Sierra Otto - The Gem Behind the Gems

I’ve known Alex Uritis, the head lady of AU & Co. for quite some time, back when she was a Beshk, even. We go way back, to say the least. We grew up together, experienced many life-lessons together, and we g-chat together nearly everyday. We are close. So close, that when she was at the glorious University of Kansas, I felt what was probably my first pang of real jealousy. Alex had met someone. Not a dude - she had her love already. She met another friend. A great, life-long friend. She met Sierra Otto, and I was jealous that I had not met her first.

Sierra on the land where she grew up in Manhattan, KS. 

Sierra on the land where she grew up in Manhattan, KS. 

I heard stories, of how awesome this Sierra Otto was, and how Alex just knew we would hit it off. We were both (first and foremost) cat ladies by heart and nature. We both liked soccer, and enjoyed a nice glass of wine - her parents own a vineyard, and that just immediately screams classy AF. I first met Sierra when she was visiting family in California from Kansas, where she was born and raised, and of course she was going to visit her friend Alex. I was lucky enough to have a half empty keg at my house from God knows where, and that was enough to entice the two of them over so I could finally meet the enigmatic Sierra.

She was (is) so beautiful, and no joke, you could feel the cool on her. I respected her immediately when I frantically told the small group that had accumulated at my house that we couldn’t let the cats outside. She was the first to say “got it,” and didn’t roll her eyes like nearly everyone else did - she knew the ways of the cat, and I knew that we were kindred spirits.

I had the opportunity to visit Alex at KU when she and Sierra were living together in a house that Sierra’s parents owned. It was winter, and my California bones weren’t ready for the midwest cold. I was weak, but Sierra’s house was warm and welcoming, and it rapidly satisfied my winter chill. With unique artwork and custom, mismatched furniture, the house worked - in the best way possible. It was easy to see that this house contained a bohemian, artistic vibe, but encompassed the structure needed to start a jewelry business, which is exactly what Sierra did once she finished school, worked for Silpada, and got married to her high school sweetheart - she started Sierra Winter Jewelry.

Sierra quite possibly fell in love with jewelry making at a young age before she even knew it: “as a child, I had three main interests. Rock collecting, drawing, and cats.” She described this memory subtlely on her blog, but it’s apparent that identifying precious stones and gems, along with drawing and designing, was Sierra’s forte.  

Sierra & Alex in their college house dressed as the cats they are holding - Batman & Swiper. #ballers #rockchalk

Sierra & Alex in their college house dressed as the cats they are holding - Batman & Swiper. #ballers #rockchalk

I have never interviewed anyone (well, not since Grandparent’s Day in like, third grade, but I don’t think that counts - sorry Marj) so I was a little nervous to chat with Sierra, even though she has always been so gracious toward me. I think I was slightly intimidated by her raw awesomeness, but the intimidation quickly subsided as we talked, and the inspirations behind Sierra Winter Jewelry quickly came to light.

Sierra is above all, a family gal. It’s as clear as day that the motivation behind her jewelry stems from experiences and moments that she has with loved ones (much like AU & Co., which leaves no wonder why these two women are such close friends), as well as her childhood growing up on the Kansas prairie.

Her favorite piece in The Prairie Fire Collection - her debut collection - are the Buffalo Mound Earrings, which are my favorite as well (click the link - they’re dope). They were the first pieces she designed in the collection, and I needed to learn more. I asked where the name came from, and the story delivered. “There is this hill in Kansas that we would drive by all the time on the way to soccer games or wherever, and it was known as Buffalo Mound,” she said, with a hint of giggle in her voice. “Every single time we passed the hill, there and back, my Dad would point it out and say ‘there’s Buffalo Mound,’ and we would always agree and laugh - yeah, Dad, there it is. Every single time,” Sierra said, adding that, “everyone acknowledged that this hill was called Buffalo Mound, but I have yet to hear someone outside of our family call it that.” I like to think that we can all relate, and appreciate, this family moment, and the silly “Dad comments” that are a unique, yet repetitive goldmine. After hearing this story, the Buffalo Mound Earrings became my favorites even more.

Sierra Winter Jewelry 

Sierra Winter Jewelry 

I asked Sierra who was someone she admired, and she said her Mom. Plain and simple, didn’t expand at all. She didn’t need to though. The way she answered, so immediately and confidently said it all. Sierra is pregnant with her first child. That is a bond between Mother and Daughter that I can’t yet fathom, but it seems that there is a silent agreement, and an understanding that happens when the torch is passed. I can tell that Sierra has (and wants to continue to make) her Mom proud, and the Prairie Fire Collection reflects that beautifully.

When you look at Sierra Winter Jewelry, it’s apparent that there is a Southwestern flair in the design (beautiful turquoise, people, b-e-a-utiful turquoise). Being from the Southwest, I had to know where the Kansas babe got the desert feel. “My great Aunt left me some of her vintage southwest jewelry,” explains Sierra. “I have always loved it. She would hit up casinos in Nevada and then go to the jewelry shops with her winnings and purchase jewelry - #goals,” she says, and it’s hard not to agree - Sierra’s great Aunt had it going on, and it’s well represented in the collection.

Sierra Winter Jewelry

Sierra Winter Jewelry

Sierra’s designs are modern-classic, but she isn’t opposed to the garish flair that was once the real deal. Her favorite accessory growing up was one of her Grandmother’s rings. “Omg, it was this pink and purple blinged out costume jewelry ring,” laughs Sierra, “it looked like a discoball on your finger and I thought it was the most priceless piece of jewelry I had ever seen. When she passed away I got a lot of her jewels, and this gem was one of them. It's absolutely perfectly hideous, and has a nice bed in my jewelry chest.” Statement pieces change with the ages, but precious (albeit ‘perfectly hideous’) jewels are timeless, and sentiment has everything to do with it.

Sierra starts a design with a quirk - she always starts designing by drawing a line down the center of a white piece of paper, almost methodic in a way. This process, however, comes with a steady side of daydreaming, like what a dinner with her, Iris Apfel, and her Grandfather, Norman, would be like: “I want to hear stories from her lifetime, and he is 92, and I think they would be quick friends. I imagine she would drink a martini and eat very little, whereas I would probably drink a lot and eat a lot,” describes Sierra.

 

With the daze of daydream at dinner with Grandpa Norman and Iris Apfel steady at hand, and the memories of her Dad actively pointing out Buffalo Mound hill on the roads of Kansas (with Garth Brooks playing in the background, obviously), it’s no wonder that Sierra Winter is truly the gem behind the gems of Sierra Winter Jewelry. She brings her family’s history, her passion, and her creativity alive in her collection, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what the soon-to-be mother brings to her collection.

Vibe on,

RG

Our Designer - A Peek Behind the Curtain

Let me introduce you to my sister.

Something easier said than done. I’ve known her (or better put), she’s known me since the day I popped out of my mother’s lady bits, had my sex declared with a bit of a questioning (it’s a… boy?), and shuffled into the arms of  the dark haired olive skinned little girl who would become a guiding light for me in the years to come.

She was the first woman (besides my mother) who I learned to love, and fear in equal measured parts. As we grew older the fear turned to teen angst during our, let’s call them hormonal years, but we recovered during the four years we spent at university together. Forging through the blizzards on campus with our California blood screaming out to us for being idiots for going to school in a place that had the audacity to have actual seasons, buying me beer when I was just a wee lad, and even carving out a bartending gig at our favorite place at school. Alex has always had my back. She is the Batman to my Robin, the Matt Damon to that guy who films a lot with Matt Damon (I want to say Petey something)- if Robin and Petey were speech impaired 3 year olds with a penchant for putting pennies in the Nintendo 64 the metaphor would be air tight.

The point is, my sister is a phenomenal human, and when I had the chance to interview her for her upcoming AU & Co. launch, I jumped at the chance. She was gracious enough to oblige, and here we are. After a flight back down to So Cal from my lofty (and unexplainably expensive) apartment in San Francisco, I, with our little sister in tow (she only came along after I promised to feed her Rubio’s), arrived at Alex’s bungalow home in Costa Mesa.

You’d think being the homosexual in the family I would have snatched  all the creative, and designer-friendly genes from the rest of my siblings. But you’d be wrong. It took me almost two decades just to learn that “No, stripes, and plaid don’t go together. I don’t care what Lindsay Lohan does- she’s wrong, and, frankly, I think it’s weird that’s who you look up to”, read you loud and clear now Mom. Alex ransacked all the good traits, and characteristics in this department before I could get my clammy fingers on them- so I comfortably blame her for my lack of awareness. Her talent for decorating, and adorning is immediately prevalent as you pass the threshold into her, and her husband’s home. A bright blue door with a curtain covered window slides open into a living room with warm wooden beams extending across the ceiling framed by walls covered in family photos, concert posters, and one very real looking ship’s wheel I’m sure they bought, and didn’t steal mounted above my favorite furniture piece- the bar cart, which, I swear to God, smiled when it saw me. I smiled back.

The air in the room was cool, and carrying with it some blues music, and the sound of beer caps popping of bottles. Peter, Alex’s boo, comes out of the kitchen with two Oktoberfest beers in hand. A man after my heart. After the greetings, and salutations we gather around their kitchen table to catch up, and gossip about the boys in San Francisco, and the glorious weather in So Cal. They both are hot, make me sweat, and both are experiencing a dry spell (from my perspective to keep the comparison going).

I’m not sure if I am suppose to announce that the interview officially began or just smoothly transition into the appropriate banter. Instead I just pull out my notepad, and hit the record button on my cell phone, and continue to chat up the woman sitting across from me whom I’ve known my whole life. It’s weird interviewing someone you’ve literally watched grow from a young girl to a young woman to a dynamic, and fully realized human. I wasn’t sure what to ask, but soon enough we found a comfortable pace in the interview, and it felt more like a conversation than I had expected.

We talked business goals, and fashion; we talked David Bowe vs David Beckham (Alex was for Bowie- “You cannot walk away from a heart like his”, and I graciously picked up Beckham- “those abs, though”; we talked Mark Sanchez and dresses (not necessarily as one thought though I enjoy that thought experiment). We talked. And drank. It was a great afternoon in the cozy bungalow.


“How would you describe your style?”, I ask over the top of my beer.

A smile creeps up around the edges of her mouth as her eyes brighten a bit. She chuckles, “Something between a bohemian princess, and a classic j-crew prep look. Somedays I want to be flowy, and others I want to be buttoned up”.

I wasn’t sure how to describe her own style so I am so glad she was able to capture it. It’s as dynamic, and put together as she is. I brought up her dislike for dresses growing up when her style was self-described as a tomboy. Think Hawaiian tees, and overalls (Oh, the 90s). I wondered why she was so resistant to something not covered in denim, and potentially something she stole from my closet, which would have been a sort of justice sense I was routinely playing in the outfits my mom bought for her.

“I used to cry when Mom would make me wear a dress. I would even lie at school when people would ask why I wore it because it was so unlike me, and I’d tell them I had to go to my grandmother’s later so I needed to look nice”, but that changed over time:

“But as I got older it became more fun. I was able to be both people- a badass in a dress”, after all those two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. Re: any season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

“As I got older and more confident I realized I could be everything”. Which is no joke. While at school homeslice broke a couple of records while captaining their D2 soccer team, took a set of teeth to her skull during a header (and continue to play with cool scars to show for it now), and completed a degree in Art History.

Of course, she would never flaunt her accomplishments out like this, that’s my job. Alex is that special type of person who gets things done, and quietly moves on to the next item without the need or expectation of glorification. It’s incredibly refreshing to be around.

As I read this shortened list of her deeds I watch as she blushes a bit, and laughs at my ‘exaggerations’. She looks at Peter, and smiles at him as he prepares us something to snack on. Peter, and Alex have been together since High School. I remember the days when he’d come sniffing around the house when they (and I) were just kids.

Years later they would cement their love in a beachside wedding.. Alex and Pete have been Alex and Pete for so long now it made perfect sense for them to forge a business together. Alex, the founder and creative spearhead of AU & Co., and Pete the CEO, and main squeeze. He’s also been promoted to main spider killer- he is very honored.

I take inventory of the next song that just came on their playlist.

“Come by me, come talk to me baby

Tell me how we can combine

Will you be my sunshine forever

Will you be a friend of mine...”

... can be heard in the background.

Both our heads pivot to the speakers, and starting moving to the big band song by Harry Connick Jr. I notice the large golden pineapple painting Alex did years ago on the wall behind her. Our conversations meandered to the summers we spent at our Grandmother’s in New Orleans where we both picked up a love for fried shrimp, jazz music, and, inexplicably, paintings of fruit. The pineapple in southern culture, for those of us who grew up above the Mason-Dixon line, symbolizes friendship and hospitality. A stranger in a new town could trust that a house with a pineapple symbol on the door would be welcome with open arms. They could also expect to be, politely, told to leave when the same sign was taken down. A subtle GTFO. Another important stroke in the painting that is Alex’s style is the southern love for color, and sharp look. If her style straddled geographic locations she would have one foot deep in California, and the other floating in the bayous of Louisiana. If she had a third foot it would probably descend on the rolling hills of Kansas where we went to school- the land of deep fall colors, and sunflowers.

We talk about the south, and the people who made it such a sweet place to visit.  The ends they would go to to make someone welcome in their home:

“That’s what we want to do”, Pete says, joining us at the table while something with a lot of onions cooks at the stove. “We want the people who buy the designs to know they’re buying from a small business, and we want them to know they can reach out too. We’re not some big store where they’re just a number, and we want to hear feedback from them. How they like the clothing? What designs would they like to see next? We want to discover who are clients are just as much as we want them to discover us”.

“Right, I really want these pieces to be something they can always trust to look good on them. If they’re having a shitty day or great day, they know that our designs won’t go to the way side when a trend ends. We got you. I want them to feel that”, Alex says looking to her husband with a smile.

“And you mentioned to me weeks ago when we first were talking about this how you wanted to make the businesses sustainable. Can you share more?”, I asked, mostly because I had forgotten, but also she seemed to put a lot of thought into it, which she did. Cause she’s an adult unlike the man-boy author (as we speak I’m eating chicken tenders from a bag trying to ignore the barbecue sauce that’s smeared on my bedsheet, looking at me, but I digress).

“The fashion world can be incredibly wasteful. So much of the resources that are needed to make clothing are just wasted when a trend goes out of style, and merchandise is taken out of stores, and thrownaway. We wanted to avoid that by, first, making clothes that will live beyond a trend line, and, second, sourcing our materials from deadstock fabric vendor”.

Deadstock fabric is the fabric left over by the mills, and garment factories that otherwise wouldn’t be used by large wholesale manufacturers.

“And you’re sourcing the fabric locally, and using local manufactures”, I add.

“Yup. I love that we can help support local businesses in the area. By relying on them for our fabric, our manufacturing, and in the process developing really great relationships with these people.”

Locally sourced, and American made (which feels like someone’s trademark- please, don’t sue me).

“And you’ve been able to navigate these waters through, well, a lot of hard work, and research, and also friends in similar markets, right?”

She laughs a little, I think it was a lot of hard work. “Totally, I have a lot of girlfriends who are small business owners who’ve shared with me some of their hard won wisdom- while also gaining my own in the process, and I want to highlight these businesses on AU & Co.’s blog”.

I marvel a bit at her. I am proud, that’s for sure. I don’t need to get into the risk of opening a small business, of the grit it takes, and the stressors of all the unknowns. We can all imagine it, and I’m sure no one is interested in reading about it. But having all this in mind, I am impressed at Alex’s grit, her resilience, and her strength. She gets all this, and a good fashion sense- dude, life is so unfair sometimes.

I finish the last of the beer, and continue to talk, but the subject veers away from business, and back to family.

“Which sibling is your favorite?”, I turn to our youngest sister, “Sophie, can you leave the room?”.

“I plead the fifth!”, Alex shouts or maybe it was “the fifth”, which would be ridiculous because William is the fifth sibling and empirically just awful. The worst. (William if you’re reading this, you read that wrong- no need to go back and read it again. Move along).

The light in the room begins to turn that golden end of day color. The cuteness of the bungalow is highlighted by the setting sun, which is my que to be on my merry way before she needed to take down the pineapple painting.

I gather my things, and give Alex & Pete a kiss goodbye. I say something about making this a quick turnaround piece, which of course I didn't, but they're forgiving.

I leave my sister’s place trying to figure out how'll I'll introduce her. How I'll explain her awesomeness to the reader. I'm not sure I ever could, but something about the warm summer night makes me feel like she'll do a fine job of it herself. So, readers, this is my sister. An amazing human whom I'm lucky to know, and here is apart of the world she has carved out where her creativity and loveliness lives. I hope you enjoy meeting her through her work, and always feel welcome introducing yourself to her.

Stay good,

Sebastian