If you see Big Dog pointing or staring menacingly from a graphic tee with something nasty to say, you probably haven’t done anything to deserve it. Still, the core canine character of Big Dogs Sportswear can do a good job at scaring you off when he asks, rhetorically, “Do I look like a freakin’ people person?” Big Dog also has a tendency to come for your intelligence, his big paw in a fist: “Talk slower, I don’t speak stupid!”
But if you caught Big Dogs during 2020, you may have witnessed a different kind of dog altogether. Something was up: the Big Dog was acting a lot kinder, both on Instagram and on tees. The Big Moment began in January when the brand resurfaced on its freshly-wiped Instagram page with a slate of memes. The Big Dog was cast in a wholly new light: he was still aggressive, but instead of accosting onlookers, he was simply reminding his followers to hydrate, offering positive vibes and support, while asking nothing in return. The brand wasn’t totally neutered, though. The size of the Big Dogs ego remained, and the big dogs behind the Instagram account wouldn’t let us forget it, reminding followers that Big Dog scales far bigger than Clifford, the other iconically big dog. The memes ran parallel with new, weirder tee shirts that asked: “Have you considered spending the entire day on the Internet?”
When COVID-19 struck last March, Big Dogs used its powers for good, encouraging social distancing, playfully embracing the existential dread of quarantine, and nodding faintly toward anticapitalism. When protests against systemic racial injustice and police brutality against Black people began over the summer, Big Dogs released its Pawsitivity Pack: four equality-inspired tees, with 100% of proceeds going to Black Lives Matter (a source told GQ this effort raised approximately $10,000 in donations). For Pride Month, the Big Dogs Pride Pack with tees explicitly embracing trans positivity, and also included a “Barkback Mountain” tee. As recently as 2017, The Awl had suggested that “If you like dogs and toxic masculinity, you may be familiar with Big Dogs Sportswear.” Something changed for the brand in 2020, but it wasn’t clear why. An old Big Dog with a troubled past had apparently learned new tricks, or at least picked up a new owner.
The brand’s origin story is suffused with laid-back beach vibes. In 1971, two best friends and fellow Vietnam vets returned home, founding camping gear brand Sierra West. A decade later, in 1983, the company produced a pair of “oversized, vividly colored shorts” for a river-rafting trip. “Man, these puppies are BIG!” one rafter explained, per company lore, and the Big Dog was born. (In 2017, The Outline reported a slightly different story: where the designer in question came back from that fateful outdoorsy trip with the “big puppy” line, but didn’t think to literally screenprint it on a pair of shorts until after he sketched the Big Dog character.)
Regardless of its exact origin, Sierra West went big with the Big Dog iconography. For a while, the puppies were indeed big. In the brand’s heyday, which spanned the 90’s and 00’s, celebs like Will Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and David Collier proudly sported big Big Dogs prints. The brand gave bright California surf energy in neon colors, large-scale prints, and an unmissable St. Bernard-esque Big Dog, situated right alongside early-days Stussy and pre-Target Mossimo.
But the brand filed for bankruptcy in 1990, with new ownership pivoting to an outlet model. As outlet malls fell out of favor and business imperatives changed, so did the Big Dogs wearers. The core demographic was now the middle-aged, “average-Joe,” “salt of the earth,” and “very ‘Middle America’” customer, former Big Dogs brand director Steve Dawson told The Outline. By the late 90’s, Big Dogs had fully reached the snark of brands like Big John and Coed Naked, contributing to the phenomenon of the “D-Shirt”, or Douchebag shirt. To this day, the Big Dogs online shop boasts a dedicated section for tees with especially “Big Attitude.”
The man behind Big Dog’s radical shift was Hayden Slater, co-founder of Pressed Juicery. Slater took co-ownership of Big Dogs and its parent, The Walking Company Holdings in May 2019. Flipping through old-school catalogs, he unearthed Big Dogs’ past: “There was a moment where Big Dog started getting a little bit mean,” he notes. “There was this personality that came out that was like, if you can’t hang with the big dogs, get off the porch.” But Slater also saw a road forward. “I started saying, can [Big Dogs] come from this loving, fun, inclusive place? Or has the brand gotten a little bit fratty or mean-spirited?” Looking back, he knew the brand had already accomplished plenty of good with its historically inclusive sizing up to 6X, making Big Dogs it an outlier in the fashion world. “How fucking dope is that? Celebrating bodies, celebrating shapes? Everyone could be a part of this,” Slater says. “I [felt] like the dog [was] ready to evolve again.”
The goal was simple: “The Big Dog [was to become] the anti-bully.” Slater brought on music-industry ghostwriter E.B. Sollis as Big Dog’s brand director to take on the challenge of shifting its reputation. Until Big Dogs, Sollis hadn’t done anything close to creative direction, but he did know how to work within someone else’s voice.
Sollis, looking back on the mission, jokes, “I don’t know if dogs get facelifts, but the first thing that I did when I was there was redevelop the mission statement.” The new core principle: Go Big, Do Good. The company hired another savvy brander Elena Flores in January 2020. Together, Flores and Sollis reminded the Internet of Big Dogs’ legacy as an “epic sand brand,” repackaging it for today’s market as the “anti-Supreme.” To Sollis, this didn’t mean the brand couldn’t also be cool, but it did mean staying accessible for anyone desiring the loyalty of a Big Dog—“a protector, rather than a bully.”
The new Big Dog had a limited impact: Big Dogs’ transition was happening quietly and without press. One of the few places people had noticed the shift was the miscellaneous section of a gaming forum where, in September 2020, one user finally asked the right questions: “What is going on at Big Dogs clothing? What timeline have we splintered into? Did anyone really expect a company like Big Dog to really put out a pro-trans shirt?” Sadly, those questions would remain unanswered: after less than a year into its rebirth, Big Dogs went dark on social media. Its most recent post is dated December 4th, 2020.
Slater says that while the rebrand had built awareness among a younger, cooler audience, it “wasn’t really translating to sales.” The numbers showed that income at Big Dogs was still “coming from loyal, mass America.” Slater insists that “the excitement [hasn’t] stopped or paused or dissipated, but unfortunately we got hit with a global pandemic,” and says he is hopefully that, “when the dust settles, we can really come back and launch these brands in a way that really resonates with consumers as we enter this new world, whatever it is that it’s going to look like.”
Big Dog’s delayed rebirth will have to happen without its chief architects, as both Sollis and Flores are no longer employed with Big Dogs. “At the end of , we decided to part ways. Like, they just weren’t going to do the brand anymore,” Sollis recounts. “It was incredible to have an opportunity to really express tolerance, love, and inclusivity for everyone.”
Big Dogs is still alive and putting out new tees and promotional emails, but the Instagram account (which, Sollis and Slater say, gained over 15,000 followers under their direction) is the relic of that different dog who tried to change. Gone are self-aware memes, positivity, inclusivity and progressivism, and moral relativism. Only a few standout tees from the Sollis-Flores era remain available for purchase online, while newest Big Dogs tee releases have returned to old standbys like grilling, Americana, and beer. On Big Dogs’ final meme post before going dark, commenters ask (as recently as March 2021) “Where y’all at?” or else express their condolences for the abandoned rebrand.
I asked Sollis about the circumstances of his and Flores’ split from the company, but he declined to comment further beyond smiling sweetly and saying: “The greatest gift Big Dogs gave me was being able to, in this very bizarre moment in time, tell somebody that if they needed a friend, we’d be here for them, and that was represented by this big, wonderful, beautiful dog.”