The Man Behind Bridge & Burn
One of Erik Prowell’s first T-shirt designs showed a man holding a match to a bridge, with the words, “Don’t look back.”
Those words resonated with Prowell, founder of the Portland brand, Bridge & Burn. They reminded him of the risk he took when he switched from a career in software programming to apparel design, which was then unfamiliar territory.
“I liked the idea of moving forward,” Prowell said. “I was about to strike out on this new adventure.”
Prowell has been running Bridge & Burn for four years. Each year, he’s stretched his wholesale lines further: Jackets, button-up shirts, womenswear, pants. In April, he launched a downtown Portland storefront, which doubles as his office. He made the move because other retailers didn’t carry his entire collection, and he wanted a showroom for customers who hoped to try on a garment they saw online. He also didn’t want them swinging by his old space (his apartment).
The white-walled shop displays handiwork from Prowell’s friends. An arborist from Treecycle salvaged wood cut down in Northeast Portland and milled floor boards for the shop. An interior designer created the X-shaped racks in the store.
When Prowell first started selling clothes, he had no idea it would turn into a full-time gig. Halfway through getting his master’s degree in Boulder, Colorado, he had an epiphany: He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life behind a computer. He quit his software job to do freelance work, which allowed him to travel and promote his first venture of graphic design T-shirts, No Star Clothing. “It was a slow organic process,” Prowell said.
For being an apparel designer, Prowell says he’s not much of a “clothes person,” at least in the usual sense of following fashion trends. Prowell’s style is casual, with minimal details. When he went to trade shows, he noticed that jackets that had too much going on, like a random zipper or pocket. He didn’t care for brands or logos smacked on top of clothes.
“I wanted something simple and classic and clean,” Prowell said. “It was just over-designed or had superfluous details.”
Prowell set out to make the clothes he wanted to wear. A friend gave him a crash course in designing cut-and-sew clothing, and he put No Star on hiatus. He launched a new company, Bridge & Burn, just as the recession hit.
“It was kind of a blessing,” Prowell said, “because had we started when the economy was booming, we would have hit a level, and so many boutiques went out of business in the recession, that we were lucky with the timing that we got to start really slow.”
Prowell discovered that a name at the front of the alphabet made a huge difference in sales. No Star lost 30 percent of its business when an online store switched from listing brands by best-selling items to alphabetical names. Prowell combined his “don’t look back” bridge T-shirt with the fact that he once lived off Burnside Street. Thus, Bridge & Burn was born.
He credits his continued success to strong relationships with other retailers and a bit of good timing. He has the advantage of doing small-run productions from a factory in China. He can order as few as 24 pieces of a design, which allows him to experiment with styles at a low risk.
“It’s a slow, sensible growth,” Prowell said.
Bridge & Burn
1122 SW Morrison
Portland, OR 97205
Written By: Dominique Fong