SOME MEN ARE INSPIRED BY WOMEN. OTHERS BY STRONG emotion. For Mike Love, it was a dog. And not just any dog.

“Auggie was a phenomenal dog,” he says. “Not only was he a great hunter and retriever, but he was an unbelievable family dog. People who had the pleasure of being around Auggie just loved him.”

In fact, Love even credits Auggie with child-rearing capacities.

“He basically raised our children,” he says.

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Auggie, a Labrador retriever that came into the Love home in 1985, also served as inspiration for Love’s very successful company, Labrador Apparel.

“People would always send me gifts that had something with a Labrador on them. But they were all things that didn’t suit my tastes that I would not wear,” he says.

Around the same time, Love, who was working in the contract apparel manufacturing business, says he wanted to “be on that side of the business.”

“I wanted to be wholesaling and retailing my own,” he says. “I had this desire to build a brand. And all of the sudden I had this idea. I was looking at this book with people wearing Polo shirts and I thought, ‘You know, people buy Polo shirts, and they don’t even play polo. A lot of people own labs, and they might wear something with a lab on it.”

But unlike the gifts he’d been given, Love set out “to create something tasteful, something simple.”

So, in the mid-‘90s, with a computer program, he created some T-shirts and caps with the silhouette of a Labrador retriever on them. “That became our trademark,” he says. Some neighbors commented on how much they liked the shirts and suggested he take a few to the Dallas Gift Market.

“I went to market in 1996,” he says, “and got a very warm reception. It kind of snowballed from there.”

Sales records show that Love’s revenues have doubled every year up until 2002.

“We slowed down a little then,” he says. “But it looks like this year, it’ll more than double last year.”

So what’s the big deal about a bunch of shirts and hats with dogs on them? According to Love, there is something of a cult of Labrador owners, and statistics back that up. The American Kennel Club recently announced that for the 13th consecutive year, Labrador retrievers were America’s most popular breed.

“Their intelligence factor coupled with their pleasant demeanor is a great combination,” says Love, who had owned three Labradors.

But, he says, the breed’s appeal is so great that even people who don’t own one buy clothes. The reason, he says, is this: “I developed a line embracing the essence or aura that I perceived the Labrador retriever as having, which is a casual-yet-elegant-yet-gentlemanly type of image. All of the shirts and items we produce try to maintain that focus.”

The clothing line has expanded to include designs that use photos of Love’s dogs, Buck, the late Auggie, who died in 1998, and Bailee. Love does most of the designs himself, on his computer, with the help of a professional photographer.

“It takes a lot of patience,” he says of working with dogs, which is one reason he misses Bailee so much, who died last August of congenital kidney disease.

“Bailee was such an unbelievable dog,” he says, recalling one of her photo shoots. “Of all things, my photographer had a cat in the studio, which was a major distraction. But Bailee sat there for three and a half hours. She’d let you mold her like you would a piece of clay. She did exactly what he wanted.”

It’s when Love talks about his dogs like this that you realize Labrador Apparel isn’t just a business for him, but a way of life. It’s a labor of love that he took on full time in 2000, quitting his job as a marketing director for a Christian ministry based in Amarillo.

“I just thought if I was ever going to see this thing reach the potential it had, I had better devote myself to it. Now I’m at it a little more than full time,” he says, chuckling.

Indeed, his business, based out of his home in Preston Hollow, continues to grow. The company sells apparel and some home design products in stores nationwide, mostly in high-end clothing stores and outdoor retailers.

“Pet stores are actually our smallest percentage of retailers,” Love says.

The company just debuted garments styled for women, and is developing a line of toddler-sized shirts. Other product developments are in the works.

“It’s really been encouraging just how much inspiration this market niche affords. We really have the ability to more than double our product mix,” Love says. “We’re just waiting to get to point where physical resources will allow us to do so.”

Love’s other immediate plans include getting another Labrador – a chocolate one this time.

“My daughter told me if I’m going to be in this business, I need to have one of each,” he says, laughing.


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