Who knew that a cat’s backside would strike a chord? The T-shirt design’s popularity has been a surprise to Leland resident Horace Long, owner of The Bearded Heart, whose company sells T-shirts, tank tops, tote bags, napkins and tea towels to stores and customers across the U.S. and Mexico.
Long designs and makes The Bearded Heart products in a Quonset hut on South 16th Street in Wilmington. Although he just leased it in March this year after deciding his garage was too small, the former commercial photographer is already rapidly outgrowing the World War II-era structure.
“I’m pretty much in every major city in the United States, Puerto Rico,” said Long, referring to the boutiques that buy his products.
Going to trade shows, mainly Magic, a clothing and accessory trade show held in Las Vegas twice a year, has made a big difference since Long relaunched his T-shirt business in 2015.
“They’re looking for what would fit their demographic, what’s trending now,” Long said.
To Long, it seems like everyone wears T-shirts.
“It’s a way to show your personal style, your politics, your brand,” he said.
In addition to what Long calls the “kitty butt” shirt, The Bearded Heart’s catalog offers more than two dozen designs.
“I think they’re unique. They’re different,” said Patrizia Andreani, owner of Planet in downtown Wilmington, a local boutique that carries The Bearded Heart.
Long’s products can also be found in Wilmington in his own store, Madame Meerkat’s Cabinet of Curiosities in Old Wilmington City Market and at Port City Farmers Market at Independence Mall.
Andreani said popular Bearded Heart T-shirt designs for Planet customers have included Morticia, a pin-up mermaid and a double octopus, which Long said was taken from an antique scientific illustration.
His “Bad Hombre” and “Nasty Woman” tees and tanks, inspired by some of President Donald Trump’s words as he campaigned in 2016, are doing well.
“Every time I go to pull them off, I get more orders for them,” Long said, “especially the ‘Bad Hombre.’ It’s really funny to see the people who buy it. I can never pinpoint the demographic for that. I had like three Hispanic guys walk into my store one day and buy them, and they just pulled off their shirts and put them on right there and they were laughing and having the best time.”
His “Bad Hombre” design is also popular at high-end men’s store Rothman’s in New York City, he said.
Describing his aesthetic, Long said, “I like random, odd, surreal, absurd – these are things that I really love, and then, since I lived in Asia for two years, I’ve got a big Asian influence also.”
Previously, Long was a commercial photographer for 20 years in New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon.
“My focus was on music, fashion and editorial,” he said. “So it was mostly magazines and record companies.”
Around 2008, as a result of the Great Recession, Long decided to go to graduate school and get his master’s in business administration from Marylhurst University near Portland.
T-shirts were his graduate school project.
“I just kept doing T-shirt projects so I became known as the T-shirt guy around campus,” he said.
Long, who graduated from New Hanover High School in 1986, moved back to Wilmington in 2013, opening a photography studio and art gallery that he later sold. He married his husband, Alan Murphy, in 2015. Long designed the logo for his husband’s holistic coaching practice, Lifting Kale, which is based in Leland.
Long is currently working on a collaboration project with The Victorian Magpie, a local steampunk jewelry business owned by June Druchunas and Lois Wallace. The line of clothing and housewares that incorporates Victorian Magpie jewelry and materials will be co-branded with The Bearded Heart and The Victorian Magpie logos, Long said.
“There’s a very strong community in Wilmington of makers,” he said.
He’s also planning to branch out to offer a wider variety of products.
“This winter, I’m going to be coming out with more housewares. I’m going to be doing glassware, starting with pint glasses, then shot glasses,” Long said. “It’s going to be a full bar line and then the tea towels, some of them will become bar towels.”
In addition to finding The Bearded Heart at retail stores throughout the U.S., individual shoppers can also purchase Long’s products from his website
. Despite the rise of e-commerce and the closures recently of some national retailers, Long said he thinks retail, especially mom-and-pop stores, will continue to thrive.
“People really love to go walk around downtown and go into all the shops and see things because the thing is, shop owners are curators,” Long said. “They’re going to Vegas, they’re going to trade shows and they’re finding things that you can’t really go on Amazon and find.”