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On a sweltering afternoon in early July, Hannah Bronfman, the 23-year-old heiress and aspiring entrepreneurial whiz-kid is perched on a love seat on the veranda of the Bowery Hotel lightly fanning herself with a menu and discussing her plans to save the world.
“If you’re going to talk about this s–t, you gotta do it,” Bronfman explains of the sustainable initiatives undertaken at Green Owl, the record label-turned-something-a-little-more she helps run with her older brother, Ben. Tour buses are run on vegetable oil. Albums are printed on recycled vinyl. Eventually, they aim to turn algae into bio-fuel through another of Ben’s companies, Global Thermostat.
This story first appeared in the August 8, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“They actually take carbon out of the air,” Bronfman says with pride. She removes her white-rimmed vintage cat-eye sunglasses when she speaks to the waiter, and thanks him when he delivers her iced tea, no sugar.
“I’m not here to promote myself,” she says. “The way I see it, any attention I get, for whatever reason, just draws more eyes to the causes that I believe in.”
Bronfman has been visible at a swirl of fashionable New York events with increasing intensity in the past year. She’s modeled for boutique brands at the behest of her friends and turned heads at parties held by Bottega Veneta, Ferragamo and Dior. She’s dating the rapper Asher Roth. Typically found at the heart of a thick scrum of friends (nearly all of whom she’s known since her childhood), Bronfman seems to direct the action, possessing a magnetism she laughs off as “good vibes, I guess.”
In the past decade, much of the bold-faced set in New York have become “social workers,” bright young things more often found wielding business cards than Birkins. By marrying her business interests to her pet causes, Bronfman could just be on to the next step in the evolution of the It girl. She is using her enviable resources, her popularity and her periodic presence in the public eye to refocus attention onto, as she puts it, “the s–t that we need to fix.”
“I definitely have a lot of ambition,” she says. “My whole shtick is that I want to contribute to New York’s culture via restaurants, nightlife, whatever…but to be more conscious, more aware, more sustainable. It’s more than just ‘being responsible as a culture.’ It’s having an ethical chain of production.”
Bronfman is half African-American and half Jewish-Canadian. She frequently flashes a warm, open smile and has the air of a girl who grew up attractive and thus doesn’t put much stock in it. On this July afternoon she is a gently perspiring, occasional-mosquito-swatting riot of bright colors: marigold Louis Vuitton Epi bag, off-white and kelly green button-down shirt tied above her navel, open floor-length white skirt that occasionally shows off black lace bike shorts. Her nails are pastel shades of lime, daisy and clementine-colored gel and play host to a cornucopia of miniature 3-D fruits she is fond of waggling about in the air when she talks. The effect is less Carmen Miranda than it sounds.
It’s hard not to like Bronfman, who is charm incarnate. Whiling away an afternoon with her, it’s easy to forget that a large part of all of this was handed to her at birth, and that for all of her eco-conscious principles, ambition and hustle she also possesses one hell of a safety net.
Bronfman is the youngest of three children born to actress Sherri Brewer of “Shaft” fame and Edgar Bronfman Jr., chief executive officer of Warner Music Group, which he recently sold for $3.3 billion. Her family is steeped in the music business. Her brother Benjamin has a two-year-old son with hip-hop provocateur M.I.A. Her older sister Vanessa introduced Hannah to Roth on Kid Cudi’s tour bus two years ago. Her parents’ divorce in 1990 and father’s remarriage resulted in an additional four step-siblings (two boys and two girls), who Bronfman worries about falling prey to negative influences. “It’s really important to me to be a good role model [to them].” she says. “There really just aren’t that many good role models out there right now…especially for young girls.”
After graduating from Bard College in December with a degree in sculpture, Bronfman joined her brother at Green Owl (then just a record label under, naturally, Warner Music Group). The pair manages a handful of acts out of her cavernous, multi-level light-and-art filled Lower East Side apartment, jotting notes on a floor-to-ceiling chalk wall that reads “LOVE” in foot-high letters. The company recently launched a skate-inspired clothing line that Hannah designs. There’s another project in the works that she says she can’t talk about yet but hints at by saying, “Green Owl is really developing into a lifestyle brand.”
When quizzed on his little sister and co-worker, Ben Bronfman has a question of his own.
“Did you see the couch she made?” he asks, referring to a tangerine-colored settee in Hannah’s living room. “She designed that. Or the sculptures [in her apartment]? That’s all her. She did all that, and she’s just doing it all. Putting us all to shame.”
Speaking to Hannah, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer volume and variety of her interests, career or otherwise.
“I want to do an installation on my roof soon, a collaborative thing,” she muses of her now-dormant sculpting career, before she mentions a brief acting stint.
“I had a small role in ‘Grand Street’…one day I’ll show it to my grandkids to prove I used to be cool.”
The film’s writer-director, Lex Sidon, is eager to “talk about my girl Hannah.…She’s the cool older sister I always wanted and never had…that wise-beyond-her-years New York girl who can show you the ropes downtown but has a conscience.”
And then there are her DJ spots. She appears weekly at the Soho Grand Hotel and the Blind Barber in the East Village. “I’m not ‘an actress’ and I’m not ‘a DJ,’” Bronfman laughs, though now she is technically both. “I can set the tone of a party, I can bring my friends. I just play what I want to hear, and subsequently, other people want to hear that too. But I don’t run around saying that ‘I’m a DJ’ or that I really know what I’m doing.”
Matt Kliegman and Carlos Quirarte, wonder-duo behind cool-kid favorites the Jane Hotel, the Smile and the Westway, cast Bronfman in “Slanted & Enchanted,” a video they produced for Eddie Bauer’s fall 2011 presentation.
“Hannah used to DJ at the Jane,” Kliegman recalls. “Years ago. She had this great energy, and she’s beautiful and has this unique style. She’s got a great attitude. She’s ready to work, you know? She’s what I would call a ‘down girl’ in the best way. I mean, she doesn’t need to do all that she does, Green Owl and Global Thermostat and that. A lot of people in her situation wouldn’t. She’s got a good spirit.”
It goes without saying that Bronfman would not be running a record label if her father weren’t Warner Music’s ceo, but there is something other than birthright to what she calls her “business ethics.”
“My whole thing is I’m trying to set myself apart from people who just talk.” Bronfman says. “There’s a lot of girls who I grew up with who talk the talk but they’re not doing anything. They do nothing.” Reluctant to name names (apart from raising an eyebrow and suggesting “you know them, too.”), Bronfman pauses to fan her skirt out against the couch.
“I came from a family where if you say you’re going to do something then you do it, and you do it well,” she says. “There are so many people who say they are doing something but they have nothing to show for it. The time is now. So, what are you going to do? Multitask!”
When prodded about the social sphere that she orbits, Bronfman treads carefully.
“I grew up in New York, and my last name is my last name, my father is who he is,” she says. “When I was 16 and got kicked out of Spence for smoking pot, it was in the New York Post. That’s not news. But for whatever reason, it was.”
Despite evidence of a few well-hidden wild-child tendencies in her past (she has a tattoo under her hair on the right side of her scalp, “It’s a dragon with the body of a vine,” she laughs, “I know. So weird.”) Bronfman seems well-adjusted and infectiously happy. She cites regular boxing instruction as pivotal to maintaining her sanity.
The long-ago Spence expulsion carries particular comedic value considering the younger Bronfmans’ latest business venture.
“Art, technology and weed are going to save the world. That’s how I think about it,” she says without irony. “My brother Ben has this company called ACRI: American Cannabis Research Institute. Our family is in the medical marijuana game right now. My brother has a permit to cultivate organic weed in Oakland, and we are in the process of opening a dispensary with Cypress Hill. B-Real called me up and asked me to do it in my aesthetic.”
She laughs incredulously at the mention of the front man of the pot-loving Nineties rap group.
Post-expulsion, Bronfman’s parents sent her to Cottonwood Rehab facility in Tucson, Ariz., to dry out for a few months in 2003.
“Everyone hated me,” Bronfman shrugs. “All these girls who’d been smoking crack or God knows what for years were just like, ‘who is this rich, spoiled girl who smokes weed? What a loser she is. She has no problems.’”
When asked how her anti-marijuana parents are taking her next career move, Bronfman giggles.
“They’re totally on board,” she says. “Thanks, guys. Well, I mean, they’re not samplin’ the goods. They see it how it is, the next billion-dollar crop. It’s just funny, because our family started with Seagram’s during Prohibition. So we’re going round two right now. Same s–t, different day.”