Growing up along the New Hampshire Seacoast, Michael Fiacco is no stranger to the inspiration that so many seem to draw upon from this special place. The concrete slabs of a winter swell that bring out only the most badass and dedicated surfers or the crowded sunny summer days where so many find their footing in surfing. Each in their own respect make this place so unique.
But Fiacco wasn’t always moved by the power of the ocean and the endless coastline to which he drove along almost every day. Like many other kids, he was completely enamored with the sports he played. Focusing his attention entirely on his love and passion surrounding basketball growing up, it wasn’t until he was 17 when he started to realize just how magical a place he’d been surrounded by his whole life.
In the beginning of his junior year of high school in 2015, Fiacco was introduced to surfing. It wasn’t long before he fell in love with the sport and the community surrounding it, not only in his hometown of Hampton, but in the surrounding towns along the Seacoast. Skiing and an infatuation with the White Mountains shortly followed his introduction to surfing. It changed Fiacco in many ways, ways that would forever alter his life and how he chooses to spend it.
With a natural artistic ability that he shied away from his whole life, Fiacco went to the drawing board and illustrated what he loved most about skiing in New Hampshire and surfing along the coast. Out of it, his clothing brand, Rhea. “Designing my own clothes was inspired by the art but Rhea was inspired by surfing and skiing,” Fiacco explained. “When I started Rhea, I started to do both, and I fell in love with the lifestyle. Out of that came the brand.” After working on designs for the summer and getting the brand together, in the fall of 2016 Rhea’s first order of apparel came to life thanks to the help of a local t-shirt printer in the Seacoast area. With her help and Fiacco’s designs, Rhea was born. And with Rhea, he finally found an outlet to express his creative ability. “It was doing alright in high school because honestly, the designs weren’t that good, and the quality of the clothes wasn’t great,” he said. “But as I started learning more, everything started to get better.” Going into his freshman year at the University of New Hampshire in the fall of 2017, the idea of his brand blossomed into a reality for Fiacco that he believed could amount to something. But even with the best intentions to put a lot of effort into the brand during his first year at school, like every new college student, the adjustments and craziness surrounding college life caught up to him. As a result, Rhea was put on the back burner.
“Going into college I was like ‘I am going to focus on this,’” he said. “I wasn’t and still haven’t been just because everything gets in the way. College certainly gets in the way, you get swallowed up by social life, classes and everything else.” It’s not that the designs take all that long, according to Fiacco. As a matter of fact, he said that coming up with ideas is the most strenuous part, although bringing them to life isn’t all that taxing. “Coming up with the ideas is the hardest part,” he said. “I open up Photoshop and just start drawing on there. They honestly don’t take me long to make; one morning I decide it’s time to design for the next order and it usually takes me a day.” Rather, it’s the struggle of learning how to balance Rhea with school, social life, work and the desire to get out on adventures and to create these lasting memories outside of Durham. And to top it off, the profit margins of clothes are tough; with most people in college on a budget, charging $60 for a sweatshirt just isn’t a plausible business plan, Fiacco explained. Yet, Fiacco’s struggle hasn’t deterred him from the brand. Instead, pushing him to think outside the box for ways to improve and make Rhea more than just a clothing brand, without adding more stress to his already busy life. And what better way to think outside the box than his newest idea and endeavor: creating his own alcoholic seltzer, Wicked Hard Seltzer, presented by Rhea. While the idea is just in its beginning stages, Fiacco’s plan to work alongside UNH graduate and grassroots brewer, Blake Wasson, is something they both hope will come to fruition. Fiacco has plans to contact local businesses along the Seacoast soon with the idea once the brewing begins. Regardless of the plan coming to life or not, Fiacco still plans on making clothing, while keeping a focus on doing things with the brand that keep it fun and fresh and not so much of a chore.
Last year Fiacco approached the popular surf shop Cinnamon Rainbows in Hampton to see if they’d be willing to sell an order of t-shirts and hats that he had just recently designed with the brand’s most well-known design, the skeleton hand throwing up a shaka sign. Dave Cropper, owner of the popular surf shop, agreed, and the product flew out the door. Although he didn’t ask for any money in return, being involved with the brand and shop that helped inspire the brand was enough for Fiacco to feel satisfied and motivated to continue to work alongside some of the most influential people and businesses on the Seacoast. Fiacco’s relationship with Cinnamon Rainbows hasn’t stopped there. Fiacco has been working on a collaboration with the surf shop, designing a logo that incorporates the best of Rhea and Cinnamon Rainbows.
“I came out with the octopus design last year on a sweatshirt and it blew up,” he said. “So I decided to incorporate the octopus design within the Cinnamon Rainbows logo.” Although he isn’t sure whether the design will be printed, Fiacco has high hopes that this will be sold in the shop soon. Through all the ups and downs of the past four years, Fiacco has made it clear that without the help and support of the people who have believed in his work, the brand wouldn’t be where it is today. That support and popularity of the brand were evident when he released his newest designs on a sweatshirt last month that sold out in less than 24 hours. “It’s wild, you know,” he said. “Like literally there isn’t a week that goes by when somebody asks me if they can buy something. And it sucks that I don’t have anything. People look at me and say, ‘that’s the Rhea kid.’ I think that’s kind of cool.” And while the brand has developed and evolved throughout these past few years, Fiacco’s new mission is to create a place where all the best skiers, surfers and creators can come together and unite to produce a brand bigger than designs on clothes. “If I had it my way, I’d have the [Rhea] van and all the boys would hop into the van and do trips and adventures all throughout the country,” Fiacco said. And while the van idea might be put on hold until after graduation, Fiacco is keeping it close to his chest, hoping – maybe – just maybe to see his wildest dreams for this brand come to life. “When I’m designing these clothes, it’s a friendly reminder to keep doing the stuff that you love,” Fiacco said. “I’m going to keep doing it because who knows what could happen? It’s fun.”