When I go to interview people, I try to do my research. I have been doing research on people for a long time, probably since I first discovered the internet when I was a kid. It was this whole place of information that I could find out just about whatever I wanted about any famous person I idolized. Then came MySpace and facebook which allowed a person to research one’s own peers (or even strangers in some cases.). I think learning how to navigate the internet and then how to use social networking search engines began to refine my skills in research. I got to become my own little private detective. But I have learned how to put it to good use when going to speak with inspiring people who make interesting and awesome things like in the case of Erik Prowell, creator/owner of Bridge & Burn. The process isn’t as simple as Googling or typing a name in to Facebook however.
I have to go through interviews, features, articles and text upon text to learn more about a person or a place. I want to find out what they have been asked a million times and to try and avoid asking those same questions again and again. This experience shouldn’t just be interesting for me, it should be interesting for the person I am interviewing too. I don’t bore them to death with recycled questions. I would like them to be able to reflect on what they are doing, how they got to where they are, and maybe think even more about their ideas for the future. I’d like to think that in a small way, maybe, asking them some engaging questions can maybe inspire them to try something new or try the thing that they have been meaning to try. That may be a tab bit egotistical of me, but hey, a guy can dream that he can make some positive change in the world, right?
I was hoping to bring some especially compelling material to Erik Prowell when I met up with him. Even one when you are completely researched and prepared, though, you can still not be prepared enough. Jade and I came into the shop one afternoon to do our feature of Bridge & Burn for our role as Style Collective members for Portland Fashion Week. Jade was outside getting a few shots of the exterior of the shop on Southwest Morrison and 12th while I went in to meet Erik for our interview. He came down from his loft office upstairs to welcome me to his beautifully adorned store. I was immediately taken aback when he came to floor level and I still had to cock my head upward to look him in the eye. I have mentioned recently that I usually feel tall when going into interviews with folks but this was the first time where I felt rather small. I have read that he was a pretty tall guy in other articles, but not like this. Then again I should have guessed since he teamed up with OMFG Co in the recent past to make a collection of workers wear and uniforms that were specifically for the ‘long and lanky.’ Height aside, Erik was an absolute gentleman, a gracious host even and invited me upstairs to chat a bit more.
I sat down on the resident sofa and he took a seat parallel me in an office chair. Erik is an Oregon born designer and retailer who has been making stylish, utilitarian clothes for going on five years as his trademarked name, Bridge & Burn. He says the name of his company is a kind of figurative symbolism for leaving the past behind and starting anew. Burning the bridge to your former self and possible bad habits or associations, and creating a bright new future so you never have to look back. I really could relate with this kind of imagery and really liked the message behind it. That is what the emblems of his brand, the crossed matches and bridge silhouette, signify. It turns out that Erik not only designed that logo for his brand, but has done a lot of the photography for the online shop as well. Erik is quite the Jack of all trades, and no wonder considering the diversity of his past.
Erik went to school to get a degree in technology and computer science. He skateboarded and would have continued if playing basketball hadn’t gotten in the way. Apparently the coaches and other players at the time didn’t quite approve of his skater image. In the midst of all of this he started a funny and witty T-Shirt Company with a friend, which is when things began to go a different way for him. He says he had his art teacher tell him in high school that he would grow up to work in something related to an artistic profession… turns out that teacher was right. They went from the T-Shirt company to a mutual fashion design project named La Merde, making styles and designs together. There soon came a point with La Merde where their creative visions clashed. They went their separate ways and Erik soon crafted Bridge & Burn, which was formally started in 2009. He was given a kind of crash course in the fashion biz by a good friend, Gretchen Jones, Season 8 winner of Project Runway, who knew a thing or two about it. Bridge & Burn started solely as an online effort out of Prowell’s loft apartment, but grew steadily to where it became evident that there needed to be a separation from home and work (which he admits is still hard to do). I guess that’s what happens when an indie rock star begins wearing your designs wherever he goes. The flagship store for the brand opened up earlier this year to rave reviews.
In the store they don’t only sell Bridge & Burn products but a variety of designs and accessories for both sexes. Bridge & Burn was originally all men’s clothing, but Erik was eventually influenced to make designs and styles for women as well. He is drawn to the more tom-boyish look when it comes to the feminine designs he puts together, he says, but they really fit well with the rest of his beautiful collection. His styles and cuts are utilitarian in the fact that they are clothes you can wear to work in or wear out to dinner. They are fashionable without being crazy, out there with prints or designs. The most out there pieces he has in his shop are probably the collaboration he did with MakeLike, where they made Hawaiian style patterned shirts but with vegetation from the Northwest. They are some of the very few Hawaiian shirts that I would actually consider wearing anymore. He even has some graphic tees that are pretty fantastic (Jade wants this one), which I am sure are reminiscent of his days being a shirt designer.
Everything Erik has done so far, has been picked up along the way: starting businesses, becoming successful as a designer, bringing his own unique and intrinsic view to his work. It’s been trial and error. He is a very honest and open guy and doesn’t have any reason to hold anything back. He can say so much by answering a big question monosyllabically or a small question with a detailed answer. For example, I asked him what new things he has planned for his brand or if he has something new and outlandish that we need to look out for. Simply put, the answer is no. He is really happy with the designs and work he is making right now, testing out new patterns and ideas like has been doing. He is sure there is something in the future for him but he likes to take things one day at a time and enjoy what is happening in the now. It made me really happy when he said that because I think that is something I strive for myself: To come to a point where I am doing work that I really, truly enjoy doing and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Even though being a designer wasn’t a long time dream that he had since he was a kid, he has come to a point where he has found something that really captures what I think is in the basic nature of that kind of dream: to love what you do. I am used to the people I interview going on and on about what is next for them or details about what happened here or there, but I got a real sense of calm and tranquility from Erik that I haven’t gotten with anyone before. It was something that really caught me off guard and now looking back on our conversation, it was one of the more pleasant experiences I have had in what I do. You can’t always be prepared with researched material for interviews with real people because real people are unpredictable. No interview or article I have read about Erik Prowell so far has captured his unique personality or serenity. I hope in some way I can do him justice in this interview. It was an absolute pleasure to meet him and witness him in his natural environment. Jade and I both will surely be in to Bridge & Burn in the future to purchase his designs and catch up with him.