Nestled on the shores of Richardson Bay — between the recognizable, bright yellow seaplane and The Planet, a favorite destination of curious Mill Valley children — Rebecca Bruce inspires, conceives, and creates one-of-a-kind garments. Within our vibrant, eclectic community of dynamic leaders, including healers, bankers, musicians, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists and authors, Rebecca has been gracing fellow Mill Valley residents with her stunning clothing designs since 2001.
Walking into her dramatic studio, adorned with giant windows covered in black-and-white posters of local models dressed in her creations, we had stepped into a bona fide fashion icon’s avant-garde world. This would be no ordinary interview! Instead, we were about to unveil the inner workings and visionary mindset of a true creative genius in our very own Mill Valley.
Rebecca Bruce grew up in Los Altos. As a young girl, she often accompanied her mother, a fashion model, to the now-defunct but iconic department store, I. Magnin, and to Saks 5th Avenue at the Stanford Shopping Center for her mother’s fashion shows. She remembers staring at all the hanging clothes and all of the women modeling, while vividly envisioning how she could make their outfits even better. She spent hours drawing her ideas and at age ten found herself “designing”. As a teenager, Rebecca shopped at thrift stores but couldn’t resist making her new finds her own, often ripping and tearing the garments to reinvent each piece, reflecting her individuality and sense of style. She continued her journey working as a stock girl at Nordstrom and attended Brooks College in Long Beach, known for its famous fashion design and marketing programs. After graduating from Brooks, Rebecca pursued her passion for clothing design in earnest, pouring her heart and soul into her inaugural collection, filled with leather fringe and glam rock detailing. Her aunt, an owner of three boutiques in Carmel and Pebble Beach, recognized Rebecca’s distinctive talent and purchased her original designs for her shops. Soon thereafter, Cindy Crawford bought a Rebecca Bruce jacket from one of those shops!
Rebecca went on to open her own studio over an auto body shop in San Francisco’s Mission District, before eventually landing in Mill Valley in 2001. She reminisced about her first location in downtown Mill Valley on Sunnyside, where she manufactured in the back of her store, just as she does now. Along the way, her beautiful designs made their way to San Francisco Market, and then more and more stores and boutiques as her representation In Los Angeles led to further exposure including showrooms in Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco. Nordstrom and Macy’s along with 500 boutiques in the US and abroad all carried Rebecca Bruce designs. Rebecca had come a long way from her days of imagining how much better she could make the I. Magnin model’s dresses more intriguing! After a 6 year hiatus to raise her three children, Tam High students, Lexi, 17 and Anika, 15 and Quinton, 13, who attends Bolinas-Stinson school, she eagerly returned to the world of fashion.
So what triggered Rebecca’s daring, eclectic, bold, leading-edge designs? Rebecca revealed to Mill Valley Living that after being consistently bullied in school during her childhood, clothing essentially became her “armor”. As a pre-teen and teenager, the way she dressed allowed her to mask her fear. It was her way of not only expressing herself creatively, but also a vehicle to tell the world who she really was. Rebecca soon realized the way we dress — even choosing that “one” outfit — can be powerful. At the core of her mindset when she designs, there has always been an authentic desire to help people. She spoke eloquently about how we can all bring art into our individual wardrobes. “We all have an interior dialogue within ourselves that we can either shift or help along or dress.” Rebecca explained how impactful it is to break out of our cookie-cutter stereotypes by dressing to embrace whatever message one wants to convey.
For many Mill Valley residents, Rebecca has emerged as the go-to designer for their annual Burning Man pilgrimages. She has designed and created countless “costumes” for throngs of Mill Valley Burners. As Rebecca adamantaly affirms, “You don’t want to go as a tourist. You are an art form as well.” Yet, while designing for Burning Man is clearly the ultimate in her creative expression, Rebecca’s collections are also proudly worn and continually sought after by so many others in our community from corporate CEOs, to Ted Talk speakers, to creative directors to doctors and lawyers. In the end, Rebecca dresses the person. “I can read a person….”, she tells us. “I’m like the anti-salesperson. They have to be ready.” According to Rebecca, if one questions a garment when trying on for the first time, don’t buy it!
As we continued to venture through Rebecca’s studio, it was easy to see just how inventive and resourceful she really is. When we asked her about the enormous ship ropes, cascading throughout the rafters high above, she told us the story of how she salvaged the 150 feet of rope for $150 as it lay spilling out of a dilapidated, old truck at the pier outside of Fish Restaurant in Sausalito. She had the patience and the vision to lay out the rope for an entire year after thoroughly washing and drying it before installing it as it now exists — flowing effortlessly throughout the rafters and around the wooden and pearl chandelier-like a snake draping from a tree. A long row of her pattern templates, almost in assembly-line formation, are meticulously hung on hangers. Spools of colorful threads, fabrics and feathers make visitors feel like they’re in the middle of a Moroccan bazaar. But beyond the ropes, the threads, the fabrics and the feathers, it is Rebecca’s statement pieces that immediately beckon us to find out their stories.
“Catharsis” is the first archetype gown we admire as it hangs prominently in front of painted Morrocan doors hung on her studio wall. It’s all about weaving her heart back together from a bed of tears, frayed edges and all. She trusts that emerging from these wounds makes us who we are by enriching our experiences and deepening our connections. This gown expresses the cathartic feeling of walking through the woods within the earthy colors of the forest. African trading beads, each with their own meaning and peacock feathers, symbolizing eyes to the future and thus, wisdom, cap off this design masterpiece.
Rebecca then uncovered “Boundaries”, a gown that took three people three months to construct with quilted patchwork incorporating a vintage 1950’s gown and beaded French macrame lace, evoking the colors of sunrise to sunset. Each quilted piece symbolizes an issue in our lives while the chains on the perimeter of each patch symbolize people who both cross and filter in between our individual boundaries. Rows of feathers are carried by the dust ruffle to elevate the feathers as if they’re floating, giving levity to our “boundaries”.
Even in Mill Valley, Rebecca profoundly affirms how important it is to actually get dressed because what we choose to adorn ourselves in, on any given day, can lead to connection, that what we wear can inspire, intrigue and be a conversation starter, often with complete strangers. Rebecca is a “draper” at heart. She told us how she wraps herself in her designs, pleating, pinning, constantly re-evaluating them with her refreshed perspective. It is this artistic manipulation, re-imagining and re-assembling of her pieces that fuels her new designs. Innovation in both form and purpose is what drives her every day. “There’s a power in dressing an attitude, in what captures a feeling. We are walking billboards for expressing ourselves.” For Rebecca, the opportunity to broaden the connection between two strangers who may otherwise be passing on the street is cool.
Rebecca Bruce and her creative spirit remind us how lucky we are to call her a resident of Mill Valley. As she continues to dress us in Mill Valley, including men who dare to step out to express their individualism, her work has been showcased in film, on CNN, at SFMOMA’s Modern Art Ball and featured in many publications including W, Elle Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Her timeless, one-of-a-kind gowns infuse elegance with a functional edge. Her re-purposed vintage materials and unexpected adornments lead her clients into new realms of self-expression. In the words of her favorite designer, Alexander McQueen, “When you see a woman in my clothes, you want to know more about them.” Well, Rebecca, we, along with all of your loyal fans in Mill Valley and beyond, enthusiastically believe you are a fashion icon in your own right… intriguing, distinctive and inspiring.
This article originally appeared in Milly Valley Living.