Bobby Bonaparte on Gender-Neutral Clothing and Keeping Fashion Local

The Portland designer on the Asian aesthetic and why gender-specific clothing is on its way out.

By Eden Dawn October 19, 2015 Published in the November 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Jason Quigley

Bobby Bonaparte has always loved Japan. As a kid, he took karate and collected Pokemon cards. At Occidental College in LA, he studied Japanese history and language. Now, that love informs his career.

Since 2003, Bonaparte has made minimalist and somewhat esoteric small-batch clothing—like a kimono made out of Pendleton wool—for his one-man Lift Label line. Now, the 28-year-old’s new, gender-neutral collaboration Olderbrother is poised to become a national hit. A fully realized ready-to-wear line (think pants, button-ups, and tops made from naturally dyed organic or renewable plant-based synthetic fabrics) snagged invitations to special New York trade shows, a list of fancy stockists from the local Frances May to United Arrows in Tokyo, and upcoming pop-ups scheduled for multiple cities.

I started screen-printing T-shirts the summer after the eighth grade. I was really into skateboarding and DIY culture, and I think it was a natural progression to begin designing my own clothes. When I started doing it full-time I wanted to do more than putting something on a T-shirt. I wanted to know how these garments came together. It got me excited about fabrics and sewing, and I wanted to explore that deeper. I taught myself how to pattern and how to sew.

I founded Olderbrother with my business partner Max Kingery. We decided to use my knowledge of Japanese minimalism. He had the same inspirations but came from a more manufacturing side. We were both interested in natural dyes and organic fabrics. We’ve doubled our sales each season.

WORLD DOMINATION GOALS All of this “fast fashion” has led to some really bad, gnarly dyeing happening in China, and we want to sell a natural product as an accessible alternative. People don’t know the crazy chemicals going into their clothing. Really, it’s a mix of the toxic harm and the social harm that’s happening from things being made overseas where there’s no rules. For us it just makes sense to keep things local. We can walk the floors of the factory, we know people are getting paid living wages. We’d love to have a shop in Tokyo, Portland, New York, LA, and we wouldn’t mind being pretty big.

We just sensed this wave of society not caring about gender so much. We liked the idea of breaking down all these stereotypes and allowing people to be who they are.

This is an entirely Olderbrother outfit. On top, a minimalist chore coat made from small-batch Japanese wool and a corn/bamboo logo tee. My trousers are made of organic cotton and hemp and naturally dyed multiple times to achieve black indigo. The belt is my father’s.

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