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Stacked three and four high and all around Blake Haney are brown boxes of just about everything: stickers, T-shirts, hats, socks — everything. Leaning back in his chair and turning his attention from his computer for what looks like the first time in several hours, the bearded, hoodie-clad entrepreneur is apologetic about the navigational difficulties the boxes around his office present.
“Excuse all the stuff,” Haney said. “It’s Christmas.”
It is, in fact, not Christmas. Not yet anyway. Thanksgiving is next week, but the apparel designer and founder of Dirty Coast is busy overseeing production runs that will fulfill a raft of holiday orders while also testing the first full redesign of his New Orleans-bred brand’s website — set to go live in less than a week.
Even as an aesthetics-minded creative, Haney admits that the new site is just as much of a necessity as it is a nicety. The growing clothing label needs to be equipped for a much higher volume of traffic and sales than it was even a few years ago. Three retail locations, a wholesale roster that has expanded to the Northshore and Baton Rouge and a storefront inside the sleek new Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport are a far cry from how Haney began when he first posted his NOLA-infused designs on CafePress 15 years ago as a side-hustle under the slangy moniker Dirty Coast.
“I thought ‘This’ll be fun,’ and then Katrina happened,” said the then-full-time commercial web designer.
While displaced in Lafayette for two months in the fall of 2005, the New Orleans native with a philosophy degree from Sewanee created a sticker that summarized in the simplest of terms how he felt. It read: “Be a New Orleanian wherever you are.”
Once Haney moved back to the city, he distributed stacks of these stickers to his favorite bars, cafés and retail shops. Locals in recovery from the storm snatched them up faster than he could restock. He decided then that Dirty Coast was about more than looking good; it could be a connection point for commentary, solidarity and community in his hurricane-ravaged hometown.
“The idea that New Orleans is not just a place, that you can be a NOLA convert really showed that this wasn’t just fun designs, that it would have more meaning to people,” Haney said. “And that became the direction and the voice for the brand.”
Since 2014, Haney has devoted his full attention to the start-up he said “ate” his web-design work, and he’s intent on moving Dirty Coast beyond graphic T-shirts.
“Blake has the ability to see the big picture and create space for creativity while our staff tackles the day-to-day to keep the machine rolling,” said Rachel Marcell, director of operations at Dirty Coast. “I think his drive for learning and connection is what brings success. He’s really [devoid] of ego, so that helps him to connect with the community and the neighborhood in a genuine way.”
Now, Dirty Coast’s outlet at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport will dress a new neighborhood of locals and visitors in designs ranging from soulful to silly, so they too can wear a little bit of New Orleans’ heart on their sleeves.
“I like the idea of making something that a community of people can interact with and take ownership of,” Haney said. “At our best, Dirty Coast has always done that.”
That interaction is expanding with the new website containing platforms for future Dirty Coast editorial storytelling through community-driven podcasts, articles and photo essays, and with the brand’s lagniappe coin, a black-and-gold doubloon good for 10 percent off Dirty Coast purchases forever and for select discounts from local businesses across the city. So far, more than 30 businesses have signed up to accept the coin as it catches on, not unlike that first New Orleans sticker Haney made almost 15 years ago.
Still, most don’t know the man behind the Big Easy-loving brand, and he likes it that way.
“I don’t have any interest in being the face of anything,” Haney said, scrolling through the new website. “I like being behind the scenes and tinkering with creative ideas. If I can make a living doing that, then I’m happy.”
If you could outfit one celebrity in a Dirty Coast T-shirt, who would it be and what shirt would you want them to wear? Harry Connick Jr. in “I Know What It Means” or Cam Jordan in our “There Is a House” design. Maybe Ellen [Degeneres] in the “Be a New Orleanian Wherever You Are.”
What do you like to do in your limited spare time? We bought a house in Bay St. Louis in 2018 and go there from time to time to turn everything off. The beach and being on the water is always relaxing. We take some trips with family and friends when we can.
Where’s the best place to hang out in NOLA or meet up with your Dirty Coast team? As I have gotten older, I prefer just being in my kitchen or someone else’s or on a porch to hang with friends, have some laughs, talk life. Every month or so, I host a steak night at Charlie’s Steak House and have 20 or so folks show up to eat and ‘meat.’
You like a good cigar, I gather. What is it about that pastime that you enjoy? I like that you have to sit and take your time. It is a moment of quiet.