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Sonoma County resident's ‘Bart Bridge’ fills niche in unique sports gear

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Longtime Sonoma County resident Luke Fraser didn’t set out to be a Bay Area sports attire designer. But growing up in Berkeley, he learned how to look at the world a little differently and later, embraced the “shop local” movement.

“I can go to someone’s house whose coffee table is made from reclaimed barnwood from Sonoma, and the food came from over here,” the 35-year-old entrepreneur said. “People are really enjoying the local economy, especially after the economic crisis.”

Fraser has always admired the way entrepreneurs behind businesses like Uber have re-imagined the way the world works. And that led the passionate sports fan to launch his own custom sports gear business, Bart Bridge, as an alternative to “official” big-box apparel.

Oakland Magazine bestowed a Best of Oakland 2017 award on the business, which has quietly gathered a cult following among the San Francisco Giants and 49ers, the San Jose Sharks, the Oakland A’s and Raiders and, most importantly, the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile, the edgy, urban apparel has been spotted on high-profile fans such as Nicole Lacob, the wife of Warriors’ majority owner Joseph Lacob.

It all started about 10 years ago, when Fraser and his girlfriend got tickets to go to a Golden State Warriors basketball game. He didn’t want to wear the same, corporate T-shirt and hat as everyone else.

“There should be choices, and people should have the option to express themselves,” he said. “I think it’s funny how you can shop local for anything except for a Giants hat or an Adidas Steph Curry jersey … none of it is from Oakland.”

So Fraser decided to upcycle his own fashionista fan gear. He headed to a local thrift store, found a couple of manufactured pieces from the team and a vintage jacket, then took them home, busted out his seam ripper and sewing machine, and pieced together a fresh-looking, handmade jacket.

“When I wear that, people chase me on the street and ask me where I got it,” he said. “It’s really expressive, and it speaks to people.”

Inspiration from artists

Fraser credits his uncle — Craig Gurganess, a longtime surfer now living on the Outer Banks of North Carolina — as his inspiration. Gurganess recycles broken surfboards and, with the help of a saw, sander and paintbrush, turns them into colorful, one-of-a-kind fish sculptures.

“All my uncles are artists, and that had an effect on me,” said Fraser, who currently lives in Penngrove. “I like it when people reinterpret things.”

Motivated by all the positive feedback rolling in, Fraser built up Bart Bridge thread by thread, weaving it into a crazy quilt of funkified fan fashion. He sources vintage jackets and jeans and new hats and backpacks, then dresses them up with floral and flannel fabrics from fabric stores and vintage patches from online companies or card conventions.

“I think what would get people’s attention is the juxtaposition of an old denim jacket with some cool, Southwest fabric with an old ’70s Warriors patch,” he said. “We’re smashing these things together. Intellectually, you think that might not work. But when you do it, it does work.”

The unconventional line also includes an array of Warrior T-shirts that are subtly subversive and often inspired by ’70s graphics and pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

“I was walking down the street in Penngrove, and there was a little silk-screening operation in the back of a trailer behind the hatchery, and I asked if they could help me silkscreen,” he said. “I went online and found a graphic designer (Mike Hampton) on Craigslist.”

Although Sonoma County has no dearth of fine artists and sculptors, Santa Rosa jewelry artisan Gloria Rubio Verduzco noted that there are not a lot of hip, young entrepreneurial artists working here.

“I’m a big Warriors fan, but I can only afford his T-shirts,” she said. “My favorite — it’s blue and yellow — says ‘Make Threes, Not War’ and has an image of a woman in a Native American headdress. The whole concept is sort of a cheeky response to the political climate.”

As a guy who works with fiber and makes clothing, Fraser also stands out.

“The artisan world is predominantly female,” Rubio Verduzco said. “Especially in fiber art and anything related to clothing, it is rare to see a man in that world.”

Bridge between fans and team

Fraser’s path to clothing designer was, not surprisingly, rather unconventional.

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in environmental science, Fraser had an “existential crisis” and moved across the country, living in New York, bicycling to North Carolina and New Mexico, then heading up to Minnesota.

“I was always trying to disappear,” he said. “Fortunately it all worked out.”

He flew to Sicily to learn Italian, then ended up on a boat in Portland, Maine, which crashed in the Delaware Canal en route to the Caribbean. Next he made his way down to Key West, Florida, settled in St. Augustine for a while and, with a buddy, hitchhiked back to California, where he lived in San Francisco before settling down in Penngrove.

“I love Sonoma County,” he said. “It’s got a little bit of everything … It’s not like you’re on the moon, but you feel like you’re far away.”

An athlete who was never very competitive, Fraser found sports to be an easy, conversational bridge during his travels.

“I’m this liberal Jew from Berkeley,” he said. “I found I could communicate with people down in the South if I could talk college football.”

Fraser decided to name his business Bart Bridge after the pedestrian walkway that connects the Coliseum BART stop to Oracle Arena, where the Warriors play.

“It symbolized the confluence of all that is positive about the experience of being a fan,” he said. “That bridge is what connects the people in the community to the team.”

Although he branched out to other Bay Area teams, the Warriors have remained his main “muse,” allowing him to move from selling on Etsy to selling at booths during playoffs and Oakland festivals such as the First Friday.

“Around 2012, the Warriors became a thing, so I got lucky,” he said. “Once you sell a couple, you get the bug.”

He also launched a line of “stash caps,” made from the trucker style of baseball hats that appeal to both men and women. He added large patches on the front — with place names like DubNation, TOWN or CITY — that are left open on top so that you can “stash’ an ID and some cash.

“The stash caps were initially made for summer at Lake Tahoe,” he said. “There are bars you can paddle up to … so I figured I could unstitch the top of the patch on my hat, stick my ID and a 20 dollar bill in the hat, leave the phone and wallet at home, and head out on the lake.”

Because of the possibility of trademark infringement, Fraser is quick to point out that Bart Bridge only offers fan’s clothing made by fans and is not an affiliate of the NFL, NCAA, NBA, MLB, NHL or any other official sports organization.

“As long as I’m explaining that the Giants or the Warriors didn’t make this hat — as long as I’m transparent, everything should be OK,” he said. “The law is always open for interpretation, but that’s how I interpret it.”

Fire “cooked everything”

Around 2015, Fraser started his own website, bartbridge.com, as an e-marketplace that could also serve as a platform for himself as well as other artists making sports apparel, with the idea that a rising tide lifts all ships.

By 2017, he was living and working out of his brother’s cabin in Glen Ellen, where he stored all of his vintage apparel, T-shirts, fabric and sports patches.

“My brother’s place was at the top of the Mayacamas there, straddling Napa and Sonoma County,” he said. “It was so beautiful — 40 acres and an old, dusty wood log cabin built by a hippie in the ’70s.”

Then the Nuns fire ripped through in October 2017 and wiped out the cabin, all of his belongings and his entire inventory — about $70,000 worth of sports-themed materials, including 7,000 T-shirts, 300 pairs of overalls, yards of fabric, sports patches and vintage apparel.

“Everything cooked,” he said. “I had every single thing I owned up there.”

With the help of some friends and a chainsaw, Fraser got off the mountain amid howling winds and fire glowing on all sides. He found refuge at his parents’ house in Berkeley, then ended up living in one of the FEMA trailers at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds for about six months, where he debated whether to keep his business going.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” he said. “I was in a daze for a while.”

Streamlining after the fire

Eventually, however, he decided to rebuild the business. He started slowly, renting a storage unit in American Canyon, then moving his operations to a rental home with a studio/garage in Vallejo, which is near his seamstress in Oakland.

Ironically, his business took off after the fire because he decided to streamline the line, focusing on old military jackets, especially camouflage jackets, which are virtually indestructible, work well for both men and women and do not have to fit perfectly.

“In these surplus stores, there were hundreds of old camos,” he said. “The sizing is flexible, it’s good quality and it’s used but people don’t notice if there’s a stain. It clicked on every level.”

Lately, he has started broadening his line by adding designs that are affiliated with a city rather than just a team.

“Counting on the Warriors to win a championship every year is a bad business model, so I have been trying to hedge my bets,” he said. “People will always like Oakland, even if the Raiders leave.”

Fraser, who also makes multimedia sculptures out of basketball hoops, has another trick up his sleeve as well. He would like to reinvent the way the art world is presented in the real world and is trying to launch an art library in downtown Oakland, where members can borrow the art and take it home while deciding whether or not to purchase it.

“It’s kind of a new concept,” he said. “People say it can’t be done, but we’re going to try and to prove to people that people can be respectful and bring it back and not hurt it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.