Chad Brown’s journey has been a winding one.
It’s a journey that has taken him from Texas to Iraq, Somalia to New York City, and Asia to Portland. But more than the journey itself, the company he’s founded along that journey, Soul River Runs Deep, is the embodiment of a belief and mission.
“Soul River is about the embodiment of our rivers and our personal relationship in and with nature. Your ‘soul river’ is defined by your interest, passion, and love for anything in Mother Nature that is precious and healing to you.”
The brand is about bridging the gap between two different worlds – urban and nature – and syncing the two worlds as a fusion of humanity, a stand for social justice, equality, artistic expression, and nature.
It’s a brand whose origins have to be traced back along the meandering journey of a creative mind.
The evolution of a designer
Chad’s creative tendencies started at a young age, and through a simple gesture by his mom. She would give him a poster board from the grocery store and he would draw characters from his picture books in ink.
But that gesture allowed Chad to evolve into an expressive and artistic person.
“As a youth, I was immersed in various extracurricular art programs within the community, public school system, and even the Art Institute of Dallas to study commercial art. Like many young, starving student artists, I needed to pay for my books, the classes, my supplies, and just school in general. That’s when I dropped out to go into the Navy.”
Chad’s time in the Navy included serving in the Operation Desert Storm Campaign in Kuwait and the Operation Restore Hope Campaign in Somalia. But even during those campaigns, he’d find opportunities to design through projects like a “how-to” manual for the command, which served as an aid for Navy and Army on-load and off-load transportation.
Once Chad left the Navy, he returned to school and completed his BFA in Communication Design at The Intercontinental University in Atlanta, Georgia. He stayed in Atlanta for a year freelancing and working as a young designer for Upscale Magazine.
“I knew that I had potential to go further but, like many artists, my strong suit was not sitting down and filling out paper applications for days. I remember sending my application into the Pratt Institute along with a cover letter that was written on a torn up fast food bag. I figured If these people know how to see beyond words on a paper, they will accept me.”
To Chad’s surprise, the administrators at Pratt believed in his potential and looked past his fast food bag cover letter and accepted him into the program. The Institute is based in Brooklyn, and while the New York City pace can sometimes swallow up people, Chad relished it.
“Living and studying in NYC inspired edginess, raw talent, and authentic perspective for me. At the time, I had never felt more expressive and true to myself. I graduated with a Masters of Science in Communication Design and the world was my oyster.”
But as he opened up that oyster, Chad quickly realized that the being a designer in NYC is not for the faint of heart. It was tough, hard and highly competitive. He worked for various agencies and design firms doing typography design, packaging design, identity development, fashion, and photography. But the agency world was not one he’d linger in too long and a moment that changed many people’s lives forever, played a role in his.
“After the Twin Towers came under attack on September 11, 2001, the economy went ballistic and, like many others, I lost my job. Actually, it was on that exact day when I was let go. I needed to survive in New York City and freelance was my only option. I came to realize, however, that I much preferred living and thriving as opposed to surviving. Surviving was symbolic to the struggle. I knew I could do better than struggle!
“Stepping out independently was, is and always has been in my DNA. I’m not one to follow the masses nor really work for the man. I’ve always been able to adapt to those environments but being so much of a creative, I tend to conceptualize and design really well independently.”
And working independently was something Chad relished at. He started as primarily a freelancer and evolved into more of a consultant, working with a broad mix of clients, including working and collaborating with Russell Simmons and his business Phat Farm. Chad was brought on to develop and design their running shoe launch.
Eventually, Chad’s freelance career took him overseas to do do design consulting and branding development in Japan, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, as well as throughout the US, including Los Angeles. During this time he wore many creative hats; from art directing, to working with photographers in front of the camera, to being the photographer shooting fashion ads, as well as working on high concept campaigns bringing “big ideas” to life.
“I helped launch the TIVO campaign in Los Angeles through Campbell Ewald West. Opportunities like these gave me more confidence in knowing I could take on the world of freelance. I was eventually hired to rebrand for Epic, a leading international garment fashion house in Hong Kong. As Asia’s industry leaders and one of the world’s leading garment manufacturers in the fashion industry, Epic boasts clients with internationally recognized names such as GAP, Abercrombie & Fitch, Costco, Levi’s, Hollister, Sears, and H&M, to name a few.
“My role was not just to rebrand, but to recreate the image of the company with a fresh appeal to European, North American and Australian clients with executive buying powers. I hired a team and conceptualized the branding, photography, and video. We shot film and photography in three different countries and ultimately delivered a successful outcome”
The soul of a brand
Chad moved to Portland and continued to focus in on his creative work, but there was something that kept pulling him in a different, and sometimes dark direction – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
His once focused journey became more uncharted and riddled with uncertainty, and where he found solace was fly fishing on the beautiful rivers of the Northwest. He was introduced to the sport and he began to learn and love more than just the sport itself. The river became the place where he found the embodiment of hope combined with solace.
The place where a brand vision was hatched.
“One day, I waded out into the river and began casting with my hand half-submerged in the cool water. I felt the current pushing a strong and consistent force against my legs and the sun was beaming warmth overhead and, for a moment, I felt a surge of strength run through me as if my inner-being was re-awakened. My mind felt clear and my soul inspired. I knew my talents and abilities could be merged with my newfound source of survival to provide exceptional, one-of-a-kind apparel and accessories for clients and customers and a medicine for my soul. Little did I know that it would spread to be much more than that! This was the ultimate conception of Soul River Runs Deep.”
The brand of Soul River helped Chad merge his passion for design and expression of creativity; it was the celebration of humanity and the desire to want to create a product line that speaks of nature and displays an artistic approach.
And that expression started with the design of the Naiad – a Greek goddess.
The Naiad is the nymph of the rivers – the protector, She lives only in healthy waters and clean environments and represents mother nature as her ambassador of aquatic and natural life amongst the rivers. Many anglers see this symbol as their good luck on the water. This initial design also led to an overall brand direction.
“My artistic process is walking between the natural world and the urban world merged with inspiration from Greek mythology and fantasy and striving to give a different perspective of beauty, nature, and eclectic modernism. Using weighted-line style design and incorporating shapes, space – both positive and negative – intricately to play into an organic and playful art that we know and can identify as well as position a unique breath of fresh air. “
As Chad evolved the brand and the products around it, he experimented in more than just soft goods and attempted to design his own Soul River fly fishing reel, an attempt he emphasizes will never happen again. He sold some of the reels, but realized this was not his best pursuit and use of talent and now the focus is squarely on soft goods. A line that is inspired by, and a merging of, military style and outdoor urbanism. A combination that defines the brand, and the various brand extensions Chad is working on.
“Design is intrinsic in everything that I do, even if it’s not seen or being worn. In my own space or in the outdoors with youth and vets, it is all connected to the artwork which is expressionistic, building the brand into the deployments of my non-profit, giving experiences that create a lifetime opportunity for veterans and youth.”
Evolving the brand in Kenton
The growth of Soul River Runs Deep, and a desire to make it more meaningful and approachable, led Chad to open up a small retail location in the vibrant Kenton neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that is eclectic, but also has a growing local business community that Chad saw an opportunity to be a part of.
The neighborhood is also a less hectic than other areas in Portland, which Chad admits is a positive to him.
“Kenton is a little low key which is actually an advantage for me because 95% of the time I am running the shop solo and have meetings or appointments with clients elsewhere that I have no option to miss. Saturday mornings and holidays bring out shoppers who are strolling by and wanting to engage with shop owners. The buildings are still original and have character and charm. It’s easy to let your imagination tell stories of Kenton’s history. In addition, the food scene is bustling and tends to have its own heartbeat.”
The Kenton neighborhood also stuck out to Chad because it still holds history, as the gentrification isn’t as rampant as in other neighborhoods and that demographic base is very important to the bridge Chad is hoping to build – an accessible location to the diverse demographic which the brand of Soul River serves.
“The local demographic was important to me for a variety of reasons. I was aiming to be in an ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhood, one that was accessible, and one that was familiar for inner-city youth and families to visit. I appreciated that I was twenty feet from the bus and MAX line, making it more accessible for today’s urban youth. If you peek around Kenton, you won’t see any other business like Soul River Runs Deep. If you look at other fly shops, they tend to be close to rivers or on outskirts of towns…not typically in the center of the urban world. Soul River Runs Deep is so much more than a fly shop – we are a haven for new anglers of color and recently returned veterans, a boutique space that anyone can find something uniquely designed and created from Portland, and a unique shopping experience that boasts raw creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.”
Inside the retail location you’ll find more than just Soul River branded products. Chad offers a few fine local goods for customers, and that gives the shop a different and eclectic dynamic for the customer. Soul River is an anthropology mashup between art, design, nature, and fly fishing.
But forging a new retail brand while supporting a growing nonprofit poses many challenges, challenges that many entrepreneurs can relate to.
“At this very moment, the biggest hurdle is the balancing act of running a retail shop, being a creative and doing freelance design work, and directing a grass-roots, new non-profit. It’s incredibly taxing and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for ‘me,’ but I believe that the entrepreneurial path is the right one for me. With that, there are oftentimes no ‘days off.’ I have to be aware of my limits and take care of myself, but at the same time I am always creating concepts, brainstorming, and networking.”
However, in addition to the challenges, there are many opportunities on the horizon for the Soul River brand. The work Chad has done around his nonprofit, Soul River Runs Wild, is well documented. He has bridged a gap between urban teens, the environment, and veterans to being mentors for these inner city youth while teaching them the art of fly fishing.
Chad sees the opportunity to bridge the design world to inner city youth and veterans.
“This is something that I have definitely considered. Right now, I integrate design and photography in secondary and tertiary ways – designing a fly on the vice, providing opportunities for expedition participants to help the videographer. Someday, I do plan to integrate this in a richer way, but not this year.”
Trying to not do everything at once is something Chad is working on doing, and evident in the advice he’d give his former self.
“Focus on one company at a time.”
For now though, Soul River Runs Deep and Soul River Runs Wild continues to build bridges that connect design to the outdoors and inner city youth to veterans, and where success is not solely focused on the bottom line, but on the impact you have on others.