Text: Christina Mannatt
Rachael Mann and Mackenzie Burdick are not jewelry designers. Yes, they may have a burgeoning line of headpieces, bullet-adorned leg straps and to-die-for shoe chains that they handcraft from vintage trinkets and flea market finds, but, as you will come to know, LITTER all began on a Nicole Richie-induced whim. Since LITTER’s inception in December 2008, these stunning sisters have gone from barely scraping together studio rent to Harper’s Bazaar and New York Fashion Week. Not too shabby for a recent fashion design graduate and interior design expert. We got a chance to talk shop with the LITTER girls at The Standard’s beer garden. Mild drunkenness and girl flirting ensued.
You two are sisters, right?
Mackenzie: Yes, but we have different last names because we have different dads
How did you come together to make the line?
Rachael: Mackenzie started playing around with found objects and making jewelry...
M: …I think it started with the headpieces. I was always in the hardware store playing around with nuts and bolts and even plumbing parts. I saw Nicole Richie wearing this elastic thing around her head and so I broke apart the necklace I was wearing created one with a nut and bolt in the center. Rachel wore it out one night and got a ton of complements. A friend of ours was having a jewelry show in an art gallery and asked us to make some pieces. So I went to my sister's with chains from Goodwill and the flea market and we made about 20 ear pieces and some chain suspenders. Everything sold out.
R: It was really weird because just earlier that day, we were ripping chains apart and making these headpieces, and everything sold. It was our first time ever making jewelry. We never saw ourselves becoming jewelry designers.
Where did the name LITTER come from?
R: LITTER is awesome because it's all encompassing. People throw away their old chains, give them to Goodwill, and we find it like trash
M: The whole inspiration was junkyards and dumps, old trash, and I came to Rachel and said, “Something like trash....” so we hit the thesaurus and chose LITTER. We want to take it to interior designs, redoing vintage furniture, and reworking vintage clothing.
What were you doing before jewelry?
R: I studied interior design, and I had just bought a house and was remodeling it―kind of a “zero to hero” type of thing―and Mackenzie had just moved back from New York.
M: I just finished studying fashion design at FIT. So we took the money from selling the headpieces and invested in more materials. Her boyfriend was getting so mad at us because we basically took over their living room.
R: Poor guy, and my two dogs too! We all live together, and all of them were limping around the house with metal chards stuck in various places.
M: So we made everything at Rachel's and then people kept showing up asking for pieces that they had seen on a friend the night before, like it was a store or something. After a few months, we could finally afford an art studio. For the first 3 months, we were barely making the rent. Like, to the exact dollar.
R: We started with headpieces, then made shoe jewelry, body chains, and most recently thigh and shoulder chains. But the shoe jewelry has gotten us the most press and therefore, most sales. The Daily Candy Everywhere edition ran the shoe jewelry, and it had been popular with a lot of bloggers―like Fashiontoast and Knight Cat―and it took off. It's our top seller.
Are you guys making everything yourselves?
R: Yes, absolutely, we make everything ourselves.
M: We have a few interns, but it’s pretty much just us. We don’t have a background in jewelry making. Everyday is learning experience, with new techniques and seeing what looks good with what. I took a metal working class for a week, but we don't cast or solder or anything.
R: I do the drilling when necessary, but we are mainly repurposing items that already exist.
What point in time do you see yourself outsourcing the manufacturing?
M: Because of the rapid growth, not all of our chains are coming from flea markets now, like they used to
R: But that's the only difference. We might consider outsourcing the shoe jewelry. It's made out of heavy machine chain it's really hard on our hands to make. We like the Made-in-the-U.S.A. thing; it's very important to us, having that quality control.
You started selling LITTER from your blog with a, “Hey, look at our cool jewelry that we are wearing. If you like it, you can buy it” type thing. How did you come up with that business model?
M: Well, we couldn't afford a website – having it designed and whatnot – and we didn’t know how the public would react. Every piece we made, there was always a hesitation to actually put it out there.
R: Someone would say, “Oh I loved that piece you wore last night” and we would say, “Uh, really??” Not because it's bad or something, but when it’s your own art, you kind of second-guess it. So it's been really motivating to know that people like what we're doing.
M: So yeah, it started out as a fashion blog. We were posting our outfits, and making the jewelry for ourselves. And if someone asked where he or she could get it, we would direct him or her to our Etsy page.
So what do you think it is about your aesthetic that works right now. Body chains are becoming bigger, yes, but there is just something so different about what you two create.
M: I think the heavy metal, rocker style has hit hard this year.
R: Everyone is looking for something new. Also, never before has there been an outlet like a blog. We owe every ounce of credit to blogs and bloggers because they were able to spread us across the world at an incredibly rapid rate. 20 years ago, if you had a jewelry line, it wouldn’t have been able to grow like this in nine months. It's total shameless promotion. If we go out in wearing a piece―and we post it right after―that piece will sell the next day. It's just the way it happens.
So you're staying at The Standard, how do you like it?
R: It's our room is really cool. Except we ate at the cafe earlier today, and the service was pretty awful. We were the only customers in there, and our waitress was horrible. Everything I asked, she was just, “ughhhhhh.” like she couldn't be bothered to do anything for us.
It looks like she chose the wrong day to be a waitress.
R: I think she spit in my coffee...
Tell me what you're doing in New York.
R: We're here meeting with an amazing, up-and-coming designer to possibly be featured with said designer during fashion week. So they're looking for accessories to be paired with the clothes on the runway and they contacted us. Our lips are sealed with the details, sorry!
(Three Pilsners arrive)…. Cheers!!!
Did you guys just come with a trunk of everything you’ve ever made?
R: Not everything, but just some stuff that showcases what we can do and we brought sample of interesting materials we can use, depending on what the designer likes.
M: We are also meeting with Vogue and possibly giving them some pieces, which is amazing!
So what is the time frame of trunk show to Vogue?
R: The trunk show was in December, so I guess about nine months. And now we might be in fashion week!??!
M: It's every designer's dream to be in fashion week, I still can't believe we're being considered.
What do you have planned for the future?
R: So the next thing we're doing is launching a clothing line. Now that we have a platform do so...
We got invited to the L.A. premiere of the September Issue, walking the red carpet, hair and makeup, limo, everything. We're guests of the producers. We're going to use this opportunity to start our line, design our own gowns, using all vintage materials – wearing LITTER of course. Hopefully we don't end up on a worst dressed list!! Also, Mackenzie and I planned a road trip...
M:...this is the future of LITTER. This one road trip.
R: We want to start in New York, get an RV and turn it into a mobile LITTER studio and work our way through every state we can for a few months till San Francisco, hitting up flea markets and vintage stores, buying clothing and furniture and reworking it.
M: We want to document people, their stories and where the furniture and clothing came from.
R: We’ll have mini trunk shows in few cities, making jewelry along the way. When we get home, we want to put together a fashion show of this American collection and open a temporary showroom for the refurbished goods, and hopefully make it into a documentary.
M: It will be the great American tour. We want to tell a story.
R: It will be an adventure for us. I would rather do it sooner than later. I'm almost a hundred years old.
M: Well, and then we want to be pirates.
Like, Somali pirates or Captain Hook and Smee?
R: Our mom lives in Mexico, and we want to buy an old pirate ship and run a kid's pirate camp in Mexico. We’ll let them steal candy out of treasure chests and shoot water balloons out of canons.
Or you could just put LITTER in the treasure chests and let them be real pirates...?
R: It’s funny, that's kind of what we do now. We're pirates for chain and scrap gold.
M: All the flea market vendors and thrift stores in San Francisco know us well.
R: …Seriously, if you walked up asking to buy a chain at a flea market, they would tell you, “Oh, five bucks!” When we approach them, they say, “25 dollars.”
M: There is no more chain left in San Francisco.
R: Which is why we need to road trip, before we run out of chain!
Tell me a funny story about the design process.
M: We bicker all day long. It’s hard for me to be making all the same pieces over and over again.
R: Some pieces, like the leg strap―with leather, hanging chains and bullets―plus the shoe jewelry, they are very labor-intensive pieces. They don’t take that long per se, but the chain cuts your hands; we are always bleeding. We almost regret making the shoe pieces to begin with!
M: Also, our interns always get so scared whenever we get into a screaming match.
What do you guys fight about?
M: I always want to come in and design something new, and I don’t want to be working on the same old stuff. I also like to work from home.
R: Mackenzie's a recluse. She's an eccentric, crazy artist, I always think that she’ll cut off her ear one day. But as far as fighting goes, it's mostly just sister stuff.
M: She thinks she's my boss.
R: Well, somebody's gotta be the boss. I do make a lot of the stuff, but Mackenzie's an incredible designer.
M: She definitely handles all the emails; I couldn’t write an email if my life depended on it.
R: I handle meetings, emails, and any business matter. Mackenzie comes up with the best ideas and I'll elaborate on the designs, integrate different chains that she wouldn't think to work with.
Which one of you is older?
R: I am. We're four and a half years apart. Her birthday is in June and mine is in December.
I think Gemini and Sagittarius is a pretty good combination.
R: It very well may be, but I'm a Capricorn...
M: ...which is the worst combination!! Capricorns are hard to work with.
R: Not true! Geminis are all over the place. Caps are generally mellow...
M:...and always right, never apologize for shit.
R: Well, I do have a hard time apologizing...
Litter is available for purchase at LitterSF.com