Running a business that requires making something here (in the US) is a challenge. And, like spotting a knitter in the airport, as soon as I learn that someone is making a product and selling it, I want to talk to them. Compare notes. Commiserate. Celebrate.
One such person/company is Portland (Maine) clothing designer Brook There whose shop you’ll find on Wharf Street.
In a world where short-term thinking too often rules, I appreciate Brook and her partner, Daniel Pepice’s, thoughtful approach to their businesses (his is Seawall), sourcing environmentally friendly materials, using hands-on production, building a company for the simple satisfaction of making it work . It takes creativity to develop a strong business, there’s no single way to make a company thrive, adapt, inspire. Granted, it’s not always as much fun as thinking about shape and color, but a good business is a lot more than numbers. Especially if you’re thinking about how it can contribute something good to the neighborhood (or world), not just how much it brings in at the end of the quarter. (Though that matters, too, of course.)
As fellow small business/artisans, we thought it would be fun to collaborate.
In keeping with a guiding principle for Brook’s Spring ’13 collection, transparency, Quince knitted the Truffle, a gausey shrug in Sparrow (color Truffle) to pair with Brook’s Cream and Melon sundress. The Truffle Shrug’s shape, loose and flowing, is taken from another Brook piece. Love how it looks draped over the fitted dress.
More about Brook in the interview that follows:
When did you get interested in designing clothing? When/how did you learn to sew? What was your first project?
I started making clothes for myself when I was twelve. My mom bought me vintage patterns from the 1950s and ‘60s and I made a series of dresses. She taught me the basics, and then I learned techniques from books. I started designing clothing when I was 15 or 16. I was obsessed with fashion and sewing as a teenager and young woman, and that matured into a desire to run a business.
How do you think about clothing design?
Mostly, I’m inspired by what I want to wear, which is how I want to feel…do I want to feel feminine? Secure? Warm? Free? That feeling inspires a style or series of styles.
How do clothes relate to a person’s body, sense of well-being?
I think comfort, which is often related to good fit, is really, really important for a sense of well-being. This is why we choose almost exclusively natural fibers grown using organic methods and focus on wearable styles.
How did you determine a niche for yourself?
It happened really slowly. I had been designing the Brook There collections for a couple years before we added undergarments and lingerie styles. As ever, the choice to add intimates came from not being able to find something I liked in the market. I wanted to be able to wear pretty, organic cotton, well-fitting, wireless undergarment styles- and couldn’t really find any to buy. Developing the techniques we use to construct undergarments took several years.
You mention that you were working in your Spring ’13 collection with transparency, right? Where did that idea come from? Will it be part of your Fall collection?
Transparency seemed right for spring! Lots of layers. Like the natural world. For fall, I started working more with wools, organic gingham wovens, and suiting.
What’s your working day like? What are your best working hours?
I’m usually at the workshop from 11am-7pm. Unless we’re doing photography or website stuff, I don’t really use a computer at work. I reserve mornings for intellectual pursuits, creative thinking alone, work that I need to do without interruption.
How much hands-on sewing do you do? Do you make your prototypes yourself?
I sew a lot of the prototypes and do the pattern-making for the brand. Every season we repeat some of popular styles in new colorways, and usually someone who works with me helps with the cutting and sewing of samples.
Do you see hands-on making and designing as a single process, two halves of the same thing? Or would you be happy sketching and turning your sketch over to someone else to construct?
For me, sketching alone and passing it off wouldn’t be possible. Designing/ pattern-making/ and construction choices are inherent to the process, i.e. a single process, and the creative, fun part!
What’s the most important skill a home sewer should master? What’s your favorite sewing tool?
That’s a tough question for me. Once you’ve sewn with industrial machines, it’s almost impossible to imagine going back to home machines. One can’t really achieve the same look & feel on a home machine. Our buttonhole machine has changed my life. I used to design to avoid buttonholes, and now I can use them as much as I want! It’s encouraged me to add more woven styles.
How does fabric relate to your design sense? Do you ever start with fabric and go to design? Or does silhouette and drape determine what fabrics you choose?
It’s a bi-directional process. Since we’re mostly choosing organic cottons and wools, we’re really limited in what we can buy. So I usually start with fabric and design from there.
Do you do your thinking and designing in your store space or do you work at home as well? What would the perfect design/sewing studio look like?
I do the hands-on work at the workshop, but sometimes I sketch at home. My sketching is very functional, just quick line drawings of the styles, usually flat, not on a figure. There are both drawbacks and positives to having a combined workshop/ retail space, of course. It’s nice to have customer and public interactions, but it’s also easy to feel interrupted, if the day is too busy.
How do you stay inspired? Does living in Maine contribute to what you ‘see’ when you’re coming up with ideas?
The seasonality of Maine is a definite positive for design work. Summer and winter are really different, so it’s easy to naturally differentiate between the seasons. Additionally, I’m usually designing for the season exactly twelve months ahead, i.e. right now (September) I’m designing fall 2014.
Portland isn’t the fashion hub of the world. What advantages are there in being in a small city, as opposed to NYC?
Cheap rent. Easy travel. No lines. I’m a small-city person. I don’t like driving or public transportation, so Portland is the perfect size. We can walk or bike anywhere!