Not By Design
Brian Crumley hopped on a plane to Europe to find the expressive voice he thought he had lost. The photographer spent three months traveling from city to city, soul-searching. Little did he know a purchase of two scarves would forever change his life.
Brian Crumley never thought he would make a living for himself designing jewelry. Like much of his life, his entrance into the business was unplanned and filled with strokes of luck. In fact, the inspiration behind his first necklace was born out of a moment of imperfect vision: While visiting a friend in New York City’s Harlem, he glimpsed what he thought was a knotted scarf on a walking passerby. Upon closer inspection, he realized that the accessory was only being worn in the usual fashion, but it no longer mattered. The career-changing idea had already taken root. He took the orange and faded charcoal grey scarves he had purchased during a soul-searching trip through Europe and got to work, tying and knotting them until he formed a necklace made of twisting stripes of color.
Moving to a new city can be a life-changing experience. And so it was when Crumley, at the impressionable age of 21, made the decision to leave Texas and call New York City home, determined not only to make a name for himself as an artist, but to find love as well. “I just felt like I had Austin figured out at the time,” he recalls. “I needed a new place to explore, and New York jumped out at me because it was a hub for fashion and art. I didn’t even consider anywhere else.”
Crumley’s first few months in the Big Apple were a struggle. To earn a living, Crumley held down part-time jobs at a coffee shop and at a small movie theater. Food and comfortable living situations were rare—at one point he subsisted off of a slice of pizza a day and came home to sleep in a bed that left his face inches from ceiling spackle. “I was so hungry to be in the city,” he says. “I wanted to be there so badly that I was willing to put up with any situation.”
His first break came toward the end of 1995, when he was scouted to be in a casting for an ad campaign shot by fashion photographer Steven Klein. Though Crumley didn’t get the job, his encounter with Klein led to a series of different modeling jobs shot by the photographer. At the same time, Crumley and then-boyfriend Scott Osman launched the short-lived underground and rave culture–influenced Drop magazine. After the publication folded a year later in 1997, Crumley focused on freelancing, taking on a slew of prop styling and art direction gigs until he was hired in 2002 to be Time Out New York’s new photo editor.
Two years later, after nearly a decade in New York City, Crumley began to grow frustrated with the state of his life and career. He started reevaluating his reasons for being in New York. His position at Time Out New York soon became “just another job,” and the nine-to-five schedule slowly began to overwhelm him while stifling his creativity. “I moved to New York to work for myself as an artist, so it just felt like I was accepting another reality that wasn’t what I went there for,” explains Crumley. “I realized that I could be a photographer, but that I didn’t want to be a staff photographer at a magazine.”
When summer came, Crumley purchased a plane ticket and headed to Europe. For three months he searched for the expressive voice he thought he had lost, fulfilling a personal need to travel and see the world. Unknowingly, he would make the fateful purchase of two scarves that would forever change his life.
Crumley’s first necklace wasn’t nearly as colorful as those in his South American–inspired, vintage-ribbon-and-silk-wrapped Nomad collection or as innovative as the pieces in his most recent collection (necklaces made of blown glass and medical tubing). Nevertheless, the design attracted the interest—and buzz—Crumley needed to launch his eponymous jewelry line and make his mark on the fashion world. That first necklace also fulfilled its original purpose: It provided Crumley with something new to wear while photographing New York fashion week.
“At the time, I also felt like fashion week was my runway,” says Crumley with a laugh. “The idea was to make yourself memorable, to make yourself somebody who was influencing what was happening in the industry, because that helps you get jobs.”
And that it did. “People kept saying, ‘Oh, where did you get that? I want that!’” explains Crumley of his first ornamental creation. From there, he began lending his work to stylists or promoted it himself by wearing pieces to photoshoots he was hired for. His first unofficial sale was to a fashion photographer who bought three necklaces—one each for his wife and two daughters—while Crumley was working for him on a M.A.C. cosmetics shoot. “That was the moment I was like, ‘Maybe I have something here.’”
Despite the success of his jewelry line (it has been sold in boutiques such as Barney’s Co-Op and Bergdorf Goodman), there remains an approachable, easygoing quality about Brian Crumley. He comes across as soft-spoken and humble; his quiet voice remains genuine even when he tries to be diplomatic, a trait that occasionally betrays him when he is forced to describe the positive in a negative situation. But for the most part, it really catches you in its enthusiasm when something excites him.
There’s a good chance that Crumley’s personality might have something to do with his conventional upbringing in Austin. The younger of two brothers, the Guam-born designer grew up as part of a self-described “military” family that embraced sports and traditional Texas values.
Since returning to the Capitol City in 2008, Crumley has become more relaxed. Nowadays, the 36-year-old’s daily uniform consists of a T-shirt and jeans paired with his signature thicket of modestly groomed dark-brown facial hair. He is unconventionally handsome: His short hairstyle is peppered with flecks of grey and his creamy, freckled complexion is accented by a slightly crooked nose and deep-set green-grey eyes. And unlike the fashionable New Yorker stereotype, Crumley frequently wears flip-flops, even to dinner.
His confidence spills over into his organic design process, or non-process, depending on how you look at it. “I don’t really have a set guideline for what I’m doing when I design my jewelry,” explains Crumley. “It’s a lot of instinct. Sometimes I come up with a concept and let the material guide the final product, and sometimes I’m just inspired by the material itself. I approach the design like a sculptor—I aim to create a beautiful object that also happens to be wearable.”
As much as Crumley strives to make each of his pieces its own work of art, he still hopes to further expand the commercial side of his blossoming brand. As he tells it, “I’d like to see myself taking Crumley from a form of artistic expression and making it into a business for myself that supports my life.”