Founders of Stewart + Brown
Born Howard Brown in 1967 in Montana; son of Bob and Florence (owners of a hardware store and a clothing store) Brown; married Karen Stewart; children: Hazel. Born Karen Stewart, c. 1969; married Howard Brown; children: Hazel. Education : Brown: Studied economics at the University of Montana after 1985; studied art in Italy; graduated with a degree in design from the University of Arizona, c. 1990.
Addresses: Office —Stewart + Brown, 955 E. Front St., Ventura, CA 93001. Website —http://www.stewartbrown.com/.
Brown worked as a graphic designer with International News, Seattle, WA, after 1990, and then for Urban Outfitters; moved to Philadelphia to work as an art director for Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, 1993; also worked for Burton Snowboards before forming own design agency, Syrup. Stewart worked as a housewares manager for Urban Outfitters, early 1990s, and as a clothing designer for J. Crew and Patagonia. Together, formed Stewart + Brown, 2002.
Howard Brown and Karen Stewart are the husband-and-wife team behind Stewart + Brown, a clothing company devoted to creating stylish gear out of entirely organic, earth-friendly fibers. Their trendy line of T-shirts, sweaters, wraps, and tote bags were considered the first of their kind to appeal to style-conscious consumers with a strong ethical belief about buying "green." "The couple and the company embody a new approach to commerce, one that refuses to sacrifice style for sustain-ability," wrote Daniel H. Pink in Wired . He dubbed this movement "the green aesthetic," and asserted its adherents "are charting a third way, triangulating between the hippies and the hip."
Brown and Stewart met in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, when both were working at the corporate headquarters of retail chain Urban Outfitters. Stewart was a painter, but serving as Urban Outfitters' housewares manager at the time; Brown, a native of Montana, was the chain's art director at age 26. He was originally from Havre, near Montana's border with the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and where his parents once owned the state's largest hardware store. Later, the family moved to Missoula, Montana's second largest city, where he graduated from Hellgate High School in 1985 and spent time studying economics at the University of Montana in Missoula. He eventually switched to art, studied in Italy for a year, and finished his degree in design at the University of Arizona. In 1990, he moved to Seattle and found a job with International News, a sportswear maker, as a graphic designer.
Brown was brought to Philadelphia in 1993 to help launch Urban Outfitters' new retail brand, Anthropologie. Both he and Stewart held a number of other jobs during the rest of the 1990s. He worked for Burton Snowboards before starting his own design firm, which he called Syrup. Stewart, mean- while, worked for J. Crew as a women's knitwear designer, and then for Patagonia as its senior designer for five years. The latter clothing brand was one of first mainstream companies to use organic cotton sources, and part of its commitment to the environment included some mandatory field trips for employees. Once, Stewart and her fellow designers toured a conventional non-organic cotton farm in California, which proved "so toxic we had to shower afterward to wash away the chemicals," she recalled in the Wired article by Pink.
Organically grown products—which come out of an environment free from pesticides, herbicides, or chemically manufactured fertilizers—were becoming increasingly popular with consumers concerned about their own well-being as well as that of the planet. As Brown told WWD writer Lauren DeCarlo, only coffee crops are subject to more pesticides when grown in the conventional, non-organic way, compared to cotton. "Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton in the U.S.—cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite and trifluralin—are classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as Category I and II, the most dangerous chemicals," he pointed out.
Brown and Stewart's life changed on September 11, 2001, when the trauma and tragedy of the day prompted them to reevaluate their life together and future career direction. They had always talked about starting their own clothing company, but on 9/11 "that's when we sat down and decided the future is now," Brown told Michael Moore of the Missoulian , his hometown newspaper. "We just said, 'If we're gonna do this thing, we need to do it now.'" It took nearly six months for them to arrange to have a joint two weeks off from their respective jobs in order to work on their business plan, and when that finally happened, in April of 2002, Stewart also discovered she was pregnant. The pending parenthood issue forced them to work even harder to get their venture off the ground.
Stewart + Brown began as a clothing company that sold cotton T-shirts made from organic fibers and dyes imprinted with their own graphic designs. Introduced in 2002, the T-shirts began selling well and helped finance expansion into an organic fleece—the standard kind is a petroleum-based fi-ber—and then French terry and cashmere. Working out of their home in Missoula at first, they eventually returned to Ventura, California, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles and where they had lived when Stewart worked for Patagonia. Within five years, their company offered a range of products: ORGNC was the organic cotton line of T-shirts, knits, and loungewear; CSHMR was a higher-priced line of sweaters, shawls, and blankets that came from a cooperative farm in Mongolia. The local co-op members raise the goats that produce the cashmere, process it, and knit the goods for Stewart + Brown. For a time, the company's luxurious cashmere wrap, which retailed for $600, was its best-selling product. There is also SURP+, which offers tote bags and other accessories made from factory surplus fabrics.
Brown and Stewart's range of products were all made in the Los Angeles area, except for the cashmere goods. Most apparel that U.S. consumers purchase is made overseas, where labor costs are much cheaper, and labor regulations far more lax. "It's disgusting what's happened to manufacturing in this country, and we don't want to be part of that," Brown asserted in the interview with Moore for the Missoulian . "Our motto is if you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Despite the higher costs that had to be passed along to the retail price tag, Stewart + Brown quickly caught on with affluent, style-conscious consumers eager to choose eco-friendly products. Between 2005 and 2006, their sales tripled, and by 2007 their designs were carried in 250 stores in North America and Europe.
Stewart even made her own wedding dress out of surplus material, in this case World War II-era parachute silk she found at an army-navy surplus store. Both in their home and at the office, they practice as many planet-friendly ideas as possible, including membership in "1% for the Planet," a coalition of small companies who pledge to donate one percent of gross sales to pro-environment groups. "Everybody just needs to do a little bit," Brown told Moore in the Missoulian interview. "It doesn't have to be a religion. It just has to be a case where people in every field do a little bit to help out."
Organic Style , November 2004, pp. 27-29.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch , January 27, 2005, p. F1.
Wired , May 2006.
WWD , May 19, 2005, p. 12; January 3, 2007, p. 24S.
"Hellgate Graduate, Wife among '25 Coolest,' Says Magazine," Missoulian.com, http://missoulian.com/articles/2004/11/28/news/local/news04.txt (March 4, 2007).