One of the most inspirational and rewarding parts of owning Bon Vivant has been getting to meet the makers of our featured brands. I absolutely love learning more about how they got started and what motivates them to follow their passions. From the very beginning, I knew that I wanted to focus on small-batch and artisanal makers and goods. I have tested the products and researched extensively to ensure that every item in our boxes is of the highest quality, and made as ethically as possible. That being said, I am honored to be able to share not only the brands and products with you, but also some background about the makers.
Stephanie Montes is the Founder+Designer behind s.t.e.f., which is a play on her name and also an acronym for Sustainable+Threads+Ethical+Fashion. She launched s.t.e.f. in Austin, TX, in 2014. I first came across her work on Instagram as I saw a photo of one of her beautiful clutch purses and became obsessed! The more I learned about her and her business, the more I realized that both are exactly who and what I want to represent Bon Vivant. I reached out to her and we met shortly thereafter. Stephanie is one of the sweetest, most intelligent, supportive, and talented people that I've had an opportunity to meet. I am so thankful for our partnership and beyond excited to feature her amazing work in our boxes!
When did you start your business and why?
I launched my line at Austin Fashion Week 2014 after moving back to Austin from Dallas. I learned how to sew when I was fifteen and started designing my own clothing by cutting apart and altering vintage pieces that I would find while thrift shopping. I always knew that I wanted to be a fashion designer but I knew I had a lot to learn before I became one. I studied at the University of North Texas and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Fashion Design in 2009. My first job was as an assistant designer at White House/ Black Market HQ. Most of the clothing was manufactured overseas, so there was some disconnect between the designer and the final product. I wanted to learn more about American made clothing so I moved back to Texas to work for a Dallas based womenswear designer. It was during my time at this company, working in design + production, that I learned what it takes to design and manufacture a clothing line in the US. After many years working in the industry I knew that I was finally ready to start my own brand, and I knew that Austin would be the perfect place to begin an eco-friendly clothing line.
What/who are your major influences?
I am obsessed with the work of Iris van Herpen, a Dutch fashion designer who incorporates 3D printing into her couture collection. Her work reminds me to continue innovating; something I have found is a requirement when working with eco-friendly textiles. Many of the natural textiles that we source come in neutral tones. In order to add interest to these fabrications, we’ll often hand-dye and hand-paint them.
I am also very inspired by the work of Austin based illustrator, Sophie Roach. She has several colorful murals throughout Austin and her intricate drawings are all created by hand, which inspired my to start designing my own prints by sketching them first. After sketching our prints by hand, they are then digitized and printed in the USA on the chosen textile, usually 100% Organic Cotton.
Do you have a favorite piece or product that you’ve done?
My favorite designs tend to be the more one-of-a-kind pieces. The hand-painted clutch is a very special product that I love and am very proud of. Each piece is hand-painted individually in small batches, making each clutch different and unique. They completely sold out in our online store and are currently only available through Bon Vivant Delivered.
What’s the best part of owning your own business?
Having the freedom to design and create what I want to is something that I love. Although to some extent, I do have to keep the designs consistent with the brand. Interestingly, over time, the brand has developed its own look and aesthetic because that is a reflection of my own personal style. I love black and white and I rarely wear prints, which is why we only have one to two prints in the collection. When I sketch ideas for print designs, they tend to have the same look and they all have Spanish influence, something that I attribute to my heritage.
Another benefit to owning my own business is the ability to design + manufacture collections at a much faster rate than larger clothing brands. Although I have a small company, my team is incredibly skilled and able to produce high quality pieces in a short amount of time. I can come up with an accessory design and have it produced in less than two weeks. Producing limited quantities gives us the ability to test a design in the market. We don’t have excessive amounts of inventory and we don’t waste our materials by over-producing. I have seen many companies make the mistake of trying to grow larger by producing greater quantities only to be left with unnecessary amounts of inventory. That’s when you see brands advertising sales every season in order to counteract the excess of over-production. We price our clothing and accessories using an ethical formula in order to keep our line accessible while also keeping it well made.
Seeing my designs in boutiques throughout Austin, and knowing that they are selling out very quickly, continues to inspire me to be true to my vision. I feel honored when a customer sends me a picture of how they wear and style my designs. I am grateful to anyone who chooses to shop s.t.e.f. and who prefers to support a small, locally made brand over a department store brand. When I see how excited people get when viewing my designs, it makes the struggle to be a small business owner worth it.
What is a typical “work” day like for you?
Emails take up the majority of my morning. I spend the beginning of my day on my computer, responding to emails and checking in with our vendors. I also often check in with the local boutiques that carry our line to see if we need to produce more of a certain design in order to re-stock their inventory. As I mentioned, this is one of the benefits of being a small batch designer + manufacturer; we are able to quickly produce and reproduce designs for our local buyers. This allows boutiques to only order what they need, while allowing us to test out what designs work and don’t work. We love receiving re-orders from our wholesale buyers because it informs us of which designs are performing well. We value our local boutique stockists and they know that they can trust us to quickly fulfill their orders.
Also, every day we are balancing design and development with planning and production. We are designing the next season while producing the current one. Some days we are drafting designs for upcoming collections, and other days we are cutting patterns from fabric and handing it over to our seamstresses to sew in order to fulfill online and wholesale orders.
What does the process of making a piece or product consist of?
Patience is an integral part of the process. It is easy to get excited about an idea and want to make it right away, but I have learned that it is important to perfect every element of an idea before it can be produced in larger quantities. I learned this the hard way when I decided to create a hand-painted skirt design, a process that took up to 3 days per skirt, and was intensely laborious. I made a few more hand-painted skirts that completely sold out at a trunk show and pretty soon I was producing larger quantities to fulfill wholesale order demands from boutiques. Initially, it was easy to make just a few at a time, but when demand increased, it was a challenge to keep up while maintaining the quality of each piece, especially since they are hand-painted individually in our studio. I learned the importance of making sure that a design is producible as well as beautiful.
The process of making a product starts with a ton of ideas, inspirations and quick sketches. Then we choose which designs to move forward with based on how they work with the entire collection. We create a technical sketch of the design chosen and draft a pattern based on the sketch. Then a prototype is cut from the fabric, and fitted on a model. We also perform a wear test to correct imperfections in the design. For clothing, it is wear tested and washed according to the fabric care label and accessories are tested for durability through use. This can be a fun part of the process because it allows us to try out designs for ourselves.
What are your favorite ways to unwind when you aren’t working?
As a designer, it can be hard to step away from work when you love the creative process. I never truly stop thinking of ideas for designs and will often use my free time throwing together prototypes rather than following the standardized process I described above. Although, this always leads to my favorite designs being created. For example, when I have an event to look forward to, I’ll drape, cut and sew a dress for myself for fun and wind up loving it so much that I add it to the collection.
As a business owner, however, I find it very easy to step away from tedious tasks like crunching numbers, paying our sales taxes, sourcing materials, monitoring our bookkeeping and inventory, etc. When I do take time off, I prefer to keep my hands busy and enjoy fixing things in my home and playing classical guitar. Another pastime I enjoy is biking and exploring my east Austin neighborhood along with my husband. One of my favorite things to do is bike to Quickie Pickie and have a local beer after a long week. Because my work week is so busy and structured, I prefer not having too many plans and obligations on weekends and the freedom to be spontaneous. It is in these moments away from obligations that I feel most inspired. Stepping away from my work helps to remind me that although it is very hard to be a small business owner, designing and manufacturing a clothing and accessories line, I am very lucky to be doing what I love.
To learn more about s.t.e.f. and view all of their collections, visit www.shopstef.com.