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Bridge Burner: Alex Day, Proprietors LLC

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

New work, originally posted on the Bridge & Burn blog. Photos by Erik Prowell.


If any one ever tells you that bartending isn’t a real job, just mention Alex Day.

Alex was on a course towards a distinguished life of letters. In the midst of a degree in European Studies—thinking he’d become a professor or maybe a diplomat—the Bend, OR, native was working at Manhattan dive bars to pay his way through NYU.

With his sharp intellect and love for history, academia seemed like a sensible career path. Except for one thing. “I like being in big cities. I like being deep within culture. And at the end of the day most professors teach in little shitty towns and don’t get to live where they want. Only the best ones get to live in New York and, let’s be honest, I’m not going to be the smartest professor in the world.”

So when faced with the decision to pursue graduate studies or make a career out of mixology, he chose the latter. It was a decision that came with plenty of self doubt, but as the joint-owner of four (soon to be six) bars on both coasts, a successful consultancy, and the co-author of one of the world’s best-selling cocktail books, Alex has no regrets.

“You go from thinking you’ll become a teacher or pursue diplomatic service—like these things that really matter in the world. And you think, well, I’m serving somebody a drink… does that matter? And it’s certainly a crisis moment.”

It turns out, everything he wanted from education or foreign service—to travel, to teach and to learn as much as possible about people, culture and ideas—he’s been able to do through the lens of bartending. “And I might even make more money,” he concedes.

But unlike the career path of a diplomat, in the cocktail industry there are no rules—no boxes to check, no four-year diploma that churns out lemon squeezers, cocktail shakers, swizzle stirrers. There’s no Masters degree in mixology. And for Alex, there was also no one telling him he couldn’t just do it.

His success breaks down to one part right-place-right-time and nine parts ass-busting-hard-work.

“Now that mixology has gotten more credit, people are trying to skip the steps of working hard, working at a lot of places, not having much of a social life for a while and not getting much recognition. That’s really the only reason I got to where I did—because people saw I was working hard.”

A career in mixology, it turned out, offered the vibrant community Alex knew he needed to thrive, but also the intellectual stimulation he originally sought through academia. When he first got hired at Death & Co—one of the bars he now owns with business partner David Kaplan—he says, “I was around some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met... The demand for attention to detail, and the focus on history, accuracy and creativity mean a certain kind of person is corralled within that culture.”

It also deeply engaged his love of history and society: “There’s all this lore and culture wrapped up in cocktails, and since the world of drinking is about drinking, it’s hard to pin down accurate details. That element of mystery also appealed to me.”

Alex fell into his first bar manager role at the budding age of 22 and bounced around a few New York bars making a name for himself before landing a role at hot spot Death & Co. When Kaplan invited him to partner up on a consulting project—designing the bar for Philadelphia’s Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.—they went into business together and formed Proprietors LLC. “I started becoming an owner based on my sweat equity and it built up from there,” Alex explains.

Today, Alex doesn’t spend that much time behind a bar. Though he maintains a presence on both coasts, these days he’s most often at the lab-like Proprietors office in downtown LA: developing new drinks and the craft of mixology, advising and designing bars for clients and more recently, overseeing construction of their most ambitious project to date—two adjacent cocktails bars, each with its own ambiance, below ten rooms in a Koreatown hotel, all set to open early this year.

“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t an identity crisis. My career is based upon my bartending—what I’ve done and what people have been able to take pictures of in a glass. Moving from that to a responsible business owner who spends the majority of his time looking after nitty gritty details of a business is challenging. Because it’s not technically why I got into this industry.”

There’s a funny thing about the service industry hierarchy: good servers and bartenders can do really well and typically make more money than management. And as Alex himself admits: “It’s hard to make a living off one bar as an owner.”

So why not stay behind the bar, pocketing a comfortable wage and enjoying the freedom of leaving work behind you after each night? “You do it because you want to have more influence and responsibility and to grow as a person. It’s incredibly masochistic, but I’ve always been drawn to making larger decisions, of taking on more responsibility.”

Does he ever want to throw it off and go back to tending bar? “All the time. Every day.”

But, he says the beauty of running a business is he really can do whatever he wants.

“Maybe this is way too sociological, but there’s something in how I was raised that let me entertain the idea that I can do anything. Since no one has really put up much resistance to the idea, it’s constantly a test of what’s possible. Is it possible to open up three bars in one year? Yeah, seems that way. Will people respond? Yeah, they do! Can we make a cocktail book that compares to coffee table books and makes you feel you’re walking into a New York bar? Sure. I mean, what hubris! What a ridiculous thing to do.”

But done it, he has. Because when there are no rules, you go out and make your own.

New work: White T Supply

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

This spanking new Vancouver company ships fresh, flawless white Ts to your door, every quarter. Thanks to my own adulthood-long quest to find the perfect white t-shirt, I have plenty to say on the topic. Can't wait for them to release a ladies boyfriend cut (hint, hint).

I worked with White T Supply owner Hans to develop smart, punchy copy through the site. Take a look.

Bridge Burner: Ryann Bosetti, the Tropics

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

Just a note: Maybe it was the austerity of her stark white studio, or the steamy Portland summer day, but I think it was the cascade of unexpected insights that made my August morning with Ryann Bosetti so magical. She's a sage, and a joy to interview. Telling her story for Bridge & Burn was such a treat.

When Vogue’s editors declare you gave them the best haircut of their lives, you might expect it to be the impetus for a fanfare-heavy LA salon opening. Or a barrage of invitations to style shows in London, New York and Milan. Or prime credits in glossy fashion magazines.

But for Ryann Bosetti, the recent write up from fashion’s who’s-who is freeing her up to do the exact opposite. The hairdresser is in the process of moving her practice from a sparse white-washed Portland loft to the high desert art community of Marfa, Texas, population  2,000.

It’s a far cry from the New York office job she started out in.

A practical teenager, Ryann pursued a business degree. “I wanted autonomy and I thought I’d get it by being a business person,” she says. “Ironically, the reality is that more often you’re just a cog in the wheel.” But optimistic about the lifestyle a corporate job would offer, she moved to New York after college for a covetable position in finance at Bumble and Bumble.

“I was immediately aware that this 9-to-5—excited on Friday night, suicidal on Monday morning—was not for me. I was 21 and was just like no way, I don’t want to get used to this. The only person I wasn’t depressed by was the creative director.”

With a keen eye, she observed that he was the guy taking research trips to Paris and three-hour lunch meetings. And it was he who spotted Ryann’s restlessness in the corporate environment. “He told me, ‘You’re so antsy. I think you need to be using your hands. Go to beauty school.’”

And to beauty school she went. Then, license in hand, she apprenticed with Bumble and Bumble and began to refine her craft. She took her practice to Portland because it seemed like the one city that afforded the space—physically and financially—and the support for a small business like the one she had in mind. It seemed like a natural incubator, and it was.

Despite learning from the best, Ryann started to sense that there was more to cutting hair than following a formula. “I was taught blueprints to replicate on people, with mathematical precision, which feels irresponsible to me,” she says. “It’s not culturally relevant because you’re not acknowledging the individual’s identity and personal culture. My method is really about throwing out the blueprints, and structurally addressing each person in a new way every time.”

Not that learning mathematical foundations weren’t essential. She compares it to fine art or architecture—you have perfect the framework before you can flip it. “It’s not just being punkrock and tearing shit up,” she explains “It’s reassembling this mathematical equation, factoring in subjectivity and human response.”

Hers is a truly empathetic approach to hairdressing—debunking the notion that hairdressing is a shallow practice. She describes an almost selfish selflessness that comes when a hairdresser is really living out their calling. “It’s almost like a rush that you get—when you know that you made someone feel better about being themselves.”

Referencing Susan Sontag’s essay “An Argument About Beauty,” she explains: “The term ‘beautiful’ has been desiccated. It’s been made shallow, feminine, almost evil. But what’s evil is that we’ve made one standard for beauty.”

Defying that standard and acknowledging the beauty in each individual is what drives her craft and pushes her to keep stepping away from societal expectations of what a successful hairdresser is meant to be or do.

“The power of aesthetics is the depth of aesthetics,” she explains. “When you give someone the sense of feeling beautiful, that is not a shallow experience; it goes down to the very core of their existence. I didn’t have to go on a mission to make it depthful—it is depthful. Acknowledging it and talking about it is all you have to do to be a responsible hairdresser.”

“It’s like a holy experience: having a practice and taking care of people,” she says.

Ryann takes a suitably post-modern approach for someone who’s setting up shop in a post-modern art community. And that’s not lost on her. She spent in her first months in Marfa developing her critical theory for the art of hair and the concept of, what she calls, a “culturally important haircut”. She felt compelled to articulate her method—breaking apart the map of the skull and moving through each section to define it in a series of essays. The unanticipated result was a book: Regarding Head Shape: Acknowledgment Of The Haircut As Form. “It was an exercise I wanted to put myself through and then it blossomed into this little orange animal,” she says, referencing the book’s fluoro cover.

That initial trip to Marfa was just as unexpected as the outcome. Literally on her way to spend a summer in London, she made an impulsive decision to switch her flight from New York, and instead spent three months with friends in the remote desert town. As the lone hairdresser for miles she suddenly found herself with a small but consistent practice. She fell in love with Marfa and just kept coming back.

Four years later, she and her art director boyfriend resolved to make it their permanent home which, in such a small town, meant finding a way to combine their skills to build something sustainable where they could both thrive professionally. “We do very different things but we’re both curators,” she explains. She’s also, by trade, a natural caregiver, and he, a creative.

Seeing a limited number of high-level opportunities for their network of emerging artists and musicians, they created a space to nurture the arts in a very practical way. Their Marfa property, dubbed “the Tropics” will host an ongoing rotation of monthly artist residencies.

“We want to give artists an opportunity beyond just a spot in a magazine—and actually support their development,” she explains. The fledgling project, just like the town of Marfa itself, is largely supported by New York art patrons. Their official start date is July 2015, but they’ve been hosting unofficial residencies on the property for a year.

It’s a project designed to give space to bourgeoning artists but, combined with her recent high profile media exposure, it’s also one that gives Ryann the space she’s desired all along.

“After the Vogue article came out, the New York fashion kids all asked, ‘Why aren’t you here? Why aren’t you doing fashion hair? You could do whatever you want. Why aren’t you doing more?’ Because, I don’t want to do more.”

Instead, she’s scaling back and gaining some balance. That means reducing the number of cuts she does in a day, allocating a few spots for fashion-inclined tourists so she can keep rates low for locals; the Marfa salon doesn’t have a phone number so booking takes some commitment.

“I feel like I’m always seeking out space so that I can expand and kind of push it—push boundaries. That’s why I left New York to come to Portland and that’s why I’m leaving Portland to go to Marfa—because I want to have more room to grow.”

For Ryann, that growth means doing less, but doing it better. Giving more, but to fewer people. And taking the time to acknowledge the individuality of each person who sits in her single salon chair. Regardless of what Vogue says.

Originally published by Bridge & Burn. Photos by the incredibly charming Cara Denison

Cotton x Bridge & Burn video

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

A gaggle of New Yorkers descended on the Bridge & Burn studio mid-August to make this short film—the clever work of DDB on behalf of Cotton.

I helped create B&B's talking points and even make a cameo at the 0:57 mark (drinking Heart coffee, obviously). In fact, I'm pretty sure this was my exit-interview, captured on video. 

Emmadime + Bridge & Burn

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

One of the things that kept me incredibly busy during my summer at Bridge & Burn was connecting with bloggers, and getting our clothes into their pretty little hands.

Obviously I used it as an excuse to connect with ladies I admire, whose blogs or Instagrams I've followed for a while. Emma Robertson is one such lady—she's a super talented designer and art director with amazing personal style. Teaming up with her was ace, and the final product she created, along with photographer Ashley Batz, is just perfect.


Bridge Burners: Bestie

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

Bestie has been a Vancouver foodie favourite ever since they opened their doors last summer… actually long before that, thanks to a pretty adorable Indiegogo campaign video. When I popped home for a visit in July, I took the opportunity to interview Bestie’s charming proprietors, Dane Brown and Clinton McDougall.

This is the third of five Bridge Burner articles I created for Bridge & Burn in the course of my four-month internship, but this one was extra special because I got to bring along my super talented friend Rachel Pick to take photos.

Watch for the next two coming up in September and October!

Bridge Burner: Wood & Faulk's Matt Pierce

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

The latest instalment of the Bridge Burners series was a pleasure to write, partly because any excuse to visit Wood & Faulk's gorgeous North Portland workshop is a good one, and partly because owner Matt Pierce is a thoughtful creative and a bangup storyteller.

Visit the Bridge & Burn blog to read how his business went from a hobby-blog to an internationally distributed brand in just a couple years.

Photos by Erik Prowell

Photos by Erik Prowell

Bridge Burners series

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

I'm working with Portland apparel company Bridge & Burn to develop some long form content on their blog—celebrating entrepreneurs who've taken the leap and "burned the bridge" of working for someone else. They'll be published monthly through the summer and autumn. Here's the first.

Gigantic Brewing's Ben Love & Ben Havig [photo by Erik Prowell]

Gigantic Brewing's Ben Love & Ben Havig [photo by Erik Prowell]