I'm going to start with a bit of a biggie. Why do you make clothes?
I like creating things from nothing. I just generally find that quite satisfying. I probably could have gone into furniture design or something in the arts, anything like that, and I just fell into textiles. My dad worked in the rag trade, I had grandparents who were tailors, great grandparents who were tailors... Maybe it's in the blood.
Can you describe your ideal working environment? I read in an interview with you that you love a good creative mess. I like how that's different from what a lot of people would think is necessary to have a successful business.
I could happily set up a studio and step over piles of fabric and stuff to sit down on my machine and work. If I visually have everything out, I know it's there. If it's not visually there, I just forget about it.
Some people are very good at writing notes, and that notebook will tell them what they need to do. For me, putting everything out in a big mess is visually helpful.
Although you’ve mostly lived in Aotearoa, you’ve now spent a good bit of time overseas too. Would you speak a bit about how you got started in New York?
I moved to New York after uni, working in coffee shops, figuring life out and stuff. I ended up seeing a vintage store one day with a sewing machine in the window. I had some pants I wanted to alter so I went in and said, “Hey, can I use your sewing machine for 40 minutes?” I got chatting with the woman who owned the store. She was really nice, and I ended up working with her for a good while, helping her do small runs of garments and inhouse tailoring too.
After that, I was just giving my phone number out to people as a tailor and biking around the city to do whatever sewing they needed. Then I moved into this new apartment, and my new roommate was working for this tailor a few blocks from where we lived. I went in for an interview and they liked that I was enthusiastic and keen to learn. My visa was about to expire, but they decided to sponsor me. It was all quite lucky with timing and everything
I fell into this company not really knowing much about it. Turns out we were working on Obama’s suits and suits for just about every big movie there was. I had to fly out to LA to fit actors. It was good fun.
The owner, Martin Greenfield, also had this incredible life story. He emigrated to the United States as an orphaned Holocaust survivor at age 13, and got his first job as a floor boy for this company GGG clothing factory. He worked his way up, until he eventually purchased the factory off its original owners 30 years on to start Martin Greenfield Clothiers.
I didn't work so much with Martin Greenfield, as he was on the shop floor, but I worked with this younger guy, Joseph Genuardi, who was an incredibly skilled master tailor. The work suited me because I didn't care for fashion, but I quite liked the technical aspect of sewing, where you take a two-dimensional drawing and then you cut it out and sew it up to make a three-dimensional shape. Working there helped me learn about patterning and garment construction.
Would that be how you have the technical capacity to work with such disparate fabrics now in your own work? You work with really thin fabrics, really thick fabrics…
I think it helped from a position of knowledge of creation. I got to see all these different ways you could solve issues.
I remember we made a suit for this guy who had quite severe scoliosis. We made him these suits using the big pads we used for the Rabbi’s coats – only on one side to level out his shoulder line – and I remember when he came in, he almost came to tears when he put it on. It almost brought myself and the other tailor to tears too. We were given these challenges and it was exciting to try and solve them.
Honestly, the fabric thing was more about boredom for me. I like the challenge of working with, say, a tent, and figuring out what I can do with that. You fail, you learn, you get better.
What's your process of finding the fabrics? Are they gifted to you? Are you always sifting?
It's a bit of both. I do look myself, but once people find out what I'm doing, honestly it’ll be whoever, like maybe my dad's friends, who will say, “Hey, I've got this thing in my garage and maybe your son would be interested – he's doing something with old stuff, right?”
During uni, I was always looking for vintage stores. You’d mostly find natural fabrics and you could find much more interesting colours than you would elsewhere.
I just started with things we had too. My sister used to do a bit of windsurfing and we still had her sail from the 80s. I thought that was fantastic material.
It’s fun because I’ll see the fabric and have to think about what its properties would suit best. The fabric actually gets to dictate a lot. For example, a windbreaker comes out great from a windsurfer sail, because of how the sail fabric moves. Or maybe it's a tent, and I have to spend a few days figuring out where I'm going to cut it. It’s different when you're not working with a blank roll of fabric. You can’t just lay your patterns down. It becomes a fun game of where to put the pattern pieces to make the puzzle fit.
What are your favourite parts of running your own business? What have you found most challenging?
Most challenging is probably sticking to plans and goals, because I can get creatively selfish. My delight of making something can take over the fact that I also need to remember to do those more backend things. I have to be onto myself about not making the next thing before I photograph this thing, stuff like that.
My favourite part is probably the creative freedom.
You’ve kind of already spoken a bit about how you don't necessarily identify with the fashion industry. Do you? Or am I putting words in your mouth?
I guess I'm working like, I don't know, a painter would work, in the sense that I'm making small collections of one-off items based on ideas that are flowing into my head. Every piece is different to the next because I quite like that.
I like making clothes and I tried to find a different way to do that. I guess I didn’t want to just make more new crap, so I thought I’d start with what’s already existing and give that a second life.
Do you have a sense of what a positive future for the fashion industry looks like to you?
I mean, that’s maybe another whole chat ha. It’s all those obvious answers we’ve known about since there’s been a problem to ignore: fair pay and workers rights, finding practices that don’t kill the planet and its resources in the process, that don’t fill the oceans with micro plastics … you know, maybe question a T-Shirt that only cost $4.99.
I’d like to see a change in the way clothes are valued. Garments can be quality items that are cared for, repaired, resold, and moved through generations. If we make cheap crap, then people will shop with that mentality of buy and throw out, buy and throw out…
Would you talk a bit more about how you started your own business?
I started when I was in New York. I was gifted two old pieces of some weird fabric, and I was just cutting them out on my bed in my apartment and putting them together using this old sewing machine. When I finished, I realised I'd made this thing that was well-aged and worn-in, but at the same time new – it’d come together wonderfully.
After that I started thinking about the wonderful fabrics we’ve got back home. There are all those wonderful old canvas tents and wool blankets you can find that have such rich textures yet have in many cases fallen out of use. I realised all these fantastic fabrics already exist and I can manipulate them into something else, which will continue their life for a long time.
Do you have other hobbies that feed your work, or just you as a person?
In the last few years I’ve been playing with textiles in different ways that almost have no purpose or end goal. It’s been so fun. I’d almost forgotten you can use your craft for more than just its common purpose – you know, sewing can be used to make something other than clothes.
I’ve been making textile sculptures, this big moving floor sculpture, lampshade type things… Just exploring what I can do.
I submitted one piece to a gallery in Nelson and it was accepted into this big show down there, which was cool. It was the first thing I'd ever made in that vein, and it really encouraged me to play more with ideas and projects like it.
I think it's good to do the extremes of creativity to bring you back to your normal of what you're doing.
I think that's real important. It can fill up the reserves again so you can do the day-to-day.
Do you have a favourite story associated with a piece?
There was a huge canvas tent that I managed to turn into a coat, two jackets and a vest. That was the one that spurred the collaboration with MacPac. The product manager there had seen the pieces and recognized the old tent I’d used because it was Outdoor Research, a brand Macpac used to run. The idea kind of evolved from there. The Auckland Museum ended up buying the coat too, which was quite cool.
The collaboration with Macpac was so great – I think that could be a fruitful, interesting way forward for smaller businesses like yours, right? The amount of fabric that you're able to make something from is kind of useless to them. I see that as some good symbiosis.
That’s something I've been wanting to look into over here because firstly, it was extremely fun, and secondly, it deals with waste. I’m always thinking about what industries have byproducts that I could use…
Can you speak to some contemporaries you admire? What inspires you?
I'm terribly unknowledgeable of the fashion scene. When I’m doing research into garment construction I often go towards vintage shops. I’ll also look at vintage army surplus because for the army, the goal was to produce clothing in the most efficient but structurally sound way. You come across construction details you just wouldn’t find in the fashion industry.
I don't follow too many brands. I love the designs of brands like Engineered Garments or Stone Island who are always pushing garment construction from the practical technical side of things, for example, but I struggle with the way brands are constantly making more stuff.
I think the main thing that puts me off the fashion industry is how you’re supposed to be producing nonstop. You've got to make for this season, and next season, and the season after that, and it just goes on forever. It seems kind of problematic, so I tend to stay away from trends and go to vintage and army surplus stores if I need creative inspiration. Really the fabric is always the inspiration for me, and it largely dictates what will be made from it.
What's the best piece of advice you've received?
Making time-based goals. You know, “In this period of time, I want to have these things done.” And then sticking to that.
What, within the world of Bruno's, are you most proud of?
I get this wonderful satisfaction when someone sees something at one of my pop-ups that they like, and then they try it on and it's a perfect fit.
With the way that my pieces are – these one-off styles – the person has to like the garment, colour, fabric … and then it also has to fit them. The pieces are kind of tailor-made for a stranger.
I appreciate the nostalgic enjoyment too. People have grabbed some of my old blanket jackets and said, “I remember I had this blanket when I was a kid!”
There’s something quite satisfying in seeing someone’s else’s excitement as they realise this old thing has now been converted to something new. It's not just like, “Thanks for some pants.”
Thank you so much for having a chat.
To see Bruno’s work, browse the online store or check out his instagram @brunos_cc