Photography & Interview by Julia Somers
“I continue to draw inspiration from both aspects of my unique childhood growing up in Big Sur and Manhattan, where artists and makers formed collaborative communities to support each other’s creative endeavors. Sugar Candy Mountain perfectly embodies the philosophy, ethos and design aesthetic of my company – effortlessly chic living in collections sustainably made in California.”
If you have ever emailed Sugar Candy Mountain, odds are you’ve already spoken to our amazing founder, designer, and owner - Bianca Branaman. For the last two years, Bianca has been the one woman show behind the much loved Los Angeles-based slow fashion label.
In our first blog entry, we felt it was important to share an interview where Bianca candidly discusses her motivation behind starting Sugar Candy Mountain, where she comes from, her design process, and some of her hopes for the future. If you have the time, take a minute to learn more about the radical human behind SCM.
How long has the line been around?
About three years. I started in SS15. We just finished the lookbook for FW17 - my fifth collection.
That first collection was simple and utilitarian in essence. It was just seven styles in cream, black, grey, navy and everything was loose with pockets. Dresses for people that don't like wearing dresses, which would be myself. But the comfort of a loose dress or a kaftan is great and if it has some style, you feel good in it - instead of looking like a schlep (laughs).
So that was really the inspiration, I was making stuff that I wanted to wear. And as its evolved, I started tapping into more of my fashion roots which originated from when I was modeling in my teens and then moved from Big Sur to New York City to Los Angeles.
Can you talk about where you have come from and how that has informed your perspective as well as each collection?
I was born in San Francisco, where my father was part of the Beat culture. He was originally from Wichita, Kansas and left, for obvious reasons. He moved to SF in the 50s and I was born in the early 60s. My mother was a debutante and he came from a working class, farming family in Kansas. He was ridiculed for his art - he was beaten and called names and the only community he could really relate to in Wichita was the black community - he loved jazz and the whole scene.
I think Beat culture was in response to the 50s consumer culture of "keeping up with the Joneses" and having the latest stuff, all that “you have to look this way” and they were all rebelling against that and living differently. Big Sur certainly was a bunch of like-minded people who wanted to live differently, and they were rebelling again society’s structures and it was really utopian in a lot of ways. We had separate housing but the vegetable gardens and goats were communal and we lived off what we grew and caught and went to town once a month for beans and rice. I ran around with packs of kids all day, doing and making and building forts and coming up with stories. I didn’t watch television until I was eleven.
In that community, the men were painting, there were musicians, Babatunde Olatunji would come to play African drums and they were all united through art and music and the common cause of keeping the community going through working the land. My mother would make sandals and jewelry with her friend Irene and sell them to Nepenthe, a unique cafe, bar and bookstore that still exists today. As a little kid I remember pounding out these different sized brass circles they would make for necklaces - they were really popular!
And then we moved to New York which was a huge culture shock and really exciting, at least really exciting to me. I was seven and we lived there until I was eleven and then I went back on my own as a teenager. I mean it’s crazy, I have pictures of me with Milos Forman and Mikhail Baryshnikov, all hanging out in our apartment.
Something I love about your process is that you are deeply connected to every person who has a hand in it.
Totally, I pay my workers a living wage and treat them as equal. I treat Edith Diaz just like I treat the buyer at Ron Herman. Everyone gets treated like a human being, and everyone’s job is important. I guess you could say that I’m Socialist in that I believe what is good for you is going to be good for me - what’s good for the planet is going to be good for me. It’s not about the colonial idea of individualism and 'me, myself, and I.'
I hope through my clothing, I can bring people together, bring employment to the community and bring joy to women so that they can feel good and feel connected. My hope is only to do more, to employ more people. I would love to do something at a shelter with children and utilize their creativity, with part of the proceeds going to their college fund. There are just so many ways to help people. I think the old model of a company is extract everything we can get out of the earth for us to be profitable on Wall Street, to take take take. But it is possible to have a model that gives back to the community and makes it more powerful. There is a way to be inclusive of each other and respectful of the planet, which is empowering and can also be successful. It’s just difficult when you are a new line or a new designer to stand behind those principles because everything is geared towards mass consumption in our culture. You have to pay $25 for one size to be cut, but if it were 100 pieces, it would be the same price.
Today, the United States makes only 2 percent of the clothing its consumers purchase, down from 50% in 1990. Sugar Candy Mountain is produced in LA, do you see the manufacturing remaining in LA?
Yes I do, absolutely. I think if I grow as a company, I’ll have a studio with in-house seamstresses and an in-house design room - everything under one roof. There will be a kitchen where everyone has lunch together. This is the dream! (laughs)
Sustainability is a really big deal. There are a lot of 'sustainable' clothing companies that still wrap every single one of their garments in plastic while our ocean continues to be plasticized. 50% of the ocean’s mammals have plastic in their bodies. It’s in our water and sadly, plastic is less expensive than paper. I use recycled paper to wrap my garments and if it’s a large order, I’ll wrap them in groups as opposed to individually. It’s very time-consuming and laborious but my sister, friends and niece will often all come over to help. We wrap each package in twine and add a little piece of sage. I get the sage from the front sidewalk outside my house that we jackhammered years ago to plant vegetables and herbs. It’s funny because sometimes when I put the sage on the package, I’ll see little bugs running around and I’m like, oh no!
I also use fabrics like linen and organic cotton that have a smaller footprint. My garments are sewn with French seams so that they last longer - what is inside counts! French seams basically mean that the garment is sewn twice and will last decades to come, not just one year or season. Americans buy an average of sixty-four items of clothing a year - it wasn’t always this way.
Why did you decide to include pockets in almost every Sugar Candy Mountain piece?
Because I love pockets. Function is a big part of my sensibility and, when I was younger, I mostly dressed out of army surplus stores or work stores. I love utilitarian design and I love work wear. So taking that and combining it with a Halston dress (laughs) - that’s pretty exciting to me!
“Great things happen when women and mountains meet.”
It’s a metaphor. From literary traditions to medical research, everything is geared towards men and I really feel like this is the era of women, because women are of the earth and grounded and have the power to save the planet. I think men are having some kind of an identity crisis and things are shifting. The original quote that inspired my reaction is by William Blake and reads, “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” I read that quote and just thought, of course its about machismo men moving mountains, conquering nature, (laughs), but for me, it’s a metaphor for how women have faced so many challenges and are so strong, and are the better for it. Not through war or destruction but through love, kindness, mothers, and community. In so many cultures, it's the women and the grandparents who are raising ten kids who aren’t even their own. I think the mind set of the 80’s was the bigger the better. Then, if you were a big company, you were happening. Now, it’s kind of the smaller the better - now you can buy a dress from the designer and that’s really cool. Social media is revelatory because it’s making brands accessible in a way that they’ve never been before and there is a feminine feeling in this shift.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more of Sugar Candy Mountain's story.