Isobel Schofield, founder and designer of BRYR Clogs
Article by: Chelsea Sonksen
Photography by: Grey & Elle
Most shoe companies rely on a good deal of guesswork. The designer has to anticipate what customers will gravitate to in the next season, produce the line in the full range of sizes, and hope that customers love each and every piece. As you can imagine, this model creates a substantial amount of waste – unsold and unused shoes that never make it into customers’ hands. Isobel Schofield’s company, BRYR, does things quite differently. Each pair of BRYR clogs is made to order, essentially eliminating all production waste.
At the BRYR studio in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, customers can see each style up close and personal, choose the heel height, select their favorite color, and try on sample sizes to find the perfect fit. Between all these different elements, there are a total of 2000 different styles of BRYR clogs that customers could possibly create.
After the customer has pieced together their dream pair of clogs, Isobel and her team of six women begin making the shoes by hand, right there in the back of the studio. It takes the team about 30 days to make a pair of shoes and send them off to the customer – a timeframe that, in our culture of instant gratification, may seem an eternity, but I can personally attest that the 30 days spent waiting for your custom shoes only heightens your anticipation and makes you appreciate your shoes even more when they arrive. (Plus there is something innately magical about knowing your pair of clogs is working their way through the various stages of the clog-making process throughout the month.)
Isobel studied sculpture, performance art, and feminist art in college. “I had big dreams to be a performance artist,” she said, “but then I graduated college and realized that I didn’t have a trust fund, and I needed to find a job.” She worked in theater for a while as a costumer for opera companies in San Francisco and Italy. “I loved making, but I wasn’t really that jazzed about theater.”
Isobel moved to San Francisco and took a job as a pattern maker at a clothing company. “I learned a lot technically,” she told me. “But [I] also learned that I didn’t have the temperament for being a pattern maker … I wasn’t focused enough … But I realized I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I spent the next ten years beelining for that.”
She moved to LA, worked at Velvet, and later became the head designer at Splendid, where she jokes that she designed “about a billion t-shirts.” Then American Eagle recruited her to direct design in the women’s knits department at their New York headquarters.
After about three years at American Eagle, Isobel realized that she was burnt out and pretty depleted creatively. “I’d been in New York for three years. I was managing a team. I was one down from the VP, so I was doing a lot of overseas travel, and I was doing very little designing. I was very stressed. I had an aha moment when I realized that this girl who used to be a sculpture major making performance art was now working this really corporate job … [I] was so far away from where I began, and it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing.”
Isobel quit and decided to take three months to decompress and go on a “creative sabbatical.” She established a few rules for herself: 1) Make stuff again. 2) Don’t buy things. 3) Visit with people you love. 4) Don’t take on any paid work for three months. During her sabbatical, Isobel apprenticed at a clog factory, which inspired her to create her own line of clogs. Only six months after leaving her job at American Eagle, Isobel designed the first pair of Bryr clogs. She began by selling to friends and friends-of-friends, and soon, the business was off and running.
The operation was trucking along, sustaining itself, but not turning much of a profit, until Isobel had a realization: “In the industry there is this myth that if you make things [yourself] it’s not viable as a business and [to build a viable business,] you have to outsource everything. I think for people like me, who were makers when they were kids, we get tracked into management or tracked into drawing pictures and having someone else make it. And I realized, Oh my God, I can possibly make things again.”
Isobel knew she wasn't meant to sketch clog designs and send them off to be fabricated elsewhere. She was meant to be a clog maker –cutting, stapling, and lasting each pair by hand. With the help and support of her wife and brother, Isobel made her first pair of clogs in the basement of her brother's San Francisco home. From that moment on, Isobel and her team handmade each pair of BRYR clogs.
By January 2015, the operation had gotten too big, and too heavy, for Isobel’s Victorian apartment. It was time to find a new home for BRYR. Isobel began searching for a tiny studio, but she ended up finding something quite different.
One day, Isobel called the managers of a building in the Dogpatch neighborhood, where she spoke with the landlord, Tony, about leasing a small space. Although there was a waitlist for a studio, Tony and his father Greg encouraged Isobel to move in to the vacant storefront. Greg’s father had actually owned a clog factory in that very building in the 1970s, and the men were eager to have a clog maker back in the space. It was a coincidence too magical to believe. Initially Isobel turned them down, unsure that her small business could support such a large space or that she was ready for a storefront. But her wife, Sarah, encouraged her to go for it. One year later Isobel opened the BRYR studio and retail store. She made shoes from Monday to Friday, and the studio was open to customers on Friday and Saturday. (She recently extended the store hours from Thursday through Sunday.)
Now Isobel employs a team of highly creative women. “Nearly everyone on the team is an artist in some way. Liz is a painter; Jenny is a photographer; Cobrina is a baker; Rosa is a ceramist, and Ingrid is a yoga healer … I swear it's not a cult!” she laughed. As her team grows, Isobel is learning more and more about creating a company culture and building multiple levels of responsibility. “We used to be a flat team where everyone reported to me,” she said. “But we’ve added a management level. Now Jenny is the Operations Manager, and Liz is the Production Coordinator.”
Isobel has created a company that is treasured by its employees and customers alike. "The thing that I think is special about BRYR is that when women come in here, they get to have a really different retail experience. They get to choose what they want, spend a lot of time, try on a bunch of stuff. It's really different to [design something special for yourself and] not have to fit yourself into a box that's already been made."
What was the inspiration behind your business?
When I was a pretty young kid, my mum helped me “design” clothes. I would choose the Simplicity or Vogue pattern, talk to her about changes we might make, and create some sketches. We would go to the shops together and buy fabric, and then I’d watch (in awe) as she sewed this amazing creation. I think she gave me an uncommon experience with fashion and showed me that it could be a form of expression rather than consumption. I think when people come into our shop they can feel that: we are not there to sell you anything, but to help you find something you love.
How do you want to impact the world? Or, how do you hope to help shape a better tomorrow?
BRYR means “to care” in Swedish. I think that it's really important to make something you care about and to take that level of care into everything you do with your business – from how you talk to your customers, to how you treat your team, to where you source your leather, to how you greet the UPS guy. It all matters.
What was your professional highlight of the past year? Why was it particularly meaningful?
Without question, our annual sample sale. We don’t do many events, and so we use our annual sample sale as an excuse to create an awesome experience for our community. This year, we rented out a large warehouse space, provided coffee and snacks for the early birds (people got here at 4 a.m. and some even drove in from LA!), and had a DJ. We also raised $7,000 for homeless families by selling used clogs and donating 100% of the profits. It was just so much fun. Even though the line was around the block, I think everyone had a great time.
What was your personal highlight of the past year?
This summer, I took my first real vacation in five years. My wife and I traveled to Spain and sailed around the Balearic Islands. It was totally dreamy.
What is the next goal you have your sights set on?
I just signed a lease on a tiny storefront spot out in the West Marin town of Olema. I don't know what is going to happen there, but I do know that I'm excited about the creative possibilities.
What three books have influenced you most profoundly?
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford
Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
Do you believe that politics and business should be separate? If not, how have you integrated politics into your business?
It’s a privileged position to be able to separate business from politics. I am a gay woman, and to many people in America, my simply BEING is political. I have a choice: be silent or be myself. I’m not very good at being silent.