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Hallsville designer 'pushing boundaries' with clothing line

By Bridget Ortigo
Jan. 7, 2017 at 10:04 p.m.

A portrait of Ben Johnson of Icon State, on Tuesday December 6, 2016, in Hallsville. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

HALLSVILLE — Hallsville fashion designer and business owner Ben Johnson has created a new clothing line that has some folks in stitches and others unraveling at the seams — and he's making no apologies for any who might be offended.

In fact, Johnson said he's out to ruffle a few feathers with his clothing line, Icon State Fashion Apparel.

"A lot of companies and fashion brands play it safe — they try to be politically correct," Johnson said. "Icon State is about pushing boundaries and challenging beliefs. It's about wearing clothing that's funny and that says what everyone else is really thinking but won't say."

The pull-no-punches East Texas husband and father's new clothing line is catching the eye of customers from Austin to California with its controversial topics and images.

California fashion blogger "Chantillicious" Chantal Nicole McCulligh called Johnson's line a "fashion statement that goes beyond style."

"(Johnson's) craft is wildly amazing, and his designs have the ability to change the way people think," she wrote in a recent blog post. "Plus, some of the stuff is downright hilarious and we could all use some humor in our life."

Johnson said his clothing line is meant to be fun and thought-provoking.

"Our designs are there to provoke emotion, whether good or bad," Johnson said. "People either love us or hate us. Either way, we've got them thinking and talking."

Johnson, 38, uses his designs on shirts and hats to poke fun at some of society's most taboo, controversial and hot ticket topics, all while throwing in a healthy dose of sarcasm and humor.

While Johnson's line finds supportive customers in certain demographics, especially with younger generations, the artist understands that some in his native East Texas won't welcome the line with open arms.

"I think our target market is 18 and up and anyone brave enough to wear it," he joked.

'Right from wrong'

His designs also offer support for causes or groups, such as the LGBT community, and his designs make light of current events, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline stand off.

"You know, I'm from here and went to high school here in Hallsville," he said. "I used to be offended by stuff like this. I was taught 'right from wrong,' and it took a lot of reading and exposure to different ideas to begin questioning what we consider 'right and wrong.' It wasn't until I was older that I started thinking and questioning what I had always been taught. Take homosexuality — I am amazed to think there are people in our society who feel they have to hide that part of themselves and I can't belive how hard that must be."

Johnson, a father of four, said he believes all people should be treated the same and not chastised for their beliefs, race or sexuality.

"I think all people are equal," he said. "Being equal is something I value. Our company, Icon State, believes all people are equal, no matter their race, creed, sexual origin or religion. We all get so offended so easily. I personally have to work on that myself — asking myself sometimes, 'why does that offend me?'"

The fashion line, which started up this past summer, does most of its sales online though he also sets up booths at festivals and events, such as the Austin Pride rally.

"I was working for a guy in Longview doing embroidery prints and screen prints, and I had been watching all these sensitive things going on in the media lately," Johnson said. "My friend and I started making jokes and talking about it all and we came up with some ideas."

Those ideas turned into the clothing line known as Icon State, where he pairs double entendres or catch phrases with risque and humorous images.

The line carries women's, men's and children's shirts and trucker hats. Johnson said he has plans to open an Icon State boot line this year.

Christmas controversy

Johnson has recently turned the fashion line into a family affair by starting a children's line of Christmas shirts, designed by his children.

Though the shirts are made for children, they have not escaped criticism and controversy.

Icon State's "Santa Ain't Real" shirt, designed and illustrated by Johnson's 6-year-old son, Asher, has drawn recent criticism from some.

Johnson's wife, Shannon Johnson, who works at Hallsville High School, said she has received upset phone calls from parents about the shirt after she posted a photo on social media of Asher wearing it.

"I posted something that was funny to our family and people lost their minds," she said.

Johnson said he's baffled that people are mad about a T-shirt that tells the truth and this is the exact reason he created the clothing line — to point out the ridiculous and often hypocritical side of humanity.

"This is what Icon State is all about. Isn't it crazy how upset people get over Santa?" Johnson said. "We also find our holiday funny T-shirts to be quite ironic. People will be offended by the shirt because it tells people the truth. Just let that sink in for a moment — it tells the truth. ... I don't know why people want to lie to their kids."

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