Erik Prowell is the unlikely face behind the sleek, functional clothing line Bridge & Burn. Unlikely—not for lack of talent, or because of his extremely laid back demeanor—but because he studied computer science in college, and then earned his keep as a software developer. Not the typical path to apparel design to be sure.
Entering the business as a designer of graphic T-shirts, Erik and his then business partner Josh Hindson expanded their scope and created La Merde—a high end line that was banned from Nordstrom when the store realized that “merde” translated from French, means “shit”. Though the line ran for three seasons, a handful of creative differences and some branding issues (“apparently the federal government won’t trademark profanity”) became too complicated, and the partnership fizzled. As a result, Josh moved to Boise to continue making tees, while Erik stayed in Portland to rebrand La Merde as Bridge & Burn.
Modern and timeless yet tied to his Pacific Northwest roots, Bridge & Burn became a customer favorite in a matter of days. And what started as a small outerwear upstart for men has since grown into a sought-after label that produces seasonal lines for both sexes. “I call myself a designer now,” says Erik when pressed about his lack of formal training and new flagship retail store, “but it took me a little while before I was comfortable with that.”
FRITZ MESENBRICK: La Merde had a very unique and distinct style. Looking back, it seems so of the era. What made you change the name to Bridge & Burn?
ERIK PROWELL: La Merde was a compromise between different aesthetics. My old business partner is a little more hip-hop, and wanted to be baggier and flashier, and I wanted a different feel.
FM: Where did the Bridge & Burn name come from?
EP: Bridge & Burn was one of the first T-shirt graphics I did. It was a hand holding a match under a bridge and it said “Don’t look back.” I was taking the next step in my career, and it was like I was burning my bridge in the graphic T-shirt world and starting a real grown up job. It also works well living here in Portland, just off the Burnside Bridge.
FM: Your clothes seem to pull equally from streetwear styles and designs from heritage brands like Filson and Pendleton, which came back a few years ago. Where do you find your inspiration?
EP: I’m influenced by work-wear and military, but I try not to get too influenced. I basically identify the styles I want to do. I pick a silhouette that I like and start with that. I’ll fill in the details and pick out the fabrics, and build it that way. I don’t have a grand plan when I start things, so I’ll just choose specific things that end up working together.
FM: It seems like there’s a lot of utility in the clothes you design.
EP: My grandpa was in WWII and he had a whole chest full of old uniforms. They had a lot of pockets and details that I always appreciated. That’s one of the reasons that inspired me to get started. I’d go to trade shows and find pieces that looked super cool, but they didn’t have deep pockets or functionality. I wanted it to have utility and a sense of purpose, but with no excess. Now that I’ve got a couple more seasons under my belt, I need to be conscious of it because I want to try something new, but I need to exercise restraint.
FM: Do you feel like you’re a part of the heritage movement, which is really popular in Portland and has been for past few years?
EP: I don’t feel like I fit in so much. It’s great to see the resurgence of all the heritage brands and I like the aesthetic. I feel like it’s an inspiration for what I do, but as a trend it seems a little costume-y. In that way, it’s lost its authenticity a bit. Everyone can see through it when it’s fake. I’m interested to see what happens with all the stores that are opening up, that are like the super-heritage menswear stores. They’re all are gonna have to evolve at some point.
FM: You do most of your own branding, including everything from the fashion photography to designing the print materials and the website.
EP: I guess my software developer background did come in handy. Right now I have a lot of balls in the air and it’s growing. It’s the same amount of balls but they’re getting bigger and heavier. I’m ready for some help. I’ve had some help, but it’s hard to be organized enough to give other people stuff to do, and take the time to show them how to do it.
FM: The natural light you use in your fashion shoots has added another element to Bridge & Burn’s aesthetic. Where did that influence come from?
EP: The natural light is just because I’m an amateur photographer so that aesthetic just kind of happened [laughs]. A lot of what I do is working with what I have and what’s accessible. I don’t have a lot of money, so it’s about figuring out ways to make things work.
FM: So far you’ve managed to stay totally independent. Are you going to stay like that?
EP: I just want to build a small sustainable business. Right now I think I’m in 45 or 50 stores. I’m pretty happy with that, and I want to expand internationally a bit. Slow and steady. I don’t want to be huge—just something I can make a decent living off of that isn’t too stressful, and be happy with what I do.