Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Reclaimed Wreckage

Posted By on September 14, 2011, 10:59 AM

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At a time when people are saving money and judging what they can, and cannot, afford, the movement for recycled goods has been making a massive comeback, especially in the craft-art circles. --- Everyday products and other wears designed from used scraps and discarded materials, made at an affordable price to help keep the environment clean, are now seen frequently.

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One of the locally based companies leading the charge is Reclaimed Wreckage, who specializes in the re-purposing of vinyl and rubber into handmade fashion accessories such as purses, wallets and watches. Since the company's founding early last year, it's strived to get people to see the potential and benefits to upcycling, and has become an influential brand name in the Utah marketplace. I got a chance to chat with founder Lisa Brown about her career, starting up Reclaimed Wreckage, the work and influence it's had and some thoughts on local craft.

Lisa Brown

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Gavin: Hey, Lisa. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Lisa: I’ve always been a “why not” type of person. I tend to jump into things with both feet and figure things out while I’m in there … often drowning and flailing around like a madwoman until I learn to swim. I’m a licensed preschool teacher in California, completed Real Estate School in Arizona and dropped out of beauty school in Utah. I’ve sold everything from diet pills to home-security systems to sex toys to handbags. I grew up about half an hour outside Los Angeles as the youngest of seven kids. In Utah, that’s normal, but in Southern California, we might as well wear a bonnet and create your own compound. My dad was fearlessly repairing everything we broke and often didn’t know how to complete a project when he started it, but always made it look professional in the end. If anything needed fixing, from cars to construction, we all blindly knew he could figure it out eventually.

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Gavin: How did you first take an interest in fashion and what were some early influences on you?

Lisa: When I was a little kid, I would insist on having everything match perfectly. I wouldn’t let my mom put tights on that weren’t the exact shade of pink as my shirt … so I basically had one fool-proof outfit I wore over and over again. Seriously, my 3rd and 4th grade pictures look exactly the same. I don’t know what my mom was thinking, letting me leave the house like that. The week before I turned 18, I signed with a modeling agency. I always wanted to be a runway model through my teenage years and once I really got into it, found that I hated it. I did learn a lot, though, gained a lot of insight, and finally learned how to walk in heels. I also learned Superglue should never be put on your forehead, nipples, or stomach, how to play off a good trip on a runway, and to never throw an onlooking tourist’s camera in the street -- they get mad. As I grew older, I combined my dad’s “sure … I can do that” attitude with what I had learned about fashion in Los Angeles and sat down and started making things myself. I had no formal training and had no idea how to thread a machine. I just blindly knew I could figure it out eventually.

Gavin: You went to Salt Lake Community College to study fashion design as well as photography. What made you choose SLCC?

Lisa: Honestly, it was the ONLY fashion-design program in the area I could find! When I started, I expected to re-learn everything later when I moved out of state, or basically learn to quilt and crochet like a pro, but I’ve been so happy with the teachers there. They have been brilliant and able to answer all my questions, teach me a ton, and have real-world experience. I found myself wondering if a more prestigious, out-of-state college would even be worth it.

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Gavin: When did you first come across vinyl artwork and what drew your interest to work with it?

Lisa: I saw this artist on Etsy making vinyl-record roses. They were so beautiful, and no matter how I tried I just couldn’t figure it out. I swear that artist is a genius. I had all these little pieces of vinyl and I started just playing with them. My first earrings came from those scrap pieces. So, in the end, even failed attempts can create something worthwhile.

Gavin: How did you come up with the idea to recycle old pieces into different materials?

Lisa: It all started with a diaper bag. When I was pregnant, I desperately searched for one that didn’t have a bunny on it. Nothing. I wanted something my husband could carry, something I would like and something that would hold up well to messy bottles and heavy loads of diapers. I started seeing some made of vinyl, so I did the only logical thing and took my husband dumpster diving to find some billboard scraps at the local print shops. After I made one bag, I started making more and more. We started making weekly dumpster-diving extravaganzas. We made a whole event of it: We’d get a pizza, bring the dog and baby … the whole deal. Twice we were mistaken for homeless people and the owners threatened to call the cops. Good times.

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Gavin: What made you decide to start up a business based on this, and how did you decide on Reclaimed Wreckage as the name?

Lisa: A lot of our family friends were making a living on selling their work, so I dedicated myself to making that happen. I was selling sex toys at the time and was afraid that my kid was getting too old. I didn’t want his first memory to be discovering mommy’s stock. He was way too young for most daycares and, honestly, I couldn’t afford a really great one, anyway, so I founded my own company to create a flexible schedule on my own terms. I wanted a descriptive name, something that described what I created in the title without being too boring. After countless hours consulting a thesaurus, I came up with Reclaimed Wreckage. It gave me the ability to expand into whatever I wanted and stay within my basic concept.

Gavin: Where do you get all the vinyl from that you work with and what kind of condition do you usually get it in?

Lisa: I have morals. I only use vinyl that was warped or scratched when I receive it. Most of the time it was set in an attic or hot garage and the whole box is melted to one side. It’s amazing how much jewelry I can make out of a single record.

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Gavin: What's the process like for you in salvaging the vinyl you need for specific projects, and how do you decide what you're going to turn it into?

Lisa: All my vinyl is donated. It's awesome how many people would rather give it to me than throw it away. Once I’ve started working on it, I have to take into consideration that there are several different grades of vinyl, and some are flexible while some shatter. Some take longer to bend than others, and some are brittle when they are bent too far. Since each one is slightly unique, I have to adjust the way I work with each piece of material to create the finished product. It’s always a learning process, which is what I love about it.

Gavin: What was the initial reaction like from people when you started attending craft and art events and showing off the new works?

Lisa: I have the kind of work that people either love or they just don’t understand. Every week, I have someone leave my booth saying, “Oh! Look …this one’s leather”!, or asking for a custom leather piece. I also have several people each week scoff and say, “Upcycling … what the hell is that?” As long as I’m putting myself out there, I’ll be subject to criticism. It’s just learning to let that roll off and focus on the people that actually are my customer base and “get it” because as long as they’re happy, I’m happy. Anybody else really doesn’t matter.

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Gavin: Shortly after, you started up a blog and opened up an Etsy shop. How was it for you transforming this work into a formal business, and what difficulties did you have to deal with?

Lisa: Oh, I was absolutely clueless! I’m not sure why I was so confidant, because I had no idea what I was doing. I packaged things horribly, photographed terribly and didn’t know what to do when tax season started. I was actively selling my products for a full year before I could accept checks made out to Reclaimed Wreckage. I guess you learn a lot when you jump in. Today, my biggest issue is time management. Everything has to maintain a perfect balance, so I keep things in perspective and stay organized. I started this company to be with my son, so I can’t let it consume valuable time with him.

Gavin: Your work is currently being sold in a few local shops and one in San Francisco. What made you decide to expand into regular retail, and how do you decide what businesses to go with?

Lisa: I wanted a more stable income since craft venues and online sales are often seasonal. I think if I try a little bit of everything, I’ll find the perfect fit eventually. So far, I’ve had great experiences with stores, so I will continue to move forward with them. My work will be available at a new store in Missouri by the end of the month and, hopefully, just a few more in Utah by Christmas.

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Gavin: You've started featuring other works on your blogspot site, like the cassette-tape boxes and the wood-palate furniture. How do you decide what to feature on the blog, and how much of it do you create compared to what you just showcase?

Lisa: I showcase work that inspires me and has me thinking about it later. If I’m still thinking about a concept a day after seeing it, I hope others will, too. I try and blog about my latest designs as often as possible, but have a hard time keeping up sometimes. Sorry, readers!

Gavin: Over time, you've transitioned from just making a few items to having a complete line of works. Have you given any thought to opening your own physical store or chain, or marketing the items to bigger stores? Or are you more content with the way your business is working now?

Lisa: I have absolutely no desire to market to huge chain stores, but fantasize about having a separate studio/boutique all the time. It would be amazing to have a more defined separation from work and home; even some co-workers would be refreshing. In time, it would be great to share a commercial space with another designer and motivate each other to grow. Eventually, I would love to have some of my line available overseas and in more stores nationwide. I’ll grow as much as I can and continue to stay sustainable. I don’t believe in exporting any of my design and manufacturing process so I’ll have to stay somewhat small.

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Gavin: Are there any plans on the horizon to expand on the list of items you currently create?

Lisa: Always! This winter, I’m so excited to launch my line of tailored rubber coats. They’re warm, water-resistant, and fashion-forward. I’ve always wanted a coat that will keep me warm through the winter and not leave me looking like a marshmallow and I think I’m in the final stages of perfecting my designs.

Gavin: Going local, what are your thoughts on our craft scene, both good and bad?

Lisa: I love the sense of community and support Salt Lake has for its artists. There’s such a fun group of people who you can always turn to with any questions or problems. In Salt Lake, we have inexpensive studio spaces, eager local stores and mindful consumers, which make for a successful craft business. I think our city is big enough to have a prominent market for handmade goods, yet small enough that you don’t drown in the competition. I couldn’t ask for more.

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Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?

Lisa: I think consumer education is key. Artists and crafters cannot compete with big-box stores without selling themselves short and devaluing their work. But they have something much more valuable than the lowest price: a sustainable economy. According to NPR, 80% of new jobs in the last few years are from small businesses. Why doesn’t the general public support them more? We are specialized, talented, unique creators and, best of all, regardless of what you purchase, I guarantee it wasn’t made by some seven-year-old kid in a sweat shop in Malaysia. I believe that every time you make a purchase, you're casting a vote. Does the cheapest price hold more value than quality, sustainability and our own shaky economy? I think so many problems can be fixed if we just support each other in our entrepreneurial adventures.

Gavin: What do you think of craft fairs like Craft Sabbath, Beehive Bazaar and Craft Lake City, and the work they do to promote the scene and artists?

Lisa: I love them! I’ve gotten so much more press from those events than any other marketing I’ve tried myself. Period. They really give you a leg up and are looking out for the artist. After a good craft fair, the contacts I meet alone will keep me going until the next show. I really can’t express enough how much they help my business. If it wasn’t for them, often I think I wouldn’t have it in the first place.

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Gavin: Who are some crafters that you've been checking out lately, or like to buy items from?

Lisa: I love Sorry Clementine clothing. She has such a unique esthetic that you can identify one of her pieces immediately just by looking at it. My kid is obsessed with Grimmleighs collectables. Rachel and Leigh made him a custom robot that he still sleeps with every night. I have several pieces from Kat’s Creepy Art in my house now, and use a Moontime Rising Timepiece from Giuliana Serena every day. There’s so much talent close that I find something new to fall in love with every time I take a quick look around.

Gavin: What can we expect from both Reclaimed Wreckage and yourself over the rest of this year?

Lisa: For Reclaimed Wreckage, you can expect fitted jackets, new fall handbag designs, and possibly furniture and lighting. I’m considering breaking into housewares a little more to see if there’s a good market there.

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Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

Lisa: I’m starting a new blog; hopefully soon, I’ll figure out how to transfer my existing posts to the new site, but any new updates can be found there.

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Gavin Sheehan

Gavin Sheehan

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