Clothing designer Erik Prowell originally named his outerwear company La Merde. "We wanted a name that was fancy, and yet...wasn't. Then Nordstrom refused to carry the line because of the name," he said when we recently visited his Portland, OR studio. After a moment, he reflected, "If there hadn't been a recession, we probably would've kept it."
Now known as Bridge & Burn, Prowell's sleek, yet warm wool coats and waxed cotton jackets are suitable for both city-dwellers and hikers alike. Bridge & Burn provides a solution to that perennial Portland quandary—where to find a decent-looking rain jacket. Prowell grew up in Bend, Oregon and was inspired by his father's and grandfather's camping and hunting gear. "I loved to wear my father's Woolrich and Filson jackets and my grandfather's old military uniforms from WWII. It's great to see the resurgence of all the heritage brands. At the same time, I spend most of my time in the city and don't feel a need to dress up like an outdoorsman," Prowell said.
Prowell has no background in the fashion industry. His schooling was in computer science, and his introduction to the business came through an avenue that most of us can relate to—making funny T-shirts with a college friend. That project, with Josh Hindson, eventually became No Star, which still bills itself as "A Funny T-Shirt Company." After a good friend gave the pair a crash course in apparel design, they formed La Merde. But when managing their combined projects became too complicated (Prowell also runs a photography-based T-shirt business called Oh, Snap!) the two agreed to part ways and companies. The Boise-based Hindson handles No Star, while Prowell decided to take Bridge & Burn in a different direction.
"In my mind, La Merde was a little flashier. Bridge & Burn represents my passion for clean, classic and functional design," said the multi-talented entrepreneur, who also created the branding, shot all the photography, designed their print materials, and programmed the website. For the Fall '10 season, he branched out from outerwear into button-ups, and Spring '11 will see shorts for men and dresses for women.
Prowell's clean, laid-back live/work studio and apartment, near bustling Burnside Street, embodies his holistic approach to life and design. The bedroom, lofted above the work and studio areas, lends privacy, while tall windows let plenty of light and air into the vaulted space. Despite an apparently frenetic work schedule, Prowell remains unassuming, relaxed—and astonishingly tall. "I made a couple of jackets custom-fitted for me, and then decided to get rid of them," he said, referring to a recent sample sale. "They were XXXL, so I didn't think they were going to sell. But both did! Just the right people walked in." Prowell's success in a downtime economy is due to a distinctive vision, a determined work ethic, and maybe just a little bit of luck.
Bridge & Burn sells online, and across the country in stores such as Mini Minimarket in Brooklyn, NY; Frances May in Portland, OR (the boutique who gave Prowell his start); and Molte Cose in San Francisco, CA. For more updates on future products, check Bridge & Burn's blog.