We had the good fortune of connecting with Brooke Wilton and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Brooke, what led you to pursuing a creative path professionally?
I’ve always had a driven creative compulsion. I attended the High School For The Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, majoring in Visual Arts, and had a widely ranging liberal arts education at The University of Texas at Austin; full of classes in visual arts, audio production, film, photography, and creative writing. Then I started playing in a number of bands here in Austin (where I still live) while I fostered a technical career at Apple and a number of other tech companies from the early 90’s-on. But something was always missing. I felt that my creative potential was going largely untapped while I was surrounded by grey cubicle walls, so I got back into doing art and photography a bit and started doing some local arts shows. Then the econopocalypse of 2008 happened and suddenly NO ONE was buying art. So I took my last full-time tech gig while I dreamed of doing just about anything else. I felt I had always had some pretty good ideas, but never really put much energy into just pursuing one of them up to that point, so I decided that the next good idea that came to me I was going to go for it. And I had decided around that point that I should upgrade my wardrobe from just concert t-shirts to collared, button-front shirts. But I didn’t like a lot of the shirts I was finding in that cut – the typical floral design or the Hawaiian landscapes were just not doing it for me. At that point I was dating a seamstress. She suggested we just go get a pattern, some fabric, and some buttons and she could make some shirts for me. My first foray into the fabric store was an eye-opening experience for me, and I selected enough material to make 5 shirts! By the time she had made the first couple of shirts, they quickly became my favorites ever! But then we broke up. And I felt that I had too much sentimental attachment to these shirts in regards to her, so I could not bring myself to wear them. Cut to a year later. I still had the materials to make 3 more shirts, tucked away in a closet, and I still had the need. So I put an ad in Craigslist and the first person I interviewed had 55 years of sewing experience and samples of her impeccable work. I decided on the spot to pay her half-again more than she had bid per shirt, as long as they would be of the highest quality with no corners cut (so to speak). And that’s how it began. After the first shirt, we worked together to customize the pattern and I borrowed elements from my favorite shirts and incorporated them. Then she completed the other two and I realized this was really working for me, for my own wardrobe expansion. So I kept getting more and more materials and she kept making shirts. Eventually I had 38 tailored fully-customized shirts and people started asking me where they could get one. So this is how Flameless Shirt was born. That original seamstress ended up working for me full-time for the next three years until she decided to retire from the business altogether. But she set the bar very high for anyone else to follow.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I’ve had teams of folks and single seamstresses working for me, setting their own hours and pace. I’ve had pressure to move my manufacturing overseas, but I believe it’s important that my works are manufactured here in the US. If I wanted to be like the rest of the industry, there’d be no point in having started my own company. And I prefer having one highly skilled person doing the work, because there is a consistency to the final product and an accountability that you don’t see otherwise. Most Americans are spoiled on sweat-shop labor these days, but I didn’t want to be any part of the deplorable conditions and lousy pay that comes with cheap labor. I have found that my customers understand this, even if it means they have to wait a bit for their shirt to be made, and the quality shows in the workmanship. They are willing to pay a little more for goods designed and manufactured locally, by folks making a living wage, and they appreciate that this clothing is meant to last a lifetime, the way clothing used to be made. Back when I started, I had decided that I would take the best 16 or so of my designs and those would be the first shirts for sale. I photographed them and setup my own website to that end, and then I went to a concert (Bob Dylan at the Back Yard in 2010) wearing shirt No 1, the one that looks like I’m being licked by flames. I’m not necessarily an outgoing person under normal circumstances, and I was at this show alone. But then people started coming up to me and introducing themselves, and I realized that you can’t really be a wallflower in one of these shirts; that they do the icebreaking for you. So, in making new friends left and right I realized I was being a “shameless flirt”. And being a life-long fan of Spoonerisms, it hit me that my company should be called Flameless Shirt, despite the irony of my attire at the time. Unfortunately, I realized quickly when trying to order more of the fabric for these first 16 shirts, that such things are fleeting; so, from then on, I would constantly be chasing materials to get more of my designs made. Only 3 or 4 of these original 16 went into real production. So, this is why I ended up with the reverse model of the rest of the fashion world. The fashion world depends on things changing constantly, seasonally. Buying the latest fashions starts out expensive, and then things go more and more cheaply as the seasons pass. But I’ve chosen a timeless canvas as my medium. I’ve got a niche of people who want interesting things on the basic camp-shirt format, and I’ve got the eye to provide that. And because materials are limited, my editions are limited, based on their availability. My model flipped the trend. As a shirt starts out in my line, it is as inexpensive as it is going to get, and the price increases based on how rare the materials become; how few shirts remain that can be made. I know I am the largest buyer of some fabrics in the US, because when I have a hit, I try to get as much of that material as possible until it runs out. And I don’t want to be making clothing just for rich people, so I try to keep it affordable, within reason. Still, the last half-dozen or so of my best sellers have gone for over $200 each, following this model. And pretty much I only buy what I like (though I do make the occasional one-off for a special commission.) This means that I don’t have to worry about what’s popular. I have my own aesthetic and people who collect my shirts come to expect that. One of my popular themes is Rock ‘n Roll. I joke about infusing rock music into every one of my designs, but that’s just a convenient way to describe what I like. And the style of shirt is inherently a casual one. So this is what suggested my main slogan, which is also a way of life in my shirts: Play Loud! September 1st marks the 10th anniversary of when I started Flameless Shirt! I’m glad I had a generous severance from the last full-time tech job that I left, allowing me to really figure out how I was going to sell my shirts. Because of the high quality and expense, I am constantly having to find new customers to stay afloat. For the first 3 years I was in business, I was able to get a steady supply of folks seeing my shirts to become my customers by selling in the pop-up markets of the SoCo area of Austin, because of the constant stream of foot-traffic. mostly from tourists. But I soon realized that my main market is really at music fairs and festivals. So in addition to regularly vending at big events like The Old Settler’s Music Festival and Utopiafest, I founded the East Austin Handmade Arts Market and began creating events around town that are a synergy of hand-made local art and music, allowing other artists like me to find buyers, and providing audiences for local bands. With the exception of this year, I have been organizing annual events like Yule Bazaar (which I took over from Cedar Stevens in her capacity as Events coordinator of The VORTEX Theater, with her blessing), and I am now the curator of the largest annual Surf Music Fest in the US for 8 years running, called Surf By Surf East, which happens every March just before the big Austin music conference we named ourselves in deference to. In doing these events. I create original posters to market them, and among other things, I have been DJ-ing (in the old fashioned sense), in between or in addition to musical acts I’d booked, and because I have a Progressive Rock band that I front called Dwarf Nebula, I started booking events around town at different clubs under the auspices of Third Sat From The Sun (because they were every third Saturday of the month). Sometimes your creative impulses can snowball (if you let them) and I gained a reputation of treating everybody with respect; the artists, the bands, the sound-person, the club managers and employees, etc. When you do this, your circles can grow exponentially. So it was that the guys doing a Progressive Rock show on KOOP 91.7 FM recruited me to become one of their programmers, partnering with them to produce the weekly show Virtual Noise as DJ Baron Mind. After two years of this, I have now launched my own show in addition, called The Hippy Campus, focusing on “college-ruled radio gems”. This has given me another creative outlet to present to the world the music which has shaped me and is sorely lacking anywhere else on the airwaves. This is where I find my niches. Is it cool? Yes. Is anyone else doing it? No. So then I go out and do it. I’ve also learned that innovation is key. If you’re doing something unique successfully, there are bound to be people who want to copy what you’re doing. So, you have to stay ahead by innovating your products. My first innovation was to launch what I called my Austin Accent shirts. These were primarily solid shirts, color-blocking in key places to accent the unique colorful fabrics. This morphed into my Legend line, which is a unique kind of panel shirt, with lots of flourishes and interesting details. These have proven really difficult to cut and sew, but they are worth it, and they conserve the rare unique fabrics by using primarily solids, which also allows folks who may be a bit more conservative to feel like they can “get away” with wearing them. Anything that broadens your inventory and your customer base is a good thing.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
In Austin, such things abound. Assuming we are no longer in a pandemic, I take friends out to see live music at whichever clubs are playing the best bands at the moment. Very few of these places are along the traditional 6th Street strip these days, so we’d go to East Sixth, The Sahara Lounge, etc. As far as food goes, you can’t beat Homeslice for pizza, Hopdoddy for burgers, and there’s too many good Mexican or Tex-Mex to mention. Always dessert at Amy’s Ice Cream is the way to finish the evening. Since many of my friends are musicians or audiophiles, we go to Waterloo Records to get some new music. And there is a lot of beautiful nature to be found around Austin, at Lake Travis, Mount Bonnell, or along the Barton Creek Hike & Bike Trails, especially with the additions that are now called the Violet Crown Trails.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’d like to acknowledge my first professional seamstress, Rosa, who set me on this path;, my good friend Steve, retired Fed-Ex Pilot who proved there are collectors out there would would buy each and every one of my designs if I was true to my muse and kept the quality consistently great; my best friend Cedar Stevens, who is a constant sounding-board for my ideas; and my current seamstress Billie, who is the best I’ve ever worked with!
Other: The East Austin Handmade Arts Market: www.facebook.com/EastAustinHandmade
The Hippy Campus: www.facebook.com/DJBaronMind
Dwarf Nebula: https://www.facebook.com/dwarfnebula
Third Sat From The Sun: www.progaustin.com
Virtual Noise: www.facebook.com/VirtualNoiseATX
John Maffei, Jen Ramos, Brooke Wilton