It’s a blazing hot summer day in Kaimuki – one of those days where you’d rather be lounging at a beach instead of being cooped up.
The door to the 27-year-old Matt Bruening’s studio is wide open, as are the windows, allowing the breeze to come in unimpeded. The little fan on his desk is working hard to keep the room at a tolerable temperature. The air conditioning unit is off. Bruening doesn’t want an expensive electric bill. Totally understandable.
He shares the studio with a photographer, but she's not here today. In fact, she's hardly here. Her half of the studio is mostly used for storage. There are crates filled with miscellaneous stuff in one corner. There are picture frames on the ground and various props used for photoshoots scattered throughout her side. She should be out soon, Bruening tells me. At that point, he will have the studio all to himself. For now, half a room will suffice.
Bruening is a one man show here. He creates each piece from scratch – conceptualizing and designing the pattern and sewing everything together. This operation doesn’t allow Bruening to mass-produce a line, but that’s okay with him. Each piece is special ordered by customers. You get a personal touch with each item that you don’t get from mass-produced garments.
“Eventually I’ll get manufacturers,” declares Bruening.
For now, exclusivity seems to be working out for him. A majority of his clientele order custom pieces. He’s in his studio today working on two orders. There’s a mannequin near the door modeling one of the pieces he is working on today. It’s a blue silk dress with some brown, orange and white circles on it for a client who wants it for a wedding. “I might add some belt loops here so she has the option of using a belt with it” says Bruening as he hikes the waist of the dress up a little to show me the exact place the belt loops will go. “I don’t think I’ll have time though.” The other item he is working on is a kimono cover up – one of his most popular items.
“I have ladies that are like 50-something that want something and then I have girls who are 18, 17 that want something,” says Bruening. “This last week I had the one offs of all the kimonos and it sold within hours.
“That’s the thing too,” adds Bruening. “People want it because it’s exclusive. If I eventually get manufacturing are people still going to want my shit? They like it now because nobody else has it.”
The Westside of Oahu can be a daunting place for visitors. Despite the area's natural beauty, characterized by the picturesque Yokohama Bay and the stunning Waianae Range, the residents are usually stereotyped as hostile and aggressive – especially toward outsiders. But Bruening can’t imagine growing up anywhere else. To him, Makaha will always be home.
“Growing up Westside, I remember just being free,” says Bruening. “I just thank God that we have a big family. Most of our family lives out that side so we were never bored.”
Bruening, who grew up in a single-parent home with his mom raising him and his three older siblings, admits that she was a bit overprotective.
“My friends could come over and sleep over anytime,” he says. “But we couldn’t even go to our friend’s house that lived like…seven houses away from me. My mom just wouldn’t let us sleep over. Her mind just used to wander.
“But to be honest, my friend them got into a lot of drugs, whatever, they have kids,” Bruening adds. “Had my mom just been like that you know, more lenient, it would have been different.”
Although Bruening’s parents split up when he was young, he still maintained a solid relationship with his father. His dad made it a point to be as involved in Bruening’s life as possible despite being incarcerated for five years.
“We never knew as kids what the fuck he was doing,” Bruening says. “I was wondering how come he has all this money? How come we can fly to Maui every weekend? But I never questioned it.
“For that five years, I think I grew up a lot too,” says Bruening. “I was about nine when he went to jail. By the time he got out of jail I was like 14, 15. We used to see him every so often while he was in there. I thought about this recently and I was like, 'I wonder if this affected my life in anyway?' And it didn’t.”
Prior to focusing solely on his burgeoning fashion career, Bruening worked at Club Monaco, a high-end casual clothing retailer located in the Ala Moana Shopping Center.
“It was supposed to just be a temp job and I ended up getting promoted, promoted, promoted,” says Bruening. “My friend was the manager at the time and she said ‘do you want to just do back stock work?’ and I said yeah, I don’t want to be on the floor.”
What started out as something temporary turned into a full-time job. Bruening started in the stock room, ended up on the floor as a sales associate and eventually became a manager. About a year ago, Bruening was mulling over the decision of whether or not to leave his position at Club Monaco. He had just built a solid team and was certain that the store was on good footing. At the same time he was about to quit, he found out that the store was closing due to lease issues.
“I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do afterwards,” said Bruening. “I just really had to learn how to discipline myself. I was just used to waking up every day and getting ready for work. I think if that hadn’t happened, I’d be stuck. It sucks that it happened, but I’m happy that it did.”
With the decision to quit being made for him, Bruening was able to put all his time and effort into fashion design.
While at Club Monaco, Bruening was selected to audition for the eighth season of Lifetime's Project Runway - the American Idol for fashion designers. He had to fill out a 22-page application, create a brief three minute video about himself and submit photos of 10 garments. Not able to meet the deadline, Bruening called the producers of Project Runway and informed them that he didn't think he'd be able to get everything together in time, but thanked them for their interest anyway. To Bruening's surprise, the producers extended the deadline for him. So he eventually got everything together and sent it out.
"Honestly, I didn't even think they were going to call me back," says Bruening. "I just didn't give a shit at that point. The video sucked, I was so last minute. I submitted whatever photos I had."
In spite of Bruening's doubt, he was selected and had to fly to Seattle to meet with the casting agents the following week. Although Bruening was not chosen to appear on the show (fellow Hawaii designer Andy South made the cut and finished in third), he was glad that it didn't work out.
"I try to think about the success rate and being that vulnerable being on TV and everyone knows who you are," says Bruening. "I talked to some people who worked in New York. Some Project Runway guys applied for jobs because there's always openings for designers...and honestly they don't even get hired because they were on TV and they should be doing their own thing.
"Knowing the success rate a show can do for you was definitely something that I thought about. I'm nobody now, and I definitely don't want to be a nobody later," he adds.
Bruening gets back to work on the kimono cover up. He lays out the fabric on the table and places the pattern over it. Six wooden blocks are used to hold everything down. He begins cutting out the pattern, turns around and gets to work on his sewing machine. It’s a blazing hot summer day in Kaimuki – one of those days where you’d rather be lounging at a beach instead of being cooped up. But here Bruening is. Cooped up and getting work done. He wouldn't want it any other way.
WORDS: Ian Kai
PHOTO: Jake Ho