Born in the quiet woods of New Jersey and transplanted to the sands of Huntington Beach, eyewear company Brushwood has merged its rustic East Coast roots with sunny Southern California. What began as a t-shirt company has evolved into an eyewear brand that catches the eyes of beholders with its hand-designed wooden temples and modish acetate frames. The ride has been bumpy, and the co-founders still find themselves divided by over 2,700 miles of America.
"It's kind of a crazy story," 25-year-old co-founder Justin Junior, in a faint Jersey accent, says of Brushwood. With a $1,500 loan from a family friend and a passion for invention, Garden State natives and longtime friends Junior and Brian Bollette launched their apparel company back in 2010. They called it Roots Lifestyles, and its first line featured Southern California-inspired tees. "I, for some reason, always wanted to do sunglasses," says Junior, noting that their entrance as entrepreneurs focused on clothing due to its lower overhead. They sold their stock and launched their first line of sunglasses about one year later.
Armed with a pencil in hand and little design knowledge, Junior started sketching a product that had yet to hit the market and that perfectly brought the "aesthetic feel and look of the great outdoors" to the wearer's face. It combined wood temples with acetate frames, pioneering a trend still worn today. "At the time it was one of the very first sunglasses to ever use two different elements like that," says Junior. "No one had really mixed the two."
Developing Brushwood's first line of sick sunnies required countless instances of trial and error, along with a mountain of pencil shavings and eraser dust. It looked a bit something like this:
The Classic Collection launched in 2011, introducing a line of five Ray-Ban Wayfarer-esque sunglasses with a woodsy twist and earthy tones. Having tested a few different overseas manufacturers, the co-founders landed on one in China that met their standards and delivered exactly what they'd been dreaming up. They hit up as many events as possible with their inventory of 300 bamboo and acetate sunnies, and within six months, they were down to zero. The small company managed to outsell big name brands at a major optical trade show in Boston, and online retailers, a Jersey art gallery as well as a New York skate shop all agreed to carry their products.
Two years into their journey and after the production of their first sunglasses line, bogus copyright infringement issues with a multi-million dollar Canadian apparel company, Roots Canada, forced the duo to change their name, despite their existing apparel inventory, website and social media pages. Dodging a looming burial in court fees, they decided on Brushwood and persevered.
Their rapid growth and success faced the founders with a bittersweet problem: No more stock. This uncovered yet another underlying issue: Lack of funds to produce more stock. But that didn't stop them. The drive to continue creating and the help of a wildly talented and generous network of friends put them to work on their second collection.
Focused on improving the design and quality of their shades, the duo built their own all-wood prototypes with the aid of an architect friend at New Jersey Institute of Technology. "Meanwhile, while we were doing that, I was driving around to any wood shop that would let me in and teach me," recalls Junior, smiling at the memories of hustling. Named after the street where they spent countless hours developing their second phase, The Elwood collection was released in February 2012. Junior and his girlfriend, Katie Drew, made the sunglasses pouches by hand in her living room.
Within a month of the release, the mother account was landed, introducing success with setback once again. The Clymb gobbled up the collection, knocking their inventory back to zero once again. The Portland, Oregon-based company showed interest in future styles, and with the promise of a continued partnership, Junior knew it was time for a location change. Following in his older brother's footsteps, Junior, along with Drew, made the cross-country trek to Huntington Beach. "I kind of knew this was the action sports capital of the world," says Junior, adding, "I don't know for sure, but I felt like I could've tried as hard as I could back home, and I don't think it probably would've ever gotten anywhere."
When we ask him what he thinks of Surf City nearly 1.5 years later, he grins and replies, "I absolutely love it."
Bollette remains a Jersey boy, but the two collaborate daily on launching their highly anticipated third line, due out in late July 2014. Brushwood's design and functionality advance with every launch, and this time Junior feels, through years of endless trial and error, that they've created something truly exceptional. Made with various natural and unstained exotic hardwoods, the stylish specs feature an organic finish; scratch-resistant, interchangeable lenses; spring hinges; and a red oak leaf logo—a tribute to the NJ state tree. "Crafted for the outdoors," the line was designed to be "bulletproof," according to Junior. The new collection includes three distinct styles—The Original, The Elwood and The Craftsman—and 12 different pairs. Brushwood shades retail for roughly $115.
With their new 2014 line unveiling this summer, the duo hope they can produce enough of the product to appease onboard buyer The Clymb and land more accounts both locally and nationally to keep Brushwood afloat. "I believe in what we're doing so much," says Junior, whose team has invested innumerable hours into design to "create something that's so unique in the industry."
Admits Junior, "We didn't come from any experience doing this stuff, and we didn't have any connections into it. It was just me and a couple of my friends that tried really hard to get it going, and it ended up working out."
The dream of producing a fresh, high-quality product while staying true to their roots constantly tugs at Junior and Bollette, who both work full-time elsewhere until Brushwood takes off. Junior's also hit the books to gain a degree in web design and development. On a hunt for investors, the bi-coastal boys hope to score some much-needed funding to fuel their passion and eventually have their products all made in the U.S. and assembled by their very own team. A return to apparel remains a possibility as well. The two have also not lost aim of their giving mentality, having donated money to several charity programs over the years.
Says Junior, "As much as it's been a company for the past couple years, I think it's a little bit more fair to say it's been my hobby for the last four years. This is kind of the turning point to make it a real company and to really grow and brand here." He adds, "It's been quite a journey, but I hope we're just getting started."
A telltale sign of what good's to come, Brushwood will be popping up in British GQ's "Spex Appeal" features in the July, August and September issues.
It looks like this just might be the year of Brushwood, folks.