As women’s design director of teen retail giant American Eagle Outfitters in New York City, Isobel Schofield, BFA ’96, had her knit tops, graphic T’s and sweatshirts in stores around the world. Having worked her way up the fashion industry’s corporate ladder, she mentored a staff of young designers, gave presentations to the executive team, and traveled two or three times per year to facilities in Asia to oversee production of the next season’s fashions. It was a relentless, fast-paced kind of success that some people find energizing. But for Schofield, there was something missing.
So in April 2012, Schofield put into action a plan most only dream about: She walked away from her dependable job to recharge her creative soul. For the next six months, she promised herself she would open herself up to new creative opportunities, reconnect with family and friends, and, most important, grant herself time to experiment. She documented it all on a blog, The Creative Sabbatical.
“[The sabbatical] is the idea of keeping your batteries charged as a creative professional,” she says. “If you let them run out, you don’t have anything to give anymore.”
After leaving American Eagle, Schofield ticked off items on her agenda: She took a ceramics class. She visited friends and family. And she sent an email query that ultimately changed her life.
Schofield had long been an admirer of Sven Original, a clog manufacturer based in Chisago, Minn. In fact, earlier this spring, she rewarded herself with a new pair of red clog sandals for yet another successful season at American Eagle. She admired the company’s handcrafted workmanship and the fact that they were domestically made.
Following her sabbatical’s edict to try new things, Schofield sent an email that night to the company’s owner, Marie Rivers, with a simple proposition. “The note had a link to my portfolio, a bit about my background in design, and just said I wanted to learn how to make shoes,” she says. “I promised I wouldn’t get in the way and I wouldn’t be a pain in the butt.”
To her surprise, Rivers called her a half hour later.
“It was like having a celebrity call me,” she says. “I was terrified and excited.” Even better was Rivers’ answer: Yes. Schofield recalls, “She told me, ‘We’re all crazy here, and this is a crazy idea, so we’ll get along fine.’”
Just four days into her apprenticeship, Schofield and Rivers were making pairs of clogs Schofield had designed. “We were both so excited; we were literally both jumping up and down,” she says. “I go into ‘mad scientist’ mode when I’m designing, and I thought, ‘I’ve found another mad scientist!’ You don’t find that sort of creative partnership very often.”
A few days later, she broached the topic of starting a new clog line with Rivers — who coincidentally had the same idea. Over the next few weeks, they hashed out the details, and Schofield launched her new company, Bryr.
With a tagline of “Handmade in America,” the company name is taken from the Swedish word “to care.” Its pronunciation recalls the word “briar,” which captures the clog line’s “wild Englishness” and vintage, boy-meets-girl, bohemian feel.
Success has come quickly: She has already been featured in Women’s Wear Daily, the bible of the fashion industry, and her shoes are available at retail stores in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Orders through her online business have come in from across the country.
“One of the things I’ve learned through this creative sabbatical process is the idea of letting things go, letting them be what they are,” she says. “I’ve had amazing luck because I’ve let it lead me.”
Kathleen Fields is associate editor of this magazine.
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