Audrey Merwin and Michael Austin, the husband-and-wife collaborators behind the Portland-based eco-ethical clothing line Soluna Collective, had been hoping to open a local retail space to showcase their buttery-soft organic cotton knits, waffle-weave tops, and luxuriously comfy high-waisted pants.
As a fledgling business, however, they weren’t quite prepared for that space to be 4,700 square feet of prime corner retail, at the base of a splashy new office building in Portland’s Central Industrial Eastside with six stories of cross-laminated timber on the outside and creative office space on the inside.
But like other small businesses around town, they’ve found the silver lining in the pandemic retail occupancy downturn of which Portland is still very much in the throes: cheap rent, and/or the ability to pop-up in a space they’d never otherwise be able to afford.
Their result is Madder Collective, light-filled, lovely, and fully unbothered by the supply chain disruptions that have everyone suddenly panicked over holiday wish lists. That’s because, to use the space to best advantage for their pop-up, for as long as it lasts, Merwin and Austin tapped other maker friends and crushes from around town to consign their wares in a space that could have felt cavernous, and now just feels deftly, intentionally curated.
There are 33 local brands and counting represented there, from standout ceramicists to cunningly packaged perfumes to the space’s absolute scene-stealer, a $3,000 hammered copper bathtub made by Modern Myth that has place of pride in a window.
“During the pandemic, we all sort of lost that connection with other makers,” Merwin says. “It’s been really fun to have the chance (to reconnect.)”
Their own collections have twice been stymied by the pandemic, shipments waylaid for months from the female-owned, fair wage production company in India that hand weaves their clothes, first in spring of 2020 and then again in spring of 2021, when the Delta variant peaked there. Their clothes, now arranged to the best advantage at the Madder Collective space, are especially tactile—the thick, nubby cotton’s charms can’t translate through online shopping.
Other areas of the store host displays from Hilos Shoes, with studios in Northwest Portland, which 3-D prints all of its soles, allowing for a shoe that is both completely recyclable and riotously hip—check the Georgia model in wasabi ($375). Handwoven, intricately detailed rope baskets from Amsha Studio are scattered artfully around the store, while a handmade bed from Portland woodworking studio Black Rose Woodcraft holds down a corner of the room, dressed in linens from ADF Upholstery.
Wrapping paper from March Party Goods is so artful that Merwin says people buy it to frame as a poster; this could be your gateway drug to their associated line of wallpaper too. Or pick up actual artwork from in-house illustrator Nancy Flecha, whose work celebrates female friendship, design, travel and fashion in equal parts. Also on display: vials of perfume by Imaginary Authors comes packaged in hollow “books,” each one a tiny novel that doesn’t exist, but definitely should.
Portland’s ceramics game is strong all over town, but only Madder Collective has work by emerging potter Kierstin Holder, who started her business in the back of her van when she couldn’t find a plant pot that would fit snugly into the vehicle’s cupholder. Now, the van has been converted into her studio and her pieces—cuppable mugs that feel good in your hand, perfectly simple rainbow coasters—are at Madder for between $20-$60.
Merwin and Austin know that they’ve got a good thing going at Madder—and that it isn’t forever. They’re already scouting for other, more permanent locations in Portland. Wherever they land is likely to be smaller, but still a collab with some of the Madder makers. In the meantime, they’re planning to make the most of their space, with holiday bazaars and events—the first one is scheduled for December 4 and 5— especially as the space has giant garage doors that can open for pandemic-optimal airflow.
Having their first taste of brick-and-mortar leaves them wanting to plant a permanent stake in the Portland retail scene, Merwin says: “People are excited to be shopping,” she says. “It has just been refreshing.”