Creating Bridge & Burn required a leap of faith. Founder Erik Prowell quit his job as a software developer, lit the proverbial match, and threw it—burning the bridge of working for anyone else behind him. With no formal training, he trusted his smarts and his strong work ethic, and took the plunge. In that spirit, Bridge Burners is a series showcasing people who are taking a similar leap.
There are a few true pinnacles in the trajectory of a burgeoning lifestyle brand. That moment when you get picked up by a major national department store is usually one for the company annals.
Unless you’re Ty McBride.
Only two and a half years into the life of his shoe brand “Intentionally _______,” Nordstrom came knocking, and Ty boldly shut the door.
“I have a different interpretation of what’s valuable in the market,” he says. “At this point in the brand, I don’t want to sell to Nordstrom. I already turned them down. I don’t need to become a millionaire. It will take longer, but I want to be worn by cool girls and those girls still go to small shops.”
His curated approach is built right into the brand’s name. He’s intentionally minimal and understated, filling a gaping hole he sees in the mid-tier market—an option for the girl who loves Celine but isn’t ready to drop $700 on a pair of streamlined sandals. That intentionality trickles down into how he selects his stockists and how he markets his line. It means saying no to flourishes and trends, and sometimes, saying no to the retail behemoth who could make you a fortune.
In that and pretty much everything else Ty is unapologetic. It’s a risky approach for a brand that’s less than three years old. But he knows exactly what he’s trying to achieve, and he’s not averse to risk. His career has been marked by bold moves: like stepping into the Jeffrey Campbell Studio and beating out candidates with a decade more experience for a sales rep role, or moving from New York to LA because he “accidentally fell in love with a Mexican shoe designer,” and now, bootstrapping his baby brand by cashing out his 401k and the savings he set aside for a New York City apartment.
But there are ways to hedge your bets. Before striking out on his own he had worked his way up to Global Brand Manager for Jeffrey Campbell and then spent five years at Solestruck.com as Creative Director and Brand Manager. “Whenever I meet people who are in fashion school my advice is: do it first with someone else’s money,” he says. “I was being trained from the beginning and accumulating the skills to eventually strike out on my own. At Solestruck I was allowed to wear a lot of hats. It groomed me for the next step.”
It also meant that when he launched “Intentionally ______,” he was doing so with the best network a new shoe designer could ask for. His first round of samples yielded deals with Free People, Nasty Gal and LF Stores. Not a bad start. “When you come off a brand that has made people millions of dollars, they associate you with success. I have a charmed life—doors open for me,” Ty explains.
But it’s not just that his life is charmed, it’s that he’s charming—deadpanning one minute, verbally sashaying the next—and one hell of a hard worker. He knows about hustle—while building his brand he paid the bills by consulting for other brands—and he isn’t afraid to make sacrifices, whether it’s living minimally or holding loosely to material possessions. “It’s just money. I’m single, I don’t have any kids. I have a cell phone bill—I don’t have any debt.”
He credits outsourcing the minutia and a lack of social life for his ability to get all of it done. Like most Bridge Burners, there are no clear lines between his life and work. “Everything is combined. It’s very one and the same,” he says. “Being in LA has been really lonely but in a way it’s a blessing. It’s allowed me to hunker down and focus without missing out on a lot of social obligations.”
That singular focus has paid off. Intentionally _______ is now in 100 stores, in 6 countries. Ecommerce is steadily blazing and this year Ty opened his own shop in LA. There’s huge momentum:
“I feel like I just finished the balance beam and I’m heading to the floor routine. That’s my best event, so get ready!”
The time is right and he is making hay (minimalist leather hay) while the proverbial sun shines. In the near future that means furthering the reaches of his international distribution, and then a second store in LA or Williamsburg. After that? Shops in the major hubs and building his product offering. “I mean I don’t think I need my own kombucha or anything but I wouldn’t mind having a line of accessories.” For now, he says, “I’ve tabled my own happiness and I’m hoping that in the end I’m just this disgusting power gay who can just live wherever he wants.”
Ultimately what he’s working for is independence: the luxury of not having an alarm clock or a boss (“As it turns out, I don’t like being bossed”), and maybe one good meltdown in his 40s (he predicts: “Lots of sleeping with 18-year-old latinos—really messy, my friends doing an intervention—and then I think when I come out of that, success will rise up like a big moon on the horizon”).
He knows the onus is on him to make it happen “In the end my happiness is not going to be an espadrille. It’s a feeling of satisfaction that’s going to come from within me, and I’m willing to gamble on myself.” He’s curating a life as much as he’s curating a brand. And that life is one in which he calls the shots and has the freedom to travel, take risks and unapologetically follow his gut.
Written by Amanda Lee Smith
Photos by Michael Robles