STUDIO: Elizabeth Brunner - Piece x Piece
Gorgeous fabrics, natural dyes, high quality construction, small scale production, environmental consciousness - these are the cornerstones of the San Francisco based clothing company called Piece x Piece. It's easy to see that founder, designer, and maker Elizabeth Brunner is truly passionate about her business. Recently, we had a very genuine and inspiring conversation about how she started her company, what drives her, and what's in store for Piece x Piece.
Ana: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background.
Elizabeth: I’m a California girl. I was born in the Bay area, in San Jose. That’s where I’ve lived my whole life. I lived in London briefly, for six months for an internship I did for interior architecture. I came back and applied to CCA - California College of the Arts for interior architecture and was doing that for about a year and I found myself visiting the fashion department quite often. They were always displaying their work and I found myself really interested in it and less interested in IA so I ended up switching my major to fashion design the following year. Actually, really the following semester I started to go in there and take some classes. So that was a good revelation that I had, especially after living overseas for a while and then coming back, ready to start interior architecture and realizing that it’s really not a great fit for me. So that was great. And London was a great inspiration for fashion as well because it’s a huge city, there's a lot going on, there's a lot of fashion and I was by myself a lot. I didn’t really know anyone in London. I just found myself walking around into different shops and really observing the different fashion work. It didn’t really occur to me until I returned that I really should be doing this.
A: It's nice how it kind of naturally drew you in.
E: Yeah. So then I was in school for fashion, and my junior year I took a local internship here in the city with this company that unfortunately is no longer in business but it was called ISDA & CO. They made womenswear. I had an internship there for the summer which was great - really nice people, really low-key environment. And I knew that I didn’t want to be the type of person that would work for like Donna Karan or Ralph Lauren...that just wasn’t me, I didn’t feel like that was something I was gonna do.
A: Was it a certain aspect of the way they work or the type of fashion they make?
E: Yeah, I’m not really a trend person, so I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time, but I knew that I didn’t want to be in that world. And also I had a fiancé - who I eventually married - and so I just knew that that’s not the place to go. I had a great experience in London and I’ve been to NY several times but I just knew that’s not where I wanted to end up. I ended up taking a sustainability class in school that was required and through that class, I realized this was the area that I needed to be in. That coupled with the internship - it’s a very serendipitous story. I ended up doing piece work because they were getting rid of sample fabrics that they normally discard after each season - boxes and boxes of fabrics that just get tossed because they’re small, no bigger than a piece of paper.
A: Oh, wow.
E: When I was doing my internship, they asked me to sort through some of the boxes and then call the dump to get the rest. I was like, “What do you mean? You're gonna throw this away?” and you know, they were a small company and they did beautiful work, small batch work; so they had a lot of Italian wools, beautiful silks, pieces that are kind of heartbreaking to see thrown away. Then I realized, if they do this - and they’re such a small company - every company is doing it.
A: Wow, I’ve never thought about that.
E: Yeah, I never had either. It just never occurred to me to think about it and we don’t talk about it in school - we talked about different types of fabrics, but we didn’t talk about the business itself and definitely not the business of trash. So I asked them if I could take the fabrics home and I was going to give them to the school, because I thought, “We always need sample fabrics, we don’t have a great selection here.” So I ended up taking them home because it was a summer internship and I wasn’t in school. I was a senior and my intention was to give them to the school...I for some reason thought it would be a great idea to get married my senior year...we got married the first week I was in school my senior year.
A: That's a lot at once, huh?
E: That’s a lot. Couple that with doing your final thesis and the craziness of senior year - I sort of forgot about the fabric...I did say I wanted to bring it in and give it to the sample library and that was the intention and was supposed to happen, but what ended up happening was that they didn’t have space for it so I ended up keeping it...this is leading up to a very long story, I’m sorry.
A: Oh, no! I love this, this is the whole idea - I want this to feel like someone who is reading it is sitting down and having a chat with you and learning all about you, so this is perfect!
E: Yeah, okay good. So anyway, after I graduated from college I was so happy to be done and my husband said, “What about these boxes that you have in the garage? What are you gonna do with them?” I didn’t want to throw them away myself, I still felt the same guilt that I felt the first time I was confronted with the fact that this happens so I said, “Maybe I can make something with them. Maybe I can make blankets…” You know, whatever you would think of normally as square pieces fitting together - quilts, blankets.
A: Yeah, that's the go-to.
E: Right. So I took them upstairs and was messing around with them. I have a dress form at home and was putting them on the dress form. All of a sudden, things started coming together - an actual garment. So I was like, “I’ll see what happens.” I started sewing them together and putting them on the dress forms and talking to my husband about them. He was like, “This looks great, you should keep going!” So with his encouragement, I developed a few pieces that I put together, made a pattern and that’s kind of how Piece x Piece was born. And as I was putting it together, I was really doing it piece by piece, so that’s how the name came to be.
So that’s the story of how I developed the name and the brand ethos, and from there I have a very small collection of pieces that I started out with that are seasonless. About a year after I launched the brand, I got pregnant.
A: Oh, exciting! And when was that that you officially launched it?
E: I officially launched in 2010. Then a year after that, I got pregnant with twins - which was a total shock. So I wasn’t here that much, I had to really take it easy. Twins are a high risk pregnancy, so I wasn’t here that much. For nine months I was just doing small things, doing shows...I had my kids - they were premature - so they were in the hospital for a month, luckily with no health problems, just they were small. But it took me a long time to get back into the studio after that - probably a year.
A: That’s actually really impressive, especially with two!
E: So from there, I was kind of like, “Well, I had a lot of great press when Piece x Piece was launched, everybody loved the sustainable aspect of it, the story of using this forgotten fabric.” But it sort of lost steam, it never really translated to dollars. So then I started thinking, “How can I keep what I’m doing but also introduce another aspect to the collection that would be interesting?” And then I got into hand dyeing. So my intention was to hand dye the pieces that were already made. I wanted to keep the aspect of the pieces but also add dyeing. What I discovered was that it was a lot of work. This [while showing me a specific piece] is probably about four or five hours of work and then it’s sewn - I have a professional sewer. You have to piece everything, you have to cut it down, make sure it’s even, make sure it’s on grain - it’s a lot of work. You have to take everything off of the boards, cut it down, make sure there’s no glue, make sure there’s no stickers, make sure there’s no staples, it’s pretty intense actually.
A: Yeah, and those pieces are small - there are a lot of them that come together.
E: Couple that with hand dyeing, it can add another two hours to it, so it became too expensive to do this. Then I thought maybe I’ll just make a whole piece and then dye that piece, which was pretty cool too. The problem with that is [for example] it’s purple here and then it starts to get brown - that’s because all of these fabrics are different and you don’t know how they’re gonna react, so it would be hard to predict how each one would come out. So I was like, “Okay, back to square one.” I really started to enjoy dyeing and learning about the chemistry…
This [here] is a donated fabric - I sometimes get donated fabric from different designers.
A: Who would probably be just getting rid of it?
E: Yeah, they would be getting rid of it, they don’t need it. And I get yardage. Then this is bamboo knit that I buy locally and this is all hand dyed. So it still has the Piece x Piece aspect to it, it’s just in a different form. But then I was like, “I have to create a whole new collection because they don’t really match.” So this is Piece x Piece limited edition, and it evolved into Piece x Piece hand dyed small batch.
A: So you said they’re all natural dyes and I saw from your photos that you use turmeric, what else?
E: Yeah - turmeric, cochineal, logwood - the purple is logwood - and logwood is tree bark that comes from Latin America. I buy them locally at this great shop in Marin. They sell all these great dyes that are natural. They also have chemical dyes, but I don’t use chemical dyes, I only use the natural dyes. So I can control [the color] somewhat natural fibers are the best fibers to use, like wool, cotton, silk. This piece here is hemp silk, it’s a great fabric and I also buy that locally. So it’s sort of evolved to piecing but also using natural fibers more, using natural dyes, hand dyeing. That’s where it is now.
A: What inspires your designs currently?
E: Right now, I’m inspired by just what ends up coming out of these dyes. I’ll look at a piece - the jacket and this piece, they came about because I didn’t wanna cut them. They’re so beautiful, so I didn’t want to be cutting into them so that sort of inspired this - making other pieces, like how can I show off these beautiful dyes more? The dyes and how they came out really inspired developing the line further and making pieces that would show off the natural aspects.
A: That’s great when the natural beauty of the material inspires the end product, I love that.
E: I’m also inspired by just things that I would wear. I’m a mother and how can I make something that’s easy to wear, for most bodies, for most people that is also a great piece to have in your closet? So I think about - selfishly - myself, because I’m gonna wear it and I want people to ask me about it. I’m doing another top - two more pieces - and then I’m gonna be done with the collection, but I was also like, “Maybe I could do wall hangings...” because the wall hangings are kind of cool and I have another piece back here...it’s such a mess.
A: Oh, no, I love this - I will love photographing all of this. It’s a beautiful mess.
E: So this is a part of my process, I look at the piece for a while and I’m thinking about where I want it to go, how I can cut it. I kind of just hang out with it for a little bit. Then I’ll move it on to what I want it to be.
I use a lot of rust - look at this, this is disgusting - but rust actually yields a lot of beautiful color. Depending on what you mix it with, it can actually turn some things black. Logwwod and rust has a burnt look to it but really a beautiful copper. I had a friend - I should give full credit - who does hand dyeing and is an expert with natural dyes who came and helped me a few times, which was great. She was like, “Let’s go out there and get rust because there’s gotta be rust out there!” And there was plenty. So it gets like - look how gross, it’s like bubbling on the top - but this is really how you make rust and it works really well with the dyes. I guess this is my rust pot now. Haha.
A: Yeah, that’s gonna stay like that. Haha.
E: But I actually really like the way it looks when it’s mixed with different colors so I’m excited about all of the things that I can make with that.
So that’s kind of how it all evolved, where it’s at, and I feel like it’s really in transition but in a way that I’m really excited about and can’t wait to see how things turn out.
A: That’s awesome. So what’s a typical day in the studio like for you? Do you have a routine?
E: Usually I’m in mommy mode when I get here so it takes me a good 45 minutes to an hour just to get out of it. I’m here, I’m answering emails or I’m just looking through things. I don’t really actually start work until I can get out of that mindset, which is not easy actually. I didn’t actually realize that was my problem at first - [I was thinking,] “Why am I having such a hard time hitting the ground running when I come in?” Then I realized it’s because I leave my kids - and we have a nanny and she’s great - but they cling to me before I leave. They’re not upset, they just want hugs and and kisses and so I’m kind of still in that space when I get here and it takes me a while to get out of it.
A: Yeah, it’s definitely a very different mindset.
E: Yeah, and it’s hard for me to switch very quickly.
A: Right, it’s so hard to switch those gears, I understand what you mean. I actually nanny part time and I found the same thing - at first I was nannying for a half day and trying to come home and work and I was just like, “This is not working.”
E: It’s hard. So I usually do that, and it usual depends on - right now my sewer, who’s great and I love, she does an amazing job and has been sewing for 25 plus years professionally - she was in Hong Kong for the past month. There’ve just been a lot of things that have made things a little more challenging - a lot of bumps in the road. I wish I was further along but because she was away and then I was on vacation last week, it’s been hard. Then my pattern maker who helps me out, she has a full time job so I have to see how she can fit me in and just hope that she can. There’s just a lot of obstacles like that that I have to figure out. My day is just solving problems and figuring out how to move things forward - even if it’s slow, it’s still at least going in the direction I need it to go. You know, I don’t have a typical day, it changes all the time. It depends on what needs to get done, where my mind is at, what i can do. Sometimes I’ll start working on something and I’ll realize - and you probably have the same problem - it’s not feeling good.
A: Uh huh.
E: So I will stop it, I’ll leave it - not actually destroy it or take it apart - just leave it. Then I’ll go do something else, like sort fabrics or whatever, just to see if I can come back to it. Sometimes it will be the next day, the next week, or sometimes I won’t [come back to it]. If it doesn’t feel right, I just can’t finish it. A lot of my work - the bulk of my work - just comes from how I feel about it.
A: Very intuitive process.
E: Yeah, and just moving on from there.
A: What are some of your goals for the next year or two - or long-term?
E: My goal is to just kind of break even with what I’m doing and then slowly start to build more of a business. You know, I’m not interested in selling to different retailers so much as - I’m more interested in driving people back to my own website and having them purchase directly and building the business from there. But I’m wide open in terms of where it will go because I feel excited about the different aspects of what I’m doing. I’m hoping that I can just make more money now that - you know, my kids are a little bit older, they’re gonna be starting preschool, they’re going to have a routine. They don’t have much routine right now which makes me not have a routine, so I’m hoping that that daily routine of knowing what to expect will help me focus and make things happen.
A: I’m sure it will!
E: So yeah. I hope to do a couple trade shows, lean toward selling on my own website, maybe selling some things locally. But it takes a lot of time to do hand dyeing so I’m gonna see what kind of reaction I get from this collection and then set my path from there.
A: For sure. Cool. What would you say about why shopping handmade is important to you?
E: Well, it is a personal answer. This [shirt Elizabeth is wearing] is actually not one of my pieces, this is by a designer in LA. Her name is - well her brand is called Dosa - and she makes these great handmade pieces. She actually has a very successful line of clothing but she - her name is Christina Kim - she doesn’t make huge amounts of clothing. You can actually find her clothes, if you know where to go, in various places, so I like her idea of business. I think for me, it’s: know the story and the person behind the pieces. That would probably inspire a purchase for me. I mean, most of these pieces are higher-end, higher quality - but not always. I would be happy buying a bar of soap if I knew it was great ingredients, someone really passionate about it making the soap - for me it’s personal. I think it’s important just to feel connected to the things that you buy. I mean, I don’t always buy everything handmade...
A: Right, because we probably couldn’t realistically...
E: I couldn’t and it’s not even the affordability of it, it’s just that I’m a practical person - I’ve always been that way - so if I see a good sale, I’m probably gonna go shopping. But I’ve learned self-control - like how many black tank tops do I really need? Okay, I’m walking away. So I’ve learned to have that conversation with myself where if I’m in a situation where there’s a great sale or I’m in the mood to buy some things, I’ll step back and say, “Okay, but do I need another pair of jeans?” Probably not. So I’ve learned to make my way away from that situation and focus more on quality. And it may not be a handmade piece, but if it’s a quality piece, that in itself is a sustainable product for me because I will have it season after season, for a long time, or I may even not get rid of it. So for me it’s more about the story and the person and about the things that you love and you wanna support. I think there’s more people like that - I think we’re pretty unique in the Bay Area. We’re kind of in a bubble, especially in the city, but I’m seeing more of it with people in other places too, so that’s very exciting.
A: I definitely agree and I like that I’m seeing more of it and that we can help foster that growth too.
E: And meeting other designers and other makers is exciting and inspiring. Instagram has kind of opened that world to me. I’m not like a professional Instagrammer, I’m really trying hard to do it, but I think that’s exciting to see - like someone in Minnesota doing some amazing hand dyeing and having a conversation about that. Social media has been an interesting aspect to observe because I’m usually the type of person that’s like, “I am not doing that. I don’t care” ...or whatever my reasoning is. But then it’s like oh, but actually, I’m pleasantly surprised.
A: Yeah, and that’s how we connected too!
E: Yeah that’s great! So I’m learning to not be so negative about things that are new that I feel like are disconnecting when actually, it’s kind of the opposite. I mean, obviously there’s some stuff on Instagram you don’t wanna see or can’t unsee. Haha. There are a lot of things like that but it’s kind of nice that you can connect with a circle of people or a circle of makers that you admire and can actually have a conversation. I’m really liking that.
A: Awesome. I like to leave off with asking what advice you would have for someone who may be reading this to find some inspiration on starting their own business from their passion.
E: I do get that question a lot. I would probably say, “What’s your story?” Figure out what your story is and why something is really important to you and write it down, journal it and figure out why things move you in a certain way. Then develop your story from there. I think that can tell you a lot about how much you’re gonna commit to something. For me it was, like I said, very serendipitous. Things sort of fell into place. I’m the last person that thought I would have my own business. That was not my intention at all. It sort of happened. Luckily, I have a great husband who’s very supportive and just kept pushing me along. He has his own business too - a much more successful business - so I asked him once, “Why didn’t you tell me it was so hard?”
E: Like, I was mad. And he was like, “Because you would never do it.” It’s bittersweet sometimes, it’s really hard and I wanna throw in the towel and just walk away but I can’t. I know for me, it’s like my other baby, it’s the baby I had before I had my real babies. I feel like it’s still growing and I can’t abandon it and I can’t give it up. But why do I feel this way? So I guess having a conversation with yourself, like, “Why are you driven to do what you do?” is a good way to answer your questions about if you should start a business. Because if something is really driving you to do something, whether it’s making homemade jam or making jewelry or having your own line, there’s a reason - and why is that? What is that reason? What is driving you? Why is it pushing you? Why do you feel like you need to make something? Then you get a good idea of how to push yourself to go forward and who to talk to.
Also, stepping outside of your box - like with me and Instagram, that’s just an example. Forcing yourself to meet people and having conversations and to stepping out of your comfort zone and talking about yourself. That’s another thing I don’t really enjoy doing but I realize is an important aspect of business - to be able to talk about what you do and why you do it and for people to get to know you - they feel like, “Oh, I can relate to this person.” Not everyone but you know, there are a few people that can. I don’t know if that’s a great answer but...
A: That’s wonderful, I’m sitting here thinking I need to go home and do some journaling, get re-inspired.
E: It was just like, “Okay, what kind of conversations am I having with myself? What are the questions I need to answer? Why am I doing this?” And for me, it was an emotional response to this waste. That’s how it started, that was the seed and then it sort of blossomed from there. It’s not always easy, it’s difficult sometimes. But I feel like I have to do it. I just can’t picture myself not doing it. And I’m doing it to be a better parent, if that makes sense. Because if I have an outlet - my other creative outlet - my kids are gonna be happier because I’m gonna be happier and they want a happy mom and I wanna be a happy mom. So I have to push myself to be a better example. It’s not where I want it to be but it will be, and I know it will be because I’m gonna make sure that it is. I want my kids to come in here and be excited about what they see, about what I’m doing. I want that for them and I want that for myself and my husband wants me to be happy, so it’s sort of like, “Okay, it’s hard...sometimes I’m here by myself and I go crazy but I’m gonna just keep moving and if it’s slow, its slow. If I’m not inspired, I’m not inspired but I’m going to come back.” It’s the commitment to just pushing and pushing and pushing yourself so that’s probably the one thing I really have going for myself - I’m just gonna keep going.
A: That’s a great thing to have going for you! Haha.
E: Maybe I’m just - not naive - but if you don’t know any better... Like with starting a business, I didn’t know it was gonna be so hard. It’s hard, but I just have to keep going and pushing myself to do the best I can. It may not be next week, it may not be next month, it might take longer... but I’m just gonna keep going. It’s just like with anything in life, but it has to be important to you.
Elizabeth is also currently running a promotion for 20% off your purchase until December 16th! Use promo code PXP20 and get those last minute holiday gifts in!