As an observer, Bryr clogs has been a brand with a bit of intrigue to me. I’ve followed along since the beginning, brought in by the traditional-meets-modern aesthetic and captivated by the premise of making something so simple into something so exquisite. At one point, line went quiet for awhile, and then one day last year, I took notice again when a new, beautiful collection of clogs appeared on the Bryr website. In a moment of complete self-indulgence this winter (staying in a tiny and frigid NY hotel room, alone and across the country on my birthday, and dealing with horrible morning sickness), I ordered myself a pair of sandals, and anxiously awaited their arrival at my door. They arrived, along with the promise of spring, and have been my go-to shoes since. Founded by Isobel Schofield and handmade in San Francisco, I was excited to see recently that Bryr had opened a new workspace just a quick drive away from me, and reached out to learn more about the woman behind the brand. Below, some impressions from my recent visits to Isobel's lovely studio-meets-store.
I enter the Bryr studio in a bit of a whirlwind, in all honesty. I’ve brought along 3 month old Vivian, and it’s one of our first trips into the city together. I open my bag and realize that in the madness of our morning, I left my camera at home. Professional move, I know.
Isobel greets us with energy, friendliness, and complete understanding of my flakiness. I’m immediately put at ease. She’s in the midst of preparing to show her line in New York, and the studio is absolutely buzzing. I’m standing in a bright, modern space, and start to feel at home. I learn that this building, a beautiful old brick warehouse in the Dogpatch district of San Francisco, had also housed a family clog-making enterprise in the 1900s. For Bryr and Isobel, it was meant to be, and was the final step in pushing her business out of her living room and into the fabric of the neighborhood.
Several clients are finishing up their shopping appointments, and there’s a bit of camaraderie as newfound friends help each other choose their new clogs. We all chat about a shared love of oversized smocks and comfortable shoes. Real, adult women concerns. Sample leather swatches litter the table. I pick them up and touch each one. I’ve brought my friend Alexandra, and she helps me pick out my own pair to order. I'm the typical problem customer, falling in love with a pair of seriously fashionable leather-meets-felt booties, but asking for them with a closed toe and lower heel. I'm thrilled to learn that they can be made for me.
Isobel walks me through the clog-making process. I see the shelves stacked with components and cut tickets, each representing a customer out there somewhere in Internet-land, waiting for her new clogs. A woman named Mikaela is hand-cutting leather from paper patterns, which I’m amazed to see. She shows me their cutting machinery, where certain pieces are die-cut. Each style has a name (Sofie, Margot, Chloe), and Isobel tells me these are the names of her friend's daughters. Under her worktable, I spot a collection of vintage clogs, and we pull them out to admire and discuss construction details.
The shelves surrounding us are stacked with wooden clog bases, carefully sourced on a trip through Spain, and perfectly fitting the lasts (a form used in shaping the leather). At this point, they are all exactly the same, full of potential, waiting to become something else. Isobel hand-staples the leather onto each clog herself, and explains to me the hours that have gone into learning this particularly precise task. She shows me how it is done, and paints a picture of her and her brother, dancing around her apartment after stapling her first pair. It was with that pair that Bryr became real.
After a lull, the studio becomes busy again as Isobel’s next appointments filter in. My baby senses the change and starts to chatter. It’s time for us to go. I’ll return in a few weeks to see my shoes being made and take some pictures of this lovely space. Hugs are exchanged and we are on our way.
I walk down the street and am a bit grateful for the forgotten camera- I often find the pressure of documenting an experience is creatively restrictive. Today will be remembered by the reflection of warm sunshine on concrete floors, by the welcoming spirit of the women I’ve met, and by the snippets of conversation that float in and out of my mind.
Many thanks to Isobel and the truly awesome women of Bryr (Mikaela, Pakayla, and Liz) for welcoming us into their space and sharing their process so openly. Read on to learn more about Isobel and her beautiful clogs!
(And PS- Isobel's just released my special-request clogs to the rest of the Internet. Check them out here! ).
The big question- why clogs? and why San Francisco?
What I love about San Francisco is also a little what I love about clogs; The mix of urban and natural. Living here, you get to live in this amazing cosmopolitan city, and then escape to the gorgeous nature whenever you want. It's the best of both worlds.
I fell in love with the process of shoe making, but was turned-off because of the nasty toxic glues that are used in most shoe making. Then I started playing around with making clogs and I realized that not only could I make them glue-free, but also that they are simple to custom make. That was when the idea of Bryr was born.
You have a corporate design background. How does the handmade world compare? What value does handmade provide to you as a designer, and to your eventual customer?
What I saw as a designer at bigger companies was that there was so much waste. It was a guessing game, with the companies trying to guess what the customer would want, and the customer sometimes not wanting what they were given. There was so much waste.
There are a number of smaller American-made companies who are coming this question in a different way. We are trying to give customers what they want rather than what we think they should have. Selling directly online and in our studio has allowed us to do that. I love that we take one of the oldest crafts, clog making, and mix it with new technology to bring people a new experience.
Where is an unexpected spot (real or virtual) that you go to seek out inspiration?
On weekends, my wife and I often go hiking along the Marin coastline, head out to Point Reyes or go on day trips to the Sierras to swim in the Yubba River. From the colors of Eucalyptus trees, to the rolling hills of gold grasses, I find the natural beauty of Northern California so inspiring and beautiful.
My inspiration also comes from the materials themselves. My best day is my monthly trip up to the leather warehouse in Napa. I'll spend the whole afternoon digging for new leathers and hides, finding inspiration all over the place. I also love vintage shopping and just looking at what are on people's feet.
Since beginning your business, what's been the biggest surprise?
Learning what I'm not good at, and then getting help in those areas.
What's the biggest risk you've taken as a maker and a business owner?
When I started the line, I was working with outside manufacturers. After a couple seasons, I realized it wasn't working; creatively , financially and logistically. So, I put everything on hold for 6 months, went back to the drawing board.
I had this crazy gut feeling that I could make the clogs here in California, but I had to write a full business plan to prove to myself that it was a viable business. Once I'd done that, I jumped right in. That was a year ago, and we haven't stopped making clogs since!
What values are most core to your design process, and (how) does it translate to your finished work?
Our clogs are very simple; just wood, leather and craftsmanship, so I always use the best possible materials available to me and keep our production limited to what we can actually produce (hence the wait-list!). I try to keep the styles simple and timeless, and not get caught up in quick trends. I want my customer to be able to wear their clogs for years to come.
Do you have any creative habits as it relates to process?
I find that my best ideas don't happen I'm trying to make them happen, but instead slide into my brain when I'm not looking. or me, that's when I'm making; I'll be about an hour into stapling or lasting, something that takes a lot of concentrations and physical attention. Some call this place flow, and it's my favorite place to be. I usually keep a little pad of paper and a pen next to my desk, and will scribble things down between clogs.
I also let things take a LOT of time to percolate, and sometimes a style will float around my head, or my 'in work' shelf for months. Coming from a design background where everything had to be on a set seasonal schedule felt really artificial to me. We still come out with a Spring and Fall collection, but having our own workshop means we can introduce a new style whenever we like. I love that freedom.
Name one (or several!) crazy and amazing things that you hope to do someday.
Ha! Well, this year I married the love of my life and re-launched Bryr, so I am feeling pretty lucky. But for the future, I'm keeping it simple; we hope to have a family, buy a little cottage in Point Reyes, grow a garden, live to be old and frisky, swim in the ocean a lot, nd keep making lovely things. For Bryr, I've always said "Slow and Steady", so I'm just hoping we'll be here in 20 years doing what we love to do; making clogs.
What's next for Bryr?
We just opened up for weekend studio hours on Friday and Saturdays. I'm hoping to build out the front space so it's more of a shop, while keeping the open studio feeling.
What other makers or brands should we visit?
There are so many amazing makers in San Francisco. I'm currently obsessed with Yonder Shop's pottery and paintings. Linda painted a special whale painting for my wife for our wedding which I love. I also love shopping at Reliquary in San Francisco. If I could have a dream closet, it would be their store (when I'm not wearing beat-up studio clothes that is!)