Mary Brewster, American Flora, Woman Entrepreneur
I hear from so many women that have built their own companies and it makes me happy to hear that they want to share it with someone. Mary Brewster sent me an email telling me about her business and asked if I’d talk to her and write about American Flora. A site that sells environmentally responsible active wear and clothing. It sparked my curiosity as more clothes are being made with technology components what did environmentally responsible mean?
Mary was born in NYC and soon after her parents moved to the suburbs landing in Westport, CT. Her father was in advertising. The creative art director at an ad agency. He built a community with the other artists in the area and did his own metal sculpting to feed his creative side. Her mother was the head secretary for the copy writing department which is how they met. After they had kids she stopped working but went back to work after the kids got older. She was the “super secretary” of that generation. Her father is 98 and her mom is 91 and they still live in the house that they grew up in.
After graduating high school Mary went to college at Nasson in Maine. The college ran into financial troubles in the 80’s and closed its doors. It was a unique liberal arts school that had programs in three other locations; France, Austria and Italy. Mary did a semester in Vienna and a semester in Florence. All the credits were transferable because the professors who taught their came from the school in Maine. It was a small school, 1100 people, and it sounds like it was a really special place.
Mary graduated and went directly into a masters program at Syracuse. She wanted an art education based on sensory learning. This incorporated dance and the arts, the two things she is passionate about. After graduating she got a job at a middle school on the south shore of Boston. She had replaced a teacher who had health care problems. The teacher ended up returning and Mary was left high and dry. She regrouped and landed a job in Cambridge as a graphic designer for a travel agency. She would call her father and he would teach her how to do things over the phone. She basically faked it until she made it. The agency was a great place to be, started by two guys who graduated from Harvard. We laughed about how that is certainly not the area anyone would venture into these days. The industry essentially died. She had to make a decision to either stick with this job or return to teaching. She opted for the job staying three and a half years before getting married and when that happened they moved to Redding, CT.
There she began to work for magazines as an assistant art director. She worked for Fairfield Magazine, then a trade magazine and eventually a tennis magazine that was owned by the New York Times. The art staff was in CT but the ad staff was in NY. She learned a lot in that job and ended up becoming the Associate Art Director until she had kids.
She was pregnant with twins and decided it was time to take off some time. She did not even know she was having twins until they were born. It was such a different time. She had two boys crawling over each other in the woods eating anything off the ground. Her husbands Grandfather used to say that every baby should eat dirt every day. I actually agree with that. She was enjoying being home.
When her boys got into elementary school she began to participate in the art appreciation program where parents would come in and spend a day creating an art class for the kids. She was teaching again. When her daughter was born, four and a half years after the boys, she started a small business hand painting kids furniture. She would teach at school and then with a friend who was doing hand painted children’s clothing, they would do trunk shows around the state. She kept that up for about a year and a half until she realized her entire house was being taken over by the furniture she was making. It was too much between the kids, the shipping and the trunk shows. She turned 40 and decided she would return to her passion, ballet. That is when things began to really change.
She was in the studio every day and continued to choreograph plays for her kids school. She began a journey teaching in the studio for the next 17 years. She ended up teaching more adults vs kids. The patience level was very different. She was working with women who were just starting to rediscover themselves through ballet. Many of them did not feel comfortable with their bodies. Ballet is super disciplined and she was teaching these women about poise, balance, posture, etc. She was also living in her dance clothes. It was then that she decided to start her own company.
Her “aha” moment is that her husband was involved with a small biz that did not take off called Recycle for Humanity where they tried to get large corporations on board to recycle. They were presenting all of these different programs and one of them was making baseball uniforms for little league teams out of recycled fabrics. She began to think about how she could create dance clothes with eco-fabrics for herself. Her husband had a contact in North Carolina and she called her. She spoke on the phone with her for over two hours. The woman introduced her to a rep in NYC who was using the fabric. She wanted it in black and had to figure out how to make it black. At the same time she connected with a guy who was making patterns. She went down more than a few roads until she figured out the pattern making, the look that she wanted, the color and fabric she wanted (Repreve recycled fabrics) and began to make the clothes.
Then she began to develop her website. The clothes were primarily for dance and pilates. She did a photo shoot and put the merchandise up on line. She soon realized that her look was too esoteric and too focused on dance. She shifted into a life style look. She got her son to help her with a friend redo the site. She is not getting the traffic she wants so she is moving towards hiring someone to help with that. In the meantime, she has been a one woman band from selling to retail stores and doing trunk shows. At this point her daughter is 24 and her sons are 28.
What I love about this story is Mary has always been an entrepreneur at heart. She came to this at a later stage of her life. There are times when she can’t believe she is doing this but is excited every day. She just added floral wraps to the site and saw business pick up. Every day is different and it is rewarding to be able to build something that she wanted to build for herself and create a business around it. Check out American Flora. She has really great merchandise!