose underwater life designs have been worn by middle-aged fishermen for nearly three decades – is drawing fans from unexpected waters these days.

His new school includes, literally, schools. Columbia is ahead of the curve on the trend with Guy Harvey clothing and other products already popular and sold for years in a place where many residents buy their Gamecock gear, such as Big Thursday and Garnet & Black Traditions at Jewelry Warehouse locations.

“All of my friends own them,” said Casey, 16. “They’re just really nice shirts, they’re made well, they’re comfortable, they look good.”

Harvey’s popularity in high school halls and college campuses is by design, as his namesake Florida-based company seeks a wider audience with new images, products, partnerships, branded hotels, advertising and a floating 1,065-foot cruise ship canvas that launches next fall.

Guy Harvey, Inc. has licensing agreements with 15 partners and counting, with thousands of products sold in more than 1,000 stores. More than 2 million T-shirts – his most popular branded item – were sold in 2013, and revenue percentage increases have averaged in the double digits every year over the past five years, according to company president Steve Stock.

“If you’re not growing, you’re contracting,” said Harvey. “There are so many companies out there doing what I did – and in some cases doing a better job than we did, not in terms of composition of art but in terms of the actual garment that they choose to put that artwork on. We obviously have to pay serious attention to this, so we’re always looking at the competition, seeing what they’re doing. We obviously want to try to stay ahead.”

Most important for Harvey, who was a marine biologist before he started to make a living with his underwater images, is that a growing company allows him to direct more money into the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation. Founded in 2008, the 501c(3) gave more than $1.3 million last year to over 60 different organizations. The sister for-profit company requires licensing partners to give at least 1 percent of sales to the foundation, said Stock, who is also the foundation’s president. Harvey said that approximately 10 percent of gross sales go to the foundation.

“Without the solid business backing, we can’t do any of the research,” Harvey said. “I always say it takes cash to care.”

Harvey, 58, was born in Germany while his father served there in the British Army, though he is a 10th generation Jamaican of English descent. He spent his early childhood in Jamaica, where he fished and explored his surroundings before heading to boarding school in England. He was interested in art, sketching scenes from his island upbringing, but pursued marine biology when he went to college in Scotland. Eventually, he returned to Jamaica to get a Ph.D. in fisheries science at the University of the West Indies.

But he kept drawing and painting, exhibiting his work at art shows, and in 1988 he left his science career to pursue art full-time. By then, he had started working with a company to transfer images to T-shirts – those sold at boat shows and tackle shops.

He married his wife, Gillian, the following year, and the couple had two children, Jessica and Alex. Harvey’s distinctive signature includes two small dots after the “y” in his last name that represent the now-adult kids.

As his family grew, so did his product line. Harvey signed with a California company, American Fishing Tackle Company, in 1999 to produce woven button-up shirts for “the more mature fishermen,” said president Bill Shedd. That relationship was extended in 2004, when the company became the licensee for all Guy Harvey apparel.

Since then, Shedd said the change in audience has been huge.

“The line now is still enjoyed and looked to by that same male angler, but at the same time his wife, his son and his daughter,” he said. “The breadth of interest across the age groups and the sexes is just pretty unusual. The reason for that is that all those share in common is an interest and love for the ocean and an appreciation for the authenticity of Guy’s art.”

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