'Just be a little nerdier': Austin fashion designer creates 'nerd-wear' based on science
In an industry built on creative nuance and a flair for chic stylings, Austin designer Ryan Britton has embraced the call for originality.
The El Paso-native combined his love for history and science to create the National Bureau of Product Research, a limited clothing brand that merges streetwear with scientific exploration.
Renderings of planetary surfaces, scrapped rocket blueprints, geographical landmarks and patterns of radio beacons, radiation detector dials, and other tech are placed throughout his clothing pieces.
Interwoven into each garment, which range from $69 to $1,000 in price, are stories that unfold like a paperback, with texts and images detailing the inspiration behind Britton's designs and where they come from – an element he says is missing from fashion and the world at large.
"I feel like The National Bureau can push things forward a bit by advocating for everybody to have a little more nerd in them – to look at our shared reality a little more empirically," the 49-yar-old designer said.
Described as "nerd wear," the brand's designs are directly drawn from decades-old documents from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that Britton archived following his days as a science reporter.
On the brand's "Trippy Trajectory" T-shirt, Britton stitches in a graphic that details a mission NASA developed in 1966 to test its ability to dock two ships in space.
The inside of the shirt reads: "The graphic on your shirt illustrates the approach angle the Gemini 12 Spacecraft took in its rendezvous and docking with the unmanned Gemini Agena Target Vehicle. A major objective of the Gemini project was to learn how to dock and tether space vehicles together. The Gemini Spacecraft and Agena Target Vehicle left the Earth's surface on different rockets at different times to successfully meet in low Earth orbit. At the mission's conclusion, Gemini 12 (and its two astronauts) parachuted down and landed safely in the ocean. Everything else burned to a crisp in the atmosphere :-D."
An untraditional path to fashion
Britton's path to becoming a designer is as unique as his aero-inspired motifs.
Before launching National Bureau, he worked as a journalist for Earth & Sky, a daily radio series focused on science and nature. The company began broadcasting in 1991 and eventually switched its operations to online-only.
While at Earth & Sky, Britton's admiration for astrogeology was at its highest. He began collecting vintage blueprints, drawings and graphics from past projects and interviews with industry scientists from NASA and other organizations, and soon built a database filled with keepsakes.
Britton developed the archive in 2013, and instead of naming the catalog "Ryan's Database," he settled on the National Bureau of Product Research.
At the time, he didn't know what purpose the catalog would serve, but he knew he wanted to put the valuable relics to use.
It wasn't until a friend suggested placing one of the graphics on a T-shirt that he considered getting into fashion. And from there, the concept of the clothing line was born.
"(Fashion) wasn't really a new thing for me," Britton said.
"It was just me kind of in the middle of my career thinking" no one in fashion was telling stories like his, he said.
"The idea for a fashion brand was so big in my head, I almost felt obligated to do it," he said. "If I didn't do it, I would just be carrying this idea in my head."
Beyond creating basic print designs, Britton wants to give his consumers an inside look into his clothing brand and embrace the pursuit of knowledge and truth through his designs and the stories they carry.
"The goal is to create a brand but also a community," he said. "There's value in digging a little bit and understanding truth, like real truth, and understanding the value of scientific method and scientific inquiry.
"Let's just be a little nerdier and our world will benefit."
Education at center of the brand
After some time selling his initial designs, Britton decided to join the first cohort of the Austin Community College Fashion Incubator in October 2020, where he remains a designer-in-residence. He'll have access to the program's space until October this year.
The Fashion Incubator is housed inside the former Highland Mall – Austin's first suburban shopping mall that closed its doors in 2011 and has been transformed into a campus for Austin Community College.
The fashion design school is now housed inside a 7,500-square-foot space, where aspiring designers and entrepreneurs have access to $13 million of Gerber Technology, business coaches, networking opportunities and other resources to sharpen their skills.
The year-long program helped Britton hatch his plans for The National Bureau.
Director and fashion designer Nina Means said Britton quickly refined his concept and learned to compose his intricate designs in a way that celebrates the power of education.
While niche, National Bureau has everything a brand needs to grow into a successful business, Means said.
"I think Ryan is on to something with The National Bureau, and he's tapped into the archival space and into a customer that's also obsessed with learning," said Means, 41, who worked for American Eagle and other brands before taking on her role at ACC.
Science and innovation are next
Before launching the first National Bureau capsule last year, Britton said it was hard for other designers to grasp his concept.
"Before I actually had clothes made, people just didn't get it," he said. "It's taken some education, drawings and things like that to explain what it is I want to do. But when I hand over a T-shirt, people just get it."
Fellow designer Lord Justice Canton was immediately drawn to the brand after a conversation with Britton in a Los Angeles clothing store.
Canton, 28, said Britton, a "nerdy, 6-foot white guy with glasses," didn't look like a typical designer, but once he saw the vibrant colors and aero-inspired patterns he created, the Queens-native said he knew Britton and the brand were worth exploring.
"(Britton) is definitely a needle in the haystack," said Canton, who works as a store manager for the LA location of the streetwear brand The Hundreds. "I know a lot of creatives, but a lot of people don't push the boundaries. When I first met him, I knew he was doing something most people don't take the time to do."
Since connecting in LA, Canton has helped Britton drive the creative direction of the National Bureau. From social media posts to public appearances in different pieces, he wants to inspire other lovers of streetwear to put the brand name on their back.
"It's' going to take some time, but I think he's going to go really far," Canton said. "I think (Britton's) biggest contribution to fashion is his previous work history – going from that to designing. He's also teaching people within the garment. A lot of people that own brands are just not that innovative."
While the first capsule serves as a nod to space exploration, Britton said he's placing computer science and innovation at the center for the next National Bureau line set to release in late May or June.
So far, the geometric patterns of vintage computer circuit boards are already in play. But above all, Britton said he plans to continue encouraging the world to be a little nerdier.