Oct. 7, 2021

Tommy Breeze (Tommy Breeze)

Tommy Breeze grew up exploring the landscape of Northern California. He found in his work a way to connect with the outdoors by creating designs that go on apparel, patches, and hats. Based in Fairfax, CA, his brand has grown from producing a handful to thousands of pieces a month.

In this episode, we dive into Tommy's story, how he developed his signature style, and his vision for manufacturing that's purposeful and creatively fulfilling.


What You’ll Learn:

[1:30] The little Northern California town where Tommy’s story begins.

[2:32] Tommy’s early memories in the outdoors.

[4:23] What moves Tommy from witnessing a landscape to capturing it in a design.

[5:53] What it means to make a design accessible.

[7:01] How Tommy’s design style has evolved over the years.

[10:17] The first patch, then and now.

[11:42] 50 or none: the first patch order.

[12:47] Early customers.

[14:08] A defining moment that makes it real.

[15:22] Signing on a major store as a wholesale customer.

[16:18] Getting the right pieces in place to grow.

[17:48] Tommy’s vision for the future of manufacturing and retail.

[20:14] (Audience Q&A) What collaborations with other artists look like.

[22:13] (Audience Q&A) Designing for a mainstream brand vs. staying the course.

[23:37] (Audience Q&A) Breaking news: Lady Gaga is out wearing Tommy Breeze.

Links:

Tommy Breeze

Transcript

Tommy  00:01

So I think the best feedback I could possibly get is when someone says to me, I feel like I've been seeing this design my whole life. Like, this doesn't feel like the first time. I've seen it. And it's not like, you know, they've seen it on hats around the last few years. It's more like they feel like it's already a part of them. And that's really what I'm going for.

Mike  00:28

This is Making Us, a podcast about makers, artisans, and creators. We dive into their story, how they approach their craft, and the meaning behind the things they make.

Mike  00:41

I'm Mike Giordani, and in this episode, an artist who grew up exploring the landscape of Northern California. He found in his work a way to help others connect with the outdoors by creating designs that go on apparel, patches and hats. In just a few years, he's grown his brand from producing a handful to thousands of pieces a month. We'll talk about how he makes his art accessible, how he developed his signature style, and his vision for manufacturing that's purposeful and creatively fulfilling. My guest today is Tommy Breeze, the founder of Tommy Breeze.

Mike  01:28

Hey, Tommy. 

Tommy  01:29

Hey, Mike.

Mike  01:30

So we are about 18 miles north of San Francisco, in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge, in a little town named Fairfax. It's a place that I'm really happy to call home, and it's your hometown. What was it like to grow up here?

Tommy  01:53

I think when you're growing up in Fairfax, it's hard to really realize how good you've got it as far as your surroundings go. Anytime you're around here and are lucky enough to have some free time during the day or the night you can go out into the hills and experience nature firsthand. And I think one of the coolest parts about Fairfax is not just the vibrant downtown area, but the ability to get very much out into nature very quickly, you can pretty much walk off the end of any street here and be up in the hills.

Mike  02:32

Nature is such a big part of living here, and it's also the main subject of your work. Is there an early memory that comes to mind for you where you felt this conscious connection to the outdoors?

Tommy  02:49

I think probably my first really concrete memories in the outdoors were at the beach. The beach has always been really special. There's something about it, I think, when you're out there and the air feels different, the landscape's really different. It really sticks into your memory scape, the sights and sounds and smells that you get out at the beach. So I have some really early memories of going to, like, Limantour, and Stinson, and, you know, take a lot of that back in my nostalgia and and in what I like to call like the memory scape. It's like, it's not a perfect rendering of where you were and what you saw, but it's the core elements that are left over in your mind.

Mike  03:39

When you say memory scape, can you expand on what you mean by that?

Tommy  03:46

It's almost like a bookshelf to put your memories on. It's like a place where you can store those experiences so they don't just have to bounce around in your mind. If you have this piece of artwork, it just happens to be mostly in hat form these days. It's sort of what we're focusing on right now, but, you know, whether you have a patch or a sticker or a painting, the way I look at it is it's like a place where you can store these memories. When you look at it, it kind of reminds you again as being there, about the feelings that you take away from it just like a bookshelf would be a place where you store other types of memories.

Mike  04:23

I'm curious about that movement from witnessing a landscape to getting it down into a design. What are you really trying to do when you decide to capture that experience?

Tommy  04:43

I think what I'm really trying to do when I am trying to make a patch design... I'm trying to distill the feelings down into their their basic elements. It's like what I was saying before about like what your mind takes away from being somewhere. It's like what really stands out. And I'm also trying to distill quite a few different experiences down into just one image. Like the beach day patch, for example, which is the newest one, it doesn't just represent one beach day for me, it's supposed to represent all beach days, you know, of course, it can't perfectly represent each one of them, because they're all really different experiences with different people in different weather in different places. But what I'm really looking to do is create iconography that is deeply personally accessible for each individual person that might connect with it.

Mike  05:53

That's so powerful. I'm like, processing that right now. What I'm hearing from you, as you're distilling it down to an essence, the essence of that experience, so that it can communicate in a universal way, and people can then bring their own connection to it.

Tommy  06:13

Exactly, yeah, that's very well put. You know, I'm, you know, making my own art, of course, but it's not just supposed to be related to me, it's supposed to be related to experience and landscape, and these things that are hopefully accessible to as many people as possible. And through the artwork, I'm trying to make them more accessible to people, and more possible to allow people to take them into their daily lives to bring the view with them. As I heard recently, as a tagline suggestion from Jenny, one of the team members at the company, she said, "What if we said, 'Bring the view with you?'" And I'm like, yes! That's exactly what I'm trying to do.

Mike  07:01

It's a great slogan. What about your design style? Did you develop it consciously? What was the process for, for getting to where you are now?

Tommy  07:16

Yeah, my design, it hasn't always looked like, what the patches look like. I think there's a few big reasons that these designs look like they do. The number one reason is that most of the time they're on patches and patches require kind of this color block approach, at least certain types of patches. And another part of it was, I was really interested in learning digital design. I'd start out by, you know, trying to draw a landscape, because that's what I was basically always drawing, you know, a few years ago, but I was just starting to learn these digital design programs with this really, really simple browser based vector graphics editor. It's kind of like, almost like Microsoft Paint, but for the types of basic things you can do in Illustrator.

Mike  08:10

Oh, cool.

Tommy  08:10

It's free, it's just like a URL. You could draw a squiggly line, you could draw different shapes. And yeah, I started making these really simple designs. Because I was just starting to learn the program, I couldn't immediately make a complicated design. And as I started making more and more of these designs, I started realizing, like, wow, I actually really like the simplicity of this. I don't feel any desire to make it more complicated. But I still want to make it as as good as possible. So instead of going a more complex route, I started to look at how I could bring the detail inward into more of a composition based detail. So I think of these images on on even the most simple patches, like the birds patch, it's a color gradient that I did with watercolor, and then photographed and scanned into Photoshop. And then a couple of birds that I drew in Sharpie on a piece of paper and took a picture of and scanned into Photoshop, and I layered them together. There's two layers. But I still think of it as a detailed image, and that's because I spent like five hours sitting there, moving the birds like little up, little to the left, back to the right one pixel, uhh, maybe down two pixels. Just trying to get them exactly where I wanted them. And that's what I try to do with all the designs whether it's you know, the mountain one or the beach one, I'm basically trying to bring all of the graphic elements, which are simplified. I try to have as few graphical elements as possible, but all of them are very, very specifically placed right where I want them. So that's where the detail is for me.

Mike  10:06

What about old patches? Like, do you have any patches that have been around for a few years now, and what's your relationship to them now that they've been out there?

Tommy  10:17

So almost every patch that I've done is still part of their rotation today, and the first design that went on to a patch is the Cypress. Initially, though, it was just a printed patch, so there wasn't any thread embroidered on to it apart from just the backing fabric that the design was printed on, and I thought it, you know, looked pretty vibrant. But then maybe six months later, I approached it with the new method were printed the background, and then had the tree embroidered on top of the background and thread. So it's just one thread color, just the black thread for the tree and the ground, but it's sort of superimposed on top of that printed background. And now looking back on that initial Cypress patch, I'm like, wow, that's like the dullest thing I've ever seen now that there's the new one that actually pops. So now it's like, okay, yeah, I'm proud of the new version. The old one is sort of a relic from another age there were there are only 100 of them. I ordered 50 of them. That was the minimum. If I could have ordered five of them, I probably would, but most of the cost of patches is the setup.

Mike  11:35

Oh, so you either ordered none, or 50?

Tommy  11:40

Yeah.

Mike  11:42

What's the story behind that first order to begin with?

Tommy  11:46

I was basically just looking for a hat that I really wanted to wear. I've liked hats for a long time. I didn't wear them a ton as a kid, but I played a lot of baseball as a kid. And then in college, I started wearing more, had a few hats I really liked I'd often lose them and be looking for another one. And I was like, well, I can't like find the perfect hat. But I had this design. So I was like okay, well, I'll learn how to sew a patch onto a hat. So I ordered some patches, they sent me 100, and I'm like, wow, I got like, I made a bit of an investment to get these 100 patches, like, maybe I can sell a few of them, like maybe make back my money that I spent on this. So I was just sitting there with a needle and thread in my hand, going around, poking it through the hat, looping it around the edge of the patch, and it would take me like 45 minutes to an hour to do one hat.

Mike  12:42

Wow.

Tommy  12:42

It was very slow going.

Mike  12:44

Because you're doing it just you know, bit by bit.

Tommy  12:47

Hmm, yeah, just going around the patch and trying to get it to like lay flat across the house, which wasn't easy but as I did it more and more, I got a little bit quicker at it. And I gave a couple hats away to friends. I posted a few hats on my Instagram account back in September 2018. And a few of them, friends wanted to buy them. Actually two of the first six that I posted were bought by Sebastian Atsumi, who now works for the brand as my first employee.

Mike  13:30

No way.

Tommy  13:30

And just incredible and integral part of the team, someone who I believe a whole lot in and someone who believed a whole lot in me when I was first getting started.

Mike  13:45

One of your first customers.

Tommy  13:47

Exactly, yeah. And he was the only person who actually like, bought two of those hats. He was like, yeah, these are awesome. I'm gonna get to and I was like, whoa, someone wants to get two hats!?

Mike  13:57

He's really a fan.

Tommy  13:58

I sold them each for 20 bucks. And yeah, now he he has two of the first ten hats that I ever made.

Mike  14:06

What a relic. 

Tommy  14:07

Yeah.

Mike  14:08

It's an amazing story. When you think back to those early days, what was a defining moment where you felt "we're in business, this is real now?"

Tommy  14:23

One of the first moments was probably right around the holidays in December 2018 when my hats were in a store, you know, on a very small scale. I was still hand sewing the patches on, I wasn't very quick at it. But all sorts of people were finding them like people that I didn't know people I'd never met before. They just walked into a store and they're like that's a cool hat or I know someone who would like that for the holidays. And it was really cool to see people who I didn't know wanting to rock my art. And then people would always come up to me and be like I saw someone wearing your hat. And I was like, "oh my god, you know Tommy!" and they'd look at them like they're crazy, like, "what are you talking about?" They just had no idea who had made it.

Mike  15:09

"I just bought this hat" [laughs].

Tommy  15:10

And I'm fine with people not knowing who I am. It's like it's their hat. It's not my hat, you know.

Mike  15:16

That's expanded beyond the circle of friends who got in because they knew you.

Tommy  15:20

Yeah. Right.

Mike  15:20

They found you that way.

Tommy  15:21

Yeah.

Mike  15:22

It seems like a pivotal moment recently was getting into Sports Basement, right? Can you talk about that?

Tommy  15:29

Yeah, Sports Basement is a really cool group of independent outdoors and sports stores in the Bay Area. I'd always heard of them. People would always recommended that I reach out to them and for a long time, I felt like I hadn't really gotten to the point where I should reach out to them. I didn't reach out to them until I felt like yeah, like, we're ready, we can take this on. We have a team around us now. Like, we're more professional. And I reached out to them, and they wanted the hats. Actually, there are a number of employees at different sports basement locations who were already wearing the hats. And I guess they'd been getting asked a lot about whether they had them there. So it was a great fit.

Mike  16:14

It's a good way to get in.

Tommy  16:18

Basically, as soon as we signed on with Sports Basement, we basically maxed out our production capabilities. We had to start not reaching out to new stories for the time being, which is basically still the case, where we're producing anywhere from like 2,000 to 3,000 hats every month. And since we just have two people at the company who are sewing, we can't really make more hearts than that. And at the same time, I don't feel quite ready to expand the team, because we're still working on getting our systems in place and our organizational skills in place, and eventually getting a larger headquarters that has room for more production. So we're basically opting to stay at exactly the size, and that's basically the size that we reached one Sports Basement signed on.

Mike  17:12

That's a huge milestone, and it seems that you're being intentional about growth.

Tommy  17:21

Yeah.

Mike  17:22

One of the quotes that comes to mind is, I'm probably butchering this, but it's something along the lines of the best way to create chaos is to add people to a non-existent or broken process.

Tommy  17:38

Yes, and that's what we want to be really, really careful about.

Mike  17:42

Okay, so looking into the future, what's your vision?

Tommy  17:48

I'm really excited to grow this pretty big, like, I don't want to set my sights very small, I'm really eager to really turn this into something I can give back to the community because that community is gonna give back to us. I'm in it to have fun. Like, I really want to create some awesome spaces, some awesome events, I want to show people that it's possible to have a thriving arts community in Marin County. I want to show people that it's possible to bring manufacturing jobs into this area and have them pay well, and have them be creatively-fulfilling manufacturing jobs. And I also, I really like the idea of this thing that I think is already called this, but I'm not really sure I call it immersive retail, where the goal is to kind of reinvent the way that we approach buying things. Because like owning something, buying it, supporting an artist, going to a thing, a store, an event where you buy something, it's a very personal process. And I think that there's a big opportunity to actually reinvent the way that we approach retail, both from the buying side and the selling side. One of the things that people will often say about working in retail is like it's like supposed to suck your soul. Like if you work at a store, you know, a big box store or something like it's not supposed to be creatively fulfilling. But I think it's actually possible by creating a more immersive environment, one with more storylines, one with more things going on, more varied experiences, you can actually go to an event that is super memorable and create things at that event that you can bring home as a way to continue that stoke and that inspiration and keep the inspiring memories that you made alive in your day to day life.

Mike  20:05

It's time for Q&A. You submit a question, and today's maker will answer it.

Q&A Participant  20:14

Hi, Tommy. This is Rosie from San Rafael. I was wondering, do you ever collaborate with other artists? And if so, how does that usually go? Thanks and keep up your awesome work.

Tommy  20:25

Yes, I love collaborating with other artists, and I would love to collaborate with 20 times more artists than I do right now. We want to make sure that we that we can, you know, give a lot of thought to all the collaborations that we do, we want to make sure that if we work with somebody, we can actually have the time to sell that work, to get it out into the world. There's a line that I'm really excited about right now by Kelsey Ruggaard, who does hand embroidery of local wildflowers. We did some collab hearts a little while back, where she hand embroidered a flower onto the front of the hat. And then what we recently did is we programmed those hand stitches into one of the computerized machine. So it actually did a very similar stitch pattern to what she was doing by hand, but now we can automate it. So now he can put her flowers and trees on to... what we're doing right now is we've got my patch on the front and her embroidery on the side. And, yeah, they're really special.

Mike  21:37

Yeah, they're beautiful. And it feels very cohesive, you know, different artists, but it comes together as one piece.

Tommy  21:43

Thank you. Mm hmm. And it's like, yeah, I always wanted to create flower embroidery. I've been meaning to for like, two years. And then I saw that my friend Kelsey was actually doing it. So that's what I think it's all about. It's not about like seeing something and being like, oh, like, like, we could do that. It's like seeing something and be like, let's collaborate with that person and like, bring them into it, you know.

Q&A Participant  22:13

Hey, Tommy. I was calling to ask if you would consider designing something for a mainstream brand? Or, or do you feel like you want to protect your work and keep it in your own brand? My name is Danilo and I'm calling from San Leandro, California.

Tommy  22:33

Yeah, I definitely would love to create new designs for new scenarios, other companies. I've done that a little bit, they're usually for much smaller brands. I also, though, I do want to preserve kind of the, the uniqueness of the designs that I put on the hats, I don't think I'd be that into letting a company use one of those designs and just sort of slap their logo around it. I very like intently, like, don't put words on the designs, or on the outsides of the hats, because I really think it's about the visual thing. You know, you see a lot of different shirts or hats, which are cool that like have a design and then it says Lake Tahoe on it. But I like making designs where it's like, yeah, like maybe I was inspired by Lake Tahoe. Maybe a lot of people see Lake Tahoe, but maybe someone else sees a completely different lake in a completely different country.

Q&A Participant  23:37

Tommy, I've been following your journey. And it's so wonderful to see how much you've been able to accomplish in such a short time. Just the other day I saw you posted about Lady Gaga wearing one of your hats. Was that a crazy feeling or what!?

Tommy  23:52

Yes. Yes, that was a crazy moment. When I first realized what was going on. I like took me a while to kind of fully grasp that this had happened. I was like, there has to be like some sort of a mistake, like where's the catch, like what's going on here? Sort of like looking at this picture of someone in the Daily Mail. They're wearing one of my hats. They had big sunglasses on, and this is clearly one of my hats, and it was clearly a picture in the Daily Mail, and I was trying to put the pieces together. And then it kind of clicked and I was like, whoa, like yeah, apparently, Lady Gaga has one of my hats and liked it enough to put it on her head when she went out in public. And then the Daily Mail ran a very hard hitting piece of investigative journalism centered around Lady Gaga went out in public. That was that was the...

Mike  24:53

Breaking news.

Tommy  24:54

That was the basically the whole story and this is what she was wearing when she went out in public. They referred to the hat as a peach ball cap. They didn't name the company by name in the story, and I wouldn't expect that know what the company was. But somehow, a fan account in Germany called La Maison Gaga on Instagram managed to track down me and tag me on Instagram, like within an hour of the Daily Mail posting their story. And I was amazed that they would manage that because, you know, like I was saying before, there's no words on that side of the heart. It's just the design, but somehow they found me.

Mike  25:34

How did they trace it back to you?

Tommy  25:37

I don't know. I, I asked them, and person who runs the account, they're just like, I've been doing this for a while. I was like, you know, magician doesn't give up their tricks, so cool. Like, I sent them a hot, you know, as some thanks. But yeah, I was definitely very touched, very honored that that Lady Gaga wanted to wear my hat. And I think it was it was a really fun experience for everybody who had been following the brand for a long time. It's really still a local brand. And I think that's how most people experience that is a very local thing. So the fact that a global superstar was wearing it, sort of, it really validated a lot of people's experience. It was fun, where it, like, sort of made everybody who had been involved for a long time, like, feel like they're part of something bigger. Like we always have been part of something bigger, but it was it was a tangible moment that was really fun.

Mike  26:40

Well, I'm really inspired by our conversation today. Thanks a lot for joining me, Tommy,

Tommy  26:44

Thank you so much for having me, Mike. It was a pleasure.

Mike  26:50

That's Tommy Breeze, based in Fairfax, California.

Mike  27:02

Tommy has big ambitions, and at the same time, he is intentional about the way that he approaches growth. Ultimately, I think his greatest design is going to be this company that brings the community together and fulfills the vision that he shared today. 

Mike  27:23

You can find a full transcript and notes from today's conversation, and send questions for future guests on our website, MakingUs.com. Thanks so much for listening to Making Us. See you next time.