Sonoma County designer makes freeing kids’ fashion of stereotypes her business
In a world fraught with labels, misnomers and divisions, gender-free fashion means more than a catchy line to Elizabeth Brunner.
It’s a clothing line — one the Glen Ellen designer started in November 2020. It is called StereoType, a children’s brand that was inspired by lessons learned in her own household.
In their clothing preferences, Brunner’s 9-year-old twins, Jacob and Chloe, have reversed deemed traditional roles. Chloe likes to dress in all black with a black panther mask, a San Jose Sharks jersey, camouflage pants and stomp around in boots, a tool belt and anything dinosaur related.
Jacob opts for “sparkles,” skirts and pink roller skates. Four years ago, she went as Batman for Halloween. He chose a purple princess costume.
Brunner, 48, vividly dictated what he said at the time: “I don’t want to be a girl. I just want to look beautiful.”
She recalled questioning why stores separated children’s clothing departments between boys and girls. Why not just lump them together as children’s wear?
“This has to change,” she remembered saying.
Brunner formed her business, making children’s clothing that can be worn by either gender that’s been commonly referred to as “unisex” clothing — meaning for everyone, while drawing on her past experience.
She disputes labels like gender neutral or unisex. Rather, she says, her products are “blends” of those established clothing styles. Asked if that means her product line is centered around specific colors or shapes, she added: “No, and all items are fitted on both boys and girls. It's gender-free because they are made for both."
At least the businesswoman, who first majored in interior designer but was drawn to fashion, graduating in 2007 from the California College of the Arts, had a head start on experience for the $318 billion U.S. industry, according to 2021 Statista research.
She channeled her own childhood, using her mother’s skill and care sewing scraps of fabric for her Barbie dolls. In 2010, she started her first fashion company, Piece x Piece, making unique garments from discarded sample fabrics from local designers.
But she ended that business in 2018, pivoting to StereoType two years later. Here, she creates T-shirts, pants, leggings, ‘skorts,’ kilts, hoodies and blazers ranging from $30 to $129 from her San Francisco shop.
“My kids are literally the DNA of my brand, so I made them co-founders of the company and am teaching them about building a business,” she said. “They’re definitely getting a dose of how to run a business and being an entrepreneur.”
After incorporating two years ago this month, she began to design active wear to sell direct to consumer last year on her website.
With more than $100,000 of startup funding, the goal involved appealing to parents seeking wardrobes for their offspring that are not restrictive, that challenge preconceived notions and that allow their children to express themselves. Brunner declined to disclose revenue for the new, privately-held business. Instead, she insists it’s not about the money but the mission to change preconceived notions in fashions.
To that end, she’s writing a children’s book titled “Me Is All I Want to Be.” The book, which Brunner says is in the editing stage and possibly due out in 2023, features zoo animals wearing her clothes while frolicking in San Francisco.
Her own children enjoy romping around the family’s eight hilltop acres above the Sonoma County community of Glen Ellen, when they’re not hitting the books or helping mom with her business.
When asked what she thinks of her mom’s business, Chloe took a moment from hanging off her backyard jungle gym: “I think it’s cool because we get to be models.”
Jacob got philosophical.
“It’s a great thing — a chance to let me be me,” he said, rattling off a slew of careers the energetic youngster climbing a tree barefoot planned to pursue later in life. He listed mythologist, animated film maker and architect, for starters. Chloe piped in that she wanted to be an inventor.
In turn, perhaps the youngster’s mother is inspiring her.
The word on social media is catching on. Brunner said she’s had “fans” of her work tell her that as parents they applaud her efforts.
“At first, I had hesitation about how the clothing line would be perceived. But it’s empowering,” she said, referring to the business as a creation of a platform designed to overcome judgmental thinking.
Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.