When he was a pre-med student at the University of Vermont, Jeffrey Levine designed rock T-shirts that he and his college buddies would sell in the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts to earn enough money to travel from show to show as part of the band’s legions of Deadheads.
Although Levine had been airbrushing his designs on jean jackets and T-shirts since he was in high school in New York, his goal was to become a plastic surgeon, not a T-shirt mogul. But market forces had another career path in mind for him. His Grateful Dead images, which he created while doodling in his science and organic chemistry classes, were so popular and prized that he soon had teams of Deadheads hawking them at shows.
As part of its hippie ethos, the Grateful Dead famously gave its tacit consent to the underground economy that flourished at its concerts. But selling a couple of veggie burritos was one thing. Making a killing in the T-shirt business was quite another.
“We had a lot of designs that were selling like crazy,” Levine recalls. “We had 20 or 30 guys out in these parking lots. It was working really well until we got a got a cease-and-desist letter from the Grateful Dead.”
Rather than shut his operation down entirely, though, the band thought Levine’s graphics were cool enough to offer him a licensing deal to officially create and sell merchandise for the Grateful Dead as well as the Jerry Garcia Band.
‘A wild ride’
Levine, who graduated with a degree in business, jumped at the opportunity, moved to San Francisco and toured Europe with the Dead in 1990, handling the band’s “merch” at shows in France, England, Sweden and Germany.
“It was a wild ride,” he remembers. “It was insane.”
When a senior design director for Levi Strauss & Co. happened to see one of Levine’s T-shirts on someone at a gym, it led to him being hired for the company’s hipster-oriented “Button Your Fly” ad campaign for 501 jeans in the 1990s. He went from being a self-described “long-haired hippie with a shoebox full of T-shirts” to heading up a San Francisco factory that employed 130 people and produced an initial order of 30,000 T-shirts for Levi’s. Other jeans companies came calling — Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, DKNY.
The hip-hop community also took notice. Levine was hired to create gear for the likes of Ice-T, Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z. In 1998, he sold his company, Turbo Productions, to Winterland Productions, the entertainment merchandise company started by the late rock promoter Bill Graham.
In 2009, Levine co-founded Golden Goods (goldengoodsusa.com), a company that designs and manufactures promotional apparel for corporate clients and the reemerging music merch industry. The company recently moved from San Francisco into a high-ceilinged space in a commercial building nestled in a redwood grove at 38 Miller Ave. in downtown Mill Valley. Part showroom, warehouse and business office, the place is packed with all manner of T-shirts, hoodies, tank tops, jackets, hats, pants, totes, blankets, water bottles, pillow cases, you name it.
Its customers range from big boys such as Google, Salesforce and Instagram to local folks like Old Mill School, Marin’s Camp Funderblast and the recent Mill Valley Music Festival. After years 15 years in the retail fashion business, Levine has developed a clothing line with a kind of distressed vintage look that comes in a variety of washes, treatments and colors. On his LinkedIn page, he describes himself as “a vintage culture enthusiast.”
“He saw a niche in the market for high-quality, super-soft, retail-quality branded apparel that people didn’t want to get rid of after wearing it one time,” says 41-year-old sales director Mara Mustola, who lives in Mill Valley and is the daughter of Arne Frager, former owner of the Plant Recording Studios in Sausalito. “We want our clothing to be the first thing people reach for in the morning to wear because it’s the coolest thing they own.”
True to his rock ‘n’ roll roots, Levine, 53, is busily creating merch for the bands Metallica and Jane’s Addiction as well as for music festivals that are making a comeback after two years of pandemic shutdowns. The company made it through those hard times by making and selling custom cotton jersey masks with slogans like “Stay Positive” on them.
When I spoke to him, Levine was in Southern California overseeing a pop-up booth at the BeachLife Festival in Redondo Beach after beginning the season with the Stagecoach Festival in Indio. Coming up are BottleRock in Napa, Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas and Stern Grove Festival and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco.
With 10 festivals this year, Golden Goods is tapped into a music merch industry that did $3.5 billion in business in 2018, up from $3 billion two years before, according to the trade group Licensing International. Golden Goods has five employees that increases to about 90 during festivals.
Now half of the company’s sales, music merch has a rock star cachet that corporate clients hope will rub off on their brands, Levine has found.
“People in Marin know how important music is,” he says. “They identify with the cool factor of music and would love to have their brand associated with the guys who do music.”
Contact Paul Liberatore at [email protected]