[Bobby Bonaparte and Max Kingery, founders of OLDERBROTHER]
Similar to the Slow Food movement that has gained traction in the United States, smaller fashion brands are being more thoughtful in the methods of how apparel is being produced. The movement is growing beyond just thinking of clothing as ‘organic’; it’s educating the consumer to think about the whole cycle in a more economically and socially responsible way, from the design process through production through use and potential reuse.
OLDERBROTHER is on the frontier of the movement, vertically integrating their process entirely in California. Their cotton is hand harvested with a local farming community, the dyes are 100% natural and produced in house, and the fits and styles are trendless and gender neutral. The founders, Bobby Bonaparte and Max Kingery, envision impacting the apparel industry steadily by proving that organic and sustainable can also be playful and stylish.
Chelsea Burcz: Where did the idea for the OLDERBROTHER line derive from? What made you begin to think about methods of production in apparel?
Bobby Bonaparte: The general idea for OLDERBROTHER is to create gender neutral, eco sustainable classics. We both grew up in places that put a lot of thought and care into sustainability and organics, like eating right and being really thoughtful about what you put into your body. I think we were kind of imbibed with this idea of caring about the environment and caring about what we put into our bodies. When we met, we had these conversations about how we would purchase these $15 juices because we cared about what we put into our bodies, but in terms of clothing production and the current methods of making things, we’ve gone in such a terrible direction, especially in chemical usage. There were a few companies doing the natural route, but it was nothing that we felt that we could wear in terms of a contemporary design, things that would look good and that we would want to wear every single day.
Max Kingery: It became apparent that we have a common bond in clothing in style and interest. It definitely is a challenge to produce garments the way the produce them, it has been a total learning experience. It’s been taking out the old ethics and throwing them aside. As we know, your skin is the largest organ on your body, and what we wear has a drastic effect on how we interact with the chemicals that go in our body. We saw it as a challenge to make sustainability fashionable in a way that we could enjoy it.
CB: Were you always interested in apparel design? Was it something you were studying or working in beforehand?
CB: How have some of your past experiences helped you get to this point?
BB: I know for Max, going to the dye houses and seeing all of the different chemicals being used, and the really gnarly stuff that was happening in residential neighborhoods, that inspired him to pursue a path in a different direction.
MK: My background is in private label manufacturing, that’s what I’ve done as a career. I was in the trenches on a larger scale, producing garments that were toxic and watching them go through finishing and ending up in a poly bag and being sent to a customer. I was spending time in dye houses and getting headaches and interacting with chemicals; it’s not rocket science, this stuff is bad for you, it’s heavy, heavy chemicals.
We both share a common interest in indigo. Indigo is a beautiful dye and we were producing garments with indigo in Los Angeles and then we were ready to venture outside of that. We found a challenge, and I think both Bobby and I find a lot of strength in sticking to that challenge and following it wherever it leads us. That’s what we set out to do, it’s to produce garments that, in theory, that you could bury in your backyard. We acknowledge that we are not going to have a massive global impact on our carbon footprint, but what we feel like we can do is that we can draw on the slow food movement and apply that to fashion. We can take our clothing and make it, like Bobby said, how we want garments to look. And that way we can approach from the top and we can communicate with our peers about the garments we produce and create something that encourages that consciousness of what you put on your body. What you put onto your body is equally as important to what you put into your body.
CB: Can you talk a little more specifically about the textiles you use? What makes them sustainable? What’s the process?
MK: We produce all of our garments with 100% plant based dye. So that means that we use zero toxic chemicals in our dying process. We’ve made a commitment to always use sustainable textiles like partnering with the California Cloth Foundry. They grow all of their cotton in Central Valley and we could go drive from our contractors to the cotton field in 165 miles if we wanted.
BB: We are also excited about working with our Japanese fabric suppliers. We work with this one guy who is amazing and his family has been in the business for 100 years. I actually got to visit him last time I was in Japan, he’s constantly pioneering new methods and and new textiles. Like one of the new things he’s working on that we are really excited about is “washi” which is a Japanese paper fabric. Usually washi is scratchy and hard to work with and it’s paper so it tears easily. This guy is really pioneering methods of how to make it soft and how to take that fabric to the next level. We love partnering with those folks who really have sustainability in the front of their minds, but also want to make it the most beautiful fabrics they possibly can.
CB: As OLDERBROTHER grows, how do you see yourselves keeping up with ethics that you’ve put in place for yourself?
MK: We’ve now positioned ourselves vertically so that we do the dying ourselves. We are committed to keeping it at a sustainable level where we can continue to abide by these ethics. We are not necessarily interested in producing the brand on a large scale overseas. We really view this as an opportunity and brand exercise where we are producing these garments at the largest scale we can and we are kind of pivoting to see how we can adapt to continue abide by those ethics. We are in a position right now to grow the brand and continue to work on our distribution and provide a product that we know in every aspect.
CB: Do you hope that someday that this method of production will be the status quo instead of the exception?
BB: We always liken our movement to the slow food movement.
MK: The largest producer of organic food is Walmart. The slow food movement started as a trend but then it had an impact. We’re trying to create the same kind of movement. Whether it changes the industry entirely we have no control over, but what we can do affect what’s in front of us in terms of making it fashionable and helping our peers understand the ideas.
CB: Tell me more about the designs.
BB: We both share a huge interest in Japan. I studied Japanese since I was in fifth grade and my first t-shirt company in 8th grade had all these ideas of Japanese minimalism, playfulness, and wabi sabi. I was just really inspired how everything is so thoughtful and considered. The wabi sabi aspect, for the folks who don’t know wabi sabi, it’s like an appreciation of the imperfect, of the organic and the beautiful. When we first started dying these clothes we were nervous about the dye variations. We then grew to appreciate the wabi sabi in that every garment is beautiful and unique. 100% unique.
MK: That’s the way nature intended it. That’s how the garment interacted with our processes.
BB: The line right now is very basic as we are growing. We are definitely taking some more risks next season.
MK: We’re evolving, like we said, this has been a learning experience as to what we can produce. And we’ve come to found out there’s a lot we can do. We are getting started in some really exciting product. We have the capability right now to start producing our own natural dye program. Outside of that, we do our own production indigo and that’s something that we do that is all in house, we do it for other brands as well. We do full scale indigo production in Los Angeles and now we’re pioneering the other color ways and dye processes. That’s our goal, is that we will be vertical.
CB: What do you hope for the apparel production industry?
BB: I think we hope for greater knowledge and greater educated buying choices. I think people are more awake now to the terrible things that go along with buying things made in Bangladesh. We aren’t here to tell everybody that they have to be perfect and only wear organic, but it’s definitely a choice. We want to keep making clothes because we like them and they are fun, we find them inspiring and I hope we inspire other people.
MK: We have a cause that we are behind. So even when it’s been tough, it’s inspiring for the both of us to remind ourselves why we’re doing it. With the indigo dying, it’s six dips into the indigo dye with manual labor, somebody is sweating over that garment. It really is a labor of love. There’s a lot of intrinsic value in our processes and how we do it. It’s a lot more than a navy t-shirt.
– Words by Chelsea Burcz
Shop OLDERBROTHER here.