Welcome to the Faire Community Spotlight. Every month, Faire highlights impressive members of our community. We share the unique stories, inspirations and strategies that led these talented makers and retailers to success.
Fourteen years ago, Brianne Mees and her husband, were growing weary of their life in the golden state of California. Though the weather in Los Angeles was stellar, they felt stagnant, uninspired and well, stuck. Motivated to find greener pastures, and perhaps, a creative community, they made the move to Portland, Oregon. What they couldn’t have predicted was how they would be at the helm of supporting local artists and their genius creations.
Since founding Tender Loving Empire in 2007, they’ve expanded to five retail locations across the city and paid their artists more than $2.5 million. Additionally, more than a million customers have walked through their doors to admire the 2,000 showcased artists. They’ve also hired 50 employees—and did we mention they also have a record label?
If you think Brianne and Jared are busy, you’re right. But Brianne took a break from their thriving business to discuss their history, growth and more.
Faire: What a fun business name — where did it come from?
Brianne Mees: The name Tender Loving Empire is supposed to just be a little tongue in cheek, because typically an empire, you don’t think of something that’s tender and loving. But we like the idea of growing and being united around creativity, around community, and doing it in a tender, loving way.
Tender Loving Empire exists to support creatives, to inspire our community, and to have a fulfilling life for the people that work here.
What was it like moving to Portland? Why did you set up shop—literally—here?
Portland is chock full of creative folks that are doing amazing things and supporting each other along the way. I mean, we don’t all bike and we don’t all brew our own kombucha, but we just know a lot of people that do. [When we started our business] it was basically just born out of the fact that we were completely enamored by the creative people that we found ourselves surrounded by and we wanted to share that with people. We understood that it was important to have artists have a voice and to share that with each other.
It’s been an amazing experience to witness the creativity and the talents of folks, and then also be able to see the other side of it, where someone comes in and is inspired by the thing that that original person made. So it’s really the human connection piece of our business that gets me up in the morning.
In a digital age, why were you motivated to open physical shops? What’s different about that customer experience?
I think there’s a lot of news headlines saying that brick and mortar retail is done, it’s dead, but I just think it’s the folks that aren’t able to provide the thing that the customer wants in 2019. Not everything is going to be eaten by Amazon. I think that there’s been a pendulum swing. Obviously, online shopping is really convenient, but I think today’s consumer is realizing, ‘Oh, wait, we’re all human.’ We need to actually see each other in person and have an experience outside of behind our computer screen.
We have a really diverse range of customers, all ages. We like to have something for everybody. I think that our customers are people that want to surround themselves with beautiful things and inspiration, but then on the other hand have an understanding about the importance of supporting small businesses and how that can really create positive change in people’s communities.
And I’m sure your location is definitely a breeding ground for talent!
Yeah, Portland just likes to stay authentic, I think. I think that small retail shops and just small businesses in general help keep communities authentically based in the place that they’re from and their origins.
We know you can’t play favorites with your artists but is there any product type that you especially have an affinity for? Music? Pottery?
I love our music section. We run a record label as well. The music, in my mind, is one of the most inspiring things that we have the opportunity to get out into the world and ways to connect with folks and make them feel something. But I also have a really major affinity for our jewelry section.
It must be inspiring to not only build your business, but the success of artists, too.
The really amazing thing about our store is that all the products in our stores have stories. Our employees love to learn all about the stories about our vendors and share that with our customers. I think it just makes the whole experience of buying things more meaningful when the things that you’re buying have a story and a person behind them.
Makers come into our shop all the time. We have a great relationship with our vendors. It’s really amazing to see the looks on their face when their products are displayed in a beautiful way and other people are connecting with them and being inspired by the things that they make and care so deeply about.
What’s it like being a female entrepreneur and mom?
It’s the best. I mean, I’m not behind the desk as often as I used to be, but I remember having a lot of conversations back in the day with folks and just telling them, ‘You know that your products make people so happy, right?’ Or like, ‘You know that…’ Or just telling that there’s so many stories about people connecting with the things that real people made and I just love when they get to find out about that. Our kids come to the shop all the time. They like it. Our employees definitely treat them like royalty when they come in.
How has business changed? How has the city transformed?
We started Tender Loving Empire in 2007, which was the year after the first iPhone came out. It was pre-Etsy. Maybe they had just started, but they were just the start up. It was pre-Amazon Handmade for sure. There just weren’t a lot of opportunities. There was no Bandcamp for streaming music. So a lot of the artists that we worked with, we were frustrated that we were being so inspired by the things that they were making and there wasn’t an avenue for other people to get the same inspiration that we were getting.
Portland has changed a lot. There’s still a lot of creative folks in this town, but it’s definitely getting a little less affordable than it was 14 years ago. When we moved here, there was just musicians and creatives all just living together in a big house and renting a room for a couple hundred dollars. Those days have passed, unfortunately, but it is still just a really vibrant, amazing place to live.
How has Faire helped as your company has grown?
I’m hopeful that the more businesses like ours and businesses like Faire are supportive of small businesses and makers, that they can continue to grow and continue to learn from each other. It’s hard to scale a business. It’s hard to make a living from scratch, and so the more that there’s opportunities, then the more everybody can grow and learn together.
One more thing — what are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of the fact that we can hand checks to artists, to small businesses and to makers, and I’m proud of the fact that we can make a difference in people’s lives and help them do the things that they love. The larger that we’ve been able to grow, the more significant the support that we can have on our community is. So it’s been great to see.
I’m really proud of the fact that we are supporting real people, small businesses, creatives, in a meaningful way, and the more that we’ve been able to grow, the larger and larger the checks that we’re handing these folks are. People are paying their rent, going on vacation, paying their kids ways through college based on the work that we do and, yeah, I’m proud of that.
I think that everybody is creative and everybody’s a maker. I think it’s a really vital, important part of life. I think creativity just makes life better.