Each afternoon, stroll along Williamsburg’s Metropolitan Avenue and you’ll see Olivia Reinertson sewing in her new storefront. The former pre-school teacher’s brand, By Live Handmade, and its new store recalls the independent, unique spirit of New York boutiques of the past.
“I grew up on Ninth Street in the East Village and the whole street was littered with stores like this. That disintegrated really fast and I want to bring that back. There was a level of community and personal details in everything that went along with that lifestyle. Since COVID-19, everyone slowed down a lot and this is the time to bring that back,” said Reinertson.
While her label, founded a year ago, joins the increasingly crowded space of brands upcycling old and vintage textiles to create new clothes, Reinertson does so with extra consideration for the environment and old fabrics.
“Everything is one-of-a-kind. I use the textiles that are heavily damaged and cut around them or repair them. In antiques stores people want the pristine fabrics and there’s a lot that’s cast aside and doesn’t get bought. I think it’s therapeutic to fix them,” she said.
Unlike the cut-and-sew approach common to upcycled textile brands, Reinertson does not use patterns — making each piece and silhouette unique, much like the art projects she used to direct in her school classes.
Typically in the upcycled model, designers create a stock pattern, source textiles and outsource production. But for Reinertson, “It’s very improvisational. It truly does make everything one-of-a-kind. People ask me to remake something with a different fabric and I can’t.”
Reinertson’s thoughtful approach brings a certain lightness and whimsy that differentiates her brand from others with similar premises. Bras made from old handkerchiefs are priced at $85, crocheted sweater vests for $95, pants from old tablecloths for $250 and dresses run up to $400 — all hand-sewn by Reinertson herself.
But By Liv happened by accident. While teaching pre-schoolers before the pandemic Reinertson said she, “Couldn’t find something to wear to teach little kids that wasn’t overalls. I wanted something to take me from the classroom to go hang out with friends and couldn’t find it on a teacher’s salary. I got my own sewing machine to make these billowy peasant dresses and I got reached out to by Café Forgot. They convinced me to start selling them,” said the designer.
A storefront was also happened upon by chance — courtesy of a below-market-rate Craigslist post. But rather than just use the space, which opened on April 3, as a purely commercial endeavor — Reinertson intends to give back to the neighboring community by offering sewing classes to children and a library of kids books.
“I think the fashion world I grew up in was very impersonal. I think it feels kind of beautiful to know where clothes come from and have that connection,” said Reinertson, who added that she can make up to four dresses in a day.
One might ask how the designer plans to scale. But Reinertson is member to a new generation of brand-owners who seem satisfied in their creative practice without feeling the tug of expansion and endless growth. “I don’t feel the need to grow and outsource. People ask if I want someone to help me sew, but it’s very intimate and personal and I do hold that close to my heart — I think it comes through in the clothes,” she said.