Our series on Dumbing Down American Design, has afforded us opportunities to catch up with some really interesting people. Our final installment is no less attractive, interviewing both Howard Brown of Stewart+Brown and Davora Lindner, co-designer of Prairie Underground.
For the last time we revisit the driving question: Has our quest for convenience and rock bottom prices forever altered fashion and is American design becoming a thing of the past?
Brown, whose mother owned a boutique in Missoula, Montana for 30+ years says she taught him that fit was everything.
“It took us a couple times to get our sizing right but now we know exactly who we’re designing for,” says Brown, whose being raised around people trying on clothing has only helped Stewart+Brown when it comes to a base customer fit.
Today, 93 percent of Stewart+Brown is U.S. manufactured in L.A. facilities while the other seven percent – including knits – is outsourced to China, (what Brown calls our own ignorance in letting the knitwear industry fade away stateside).
But why China? “Why not?” Brown says. “People need to be very careful with their preconceptions of China. I think it all comes down to racial stereotyping and elements of ignorance based on headlines and media,” he adds. “In China, people are protesting over environmental degradation and unfair labor practices and getting shot and killed for it. We need to be supporting those people,” he says.
Brown is pretty outspoken about his line and manufacturing practices and with good reason. “When we first started out, there was no way to track the supply chain, it was uncharted territory. The easy solution would’ve been to just go the conventional route but we thought we’d use the opportunity to raise the bar on sustainable production and design,” Brown says, adding that thanks to today’s “conscious consumer,” who buys from lines like Stewart+Brown and Prairie Underground, they can do more than exist, they can thrive.
Davora Lindner co-designer of Prairie Underground says her label’s “hardscrabble approach to getting things done through hard work and keeping our hands busy,” has enabled Prairie to stay afloat just fine in the U.S. and almost completely in Seattle, WA.
“Local production is an extension of our work ethic and pragmatism, but it was also a choice and a political stance. Aside from the fact that we had no experience producing overseas, we wanted to produce our collection locally and were willing to work within that vernacular to make it a possibility,” she says, adding that it seems “bewildering and out of touch” to have production take place so far away.
Though disturbing to her and design partner Camilla Eckersley that fewer things are made in the United States, owning their own business also meant conscious choices to manufacture as well as design domestically. “Our responsibility now is to sustain the momentum and we feel an obligation to provide meaningful work for our subcontractors,” says Lindner.
Like a lot of independent designers Stewart+Brown and Prairie Underground’s business template was influenced by previous work experience.
Prairie co-designer Camilla Eckersley’s experience working for companies in San Francisco as a production sewer later evolved into a position of a production manager and after additional training she became a designer and pattern maker. “The companies she worked for all produced domestically so this was what she knew and became the basis for our company,” says Lindner. “I come from a background of a fine artist who made things by hand and learned new techniques at community art centers, networking at supply stores or in dialogue with other artists,” she adds.
Lindner’s grassroots approach has paid off and like in Brown’s L.A., there is a lot of micro-manufacturing happening all over Seattle for her to tap into.
“Our contractors work within 20 minutes of one another and some know each other or have employed the same sewers. They appear as pioneers in their neighborhoods and they operate more like small businesses than huge factories,” says Lindner.
While Prairie Underground and Stewart+Brown hold tight to their supply chains and do their best to keep all design in the U.S., Brown offers his best advice to an overlooked part of this whole series: the consumer. “Educate yourself. Dig deeper and look at the big picture all around you. Being a conscious consumer and supporting brands that support sustainability is the only way we’re going to win this battle.”