Mallory Bruns had her first inkling of what she might be doing as a grownup when she was a young girl. Back then, her creative outlet was more about Barbies and playing dress-up, and not so much about models strutting down a catwalk. But it was still an early sign that fashion design could be her true calling.
“My best friend’s mom let us put puff paint on a bunch of old clothes, and it was the most fun thing ever,” said Bruns, a Bangor native who six years ago created Sophronia Design, her own fashion label.
“Oh, and I used to hand-sew Barbie clothes. My grandmother taught me to sew. My family always had crayons and Play-Doh and creative toys around. I never really thought it would amount to anything. I just loved to do it,” Bruns said.
Those days of playing around with scrap fabric and pawing through the theater costumes at Bangor High School have long passed. Bruns has moved on, making a name for herself in Maine for the feminine-with-an-edge look of Sophronia, showing off her work at fashion shows from Portland to Bangor.
Today, she’ll have a show at 3 p.m. at the 16th annual HOPE Festival, a celebration of art, music, green living and social justice, to be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Student Recreation and Fitness Center at the University of Maine.
Bruns, 25, began designing in earnest while studying advertising and fashion design at Syracuse University. Her first assignment was to create a dress out of a simple sheath of muslin. Bruns added ruffles and a lace-up closure to the piece and liked what she saw. She was hooked. More dresses and jackets followed, and she soon gave a name to her burgeoning clothing line: Sophronia.
“Sophronia was my great-great-great-great-grandmother. Her mother came from a wealthy family in New York, and she fell in love with an Irishman, which, like, scandalized everyone,” said Bruns. “She left her lifestyle to marry him, and they moved out to California so they could be more accepted. On the way there, she gave birth to their third child and died giving birth. He was so heartbroken he gave the child away to a nice family, moved the other two babies back to New York and disappeared into Mexico. It’s a pretty amazing story.”
With a name and a vision, Bruns dove into fashion design. She took classes in fashion illustration, and her work landed her a spot with the Teens in Fashion program, which allows college-level fashion design students a chance to design clothing to be sold at Wal-Mart stores. Bruns was with the program for a few months, but pulled out after the hundreds of illustrations she did were rejected, and she discovered she wouldn’t own the rights to any of her designs.
“I didn’t really want to be connected with it,” she said. “It just wasn’t right for me. It was great experience, but it wasn’t my kind of thing. It definitely taught me what I did and did not want to do.”
After graduating from Syracuse in 2007, she spent time in Phoenix, Ariz., and St. Louis, Mo., where she created window displays for shops, waited on tables at Japanese restaurants, and busily churned out clothing in her spare time. A line of bags here, a handful of fun, funky dresses and jumpers there.
“People think the fashion industry is all glamour and celebrities and stuff,” she said. “It isn’t at all. People hold some dirty jobs. Sewing 72 bags isn’t easy. You disappear into your studio and just sew, sew, sew.”
In early 2008, Bruns moved back to Bangor to work for her father, Dr. Richard Bruns, a chiropractor. She didn’t hold out much hope for advancing her fashion career in her hometown. Luckily, she was wrong.
A fashion show in June 2008 at the inaugural West Market Festival in Bangor brought quick attention to her clothing. In October 2008, Bruns participated in the popular Fashion Challenge, held at the University of Maine Museum of Art. Her accessories began appearing in area stores, such as Bella Luna in Bangor and Studio in Orono. Bruns was suddenly the go-to person for the budding interest in fashion in Greater Bangor.
While she has yet to break into the national spotlight, she regularly appears in area art and fashion events and has been invited to a number of fashion events in Portland, including a runway show for Maine designers on May 29 at the Space Gallery. Bruns is still quite young, and a successful fashion career beyond Maine is something she strives for — but for now, living and working in her hometown have paid off well beyond her expectations.
“The local support and enthusiasm was way beyond what I ever would have imagined,” said Bruns. “People call me Sophronia now, instead of Mallory. It’s pretty incredible.”
What sets Bruns’ designs apart from others is her juxtaposition of soft, feminine lines and organic materials with dramatic, angular cuts and fabrics. There’s lots of cotton, and patchwork and lace details, with billowy shirts and dresses and woven straps, not unlike the clothing produced by the Free People line. And yet, many of her dresses feature dramatically exposed backs and big, chunky belts, adding a dash of edgy glamour into the mix, reminiscent of Betsey Johnson.
“I think my stuff is all about being young and fresh and sexy, in a way that isn’t exactly mainstream,” said Bruns. “It’s more down-to-earth, even though it’s very unique. I like deconstructing old shirts, and detailing it with different things. It’s me.”
It’s not clothing that you’d wear to work, or to go grocery shopping: it’s clothing for a night on the town, or a funky dinner party, or for those with the personality to match Bruns’ unique, striking style.
“I know that this isn’t everyday stuff. You have to be confident to wear it. It’s not for everyone,” she said. “But that’s not really the point. I know some will wear it, and others won’t. But if you see it, you’ll remember it.”
Bruns is working on a new collection, which she’ll premiere at two events at the Space Gallery in Portland — a fundraiser for the League of Young Voters on April 29, and the aforementioned runway show on May 29. She’ll also be at the 2010 West Market Festival, set this year for June 5. She promises a slightly darker and edgier look. She’s always experimenting.
“Fashion designers are artists, before anything else,” she said. “Some people paint, some people sculpt. I design clothes. It’s my creative outlet.”
To purchase Sophronia Design clothing and accessories, become a friend of the label on Facebook, visit www.us-trendy.com/sophronia-design, or attend any of Sophronia’s events in the coming months.
2010 HOPE Festival schedule
•11 a.m.-4 p.m. 60 social justice groups and local vendors
•11 a.m. Opening ceremony to honor Penobscot Elder Arnold Neptune, with musical group Timbered Lake
•11:30 a.m. HOPE Festival Singers
•Noon Juggler Zachary Field
•Noon-3:30 p.m. Children’s activities
•Noon “Bees, Beetles and Butterflies,” workshop with Connie Stubbs
•Noon “Cool Begins With You: Reducing Your Carbon Footprint,” workshop Andy Burt and Jane Saxe
•1 p.m. Folk duo Emma Revolution
•2 p.m. Keynote address from Betty Burke, peace educator
•3 p.m. “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” talk by artist Rob Shetterly
•3 p.m. Recycled Clothing fashion show by Sophronia Design
•3:30 p.m. Community Zumba Dance