The wide, wild world of Portland’s Tender Loving Empire

Part record label, part handmade art showcase, this hybrid creative marketplace puts Portland artists first.

_74A0413-crop copyBrianne and Jared Mees founded the Tender Loving Empire label in 2007.
Ashley Anderson

It’s hard to explain Tender Loving Empire (TLE) in an elevator pitch. Like many Portlanders, TLE doesn’t just do one job — it does many (and it does them all pretty differently). But one phrase does seem to capture the company’s spirit: “All together.” Walk into one of Tender Loving Empire’s shops and you’ll get it instantly: house-produced and consignment records side-by-side on shelves under local calendars, right next to handmade jewelry and Oregon-brewed beer. It’s a place for everything creative in Portland, all together, just as it has been for more than a decade.

The history of Tender Loving Empire

In 2007, husband-and-wife team Jared and Brianne Mees quit their day jobs to jump full-time into a shared dream: creating a small record label and shop to showcase Jared’s music and Brianne’s crafts. They envisioned it as a launchpad for their musical comrades and art school friends, subverting traditional retail methods and big-name labels with a platform created by artists for artists to reach new fans in Portland and beyond.

“Tender Loving Empire was born out of the desire to support our local creative community,” explains Brianne. “When we first opened our doors, Etsy was barely a start-up and there weren’t any local stores completely devoted to handmade goods. We also loved the idea of a record label having a physical space that you could walk in and be a part of. We wanted to help the experience of interacting with music in a digital world feel more approachable and human.”

Shoppers browse Tender Loving Empire’s Portland-made wares. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

That idea began as an earnest operation in the Meeses’ apartment and eventually became today’s Tender Loving Empire: a thriving, multifaceted business, complete with a record label boasting more than 20 recording artists over 75 albums, signature artist collaborations and five retail shops. The stores provide some of the city’s best collections of Portland-made art, zines, candy and music, as well as pop-culture-inspired devotional candles and a seemingly infinite array of enamel lapel pins.

While many local stores now sell made-in-Portland goods, Tender Loving Empire embodies the truly handmade, collaborative spirit of Portland itself. “Our mission is to support artists, inspire our community and fulfill the people that work here,” says Brianne. “We love the things we sell … but the real thing that keeps us excited about our growth is the greater and greater impact we are having on all the artists involved. We have seen people quit their day jobs, hire employees and pay their rent due to the income they make through TLE.”

The Tender Loving Empire music label

Dedicated to supporting musicians from its earliest days, the Tender Loving Empire record label prides itself on being “artist-friendly.” Bigger labels — and even many indies — close the door on up-and-comers or make deals that leave bands in the red. In contrast, TLE offers artists fair percentages and keeps operations lean in order to pass along more profits to artists.

From hometown indie heroes Y La Bamba and Typhoon to legendary R&B revivalists Ural Thomas and the Pain, retrofuturist electro-soul band Chanti Darling and spoken word artist Andrea Gibson, TLE represents groups and solo acts from Portland as well as Oakland, Boise, Canada and San Francisco. Tender Loving Empire records are available at record stores internationally, carrying the spirit of the Pacific Northwest around the globe.

But at TLE, the love doesn’t stop at the house label’s artists. When you walk into a Tender Loving Empire store, house-produced records share shelf space with a curated collection of releases from Oregon and beyond. As Record Label Manager Aaron Meola explains, “We believe music is also handmade art, and TLE supports artists of all kinds, whether they’re on our label or bands we simply love.”

Tender Loving Empire’s All Together Festival

That love was on display at 2017’s All Together Festival, a five-day event celebrating Tender Loving Empire’s 10th anniversary. Festivities included in-store events and live music at venues across the city. In 2018, the fest returned in a slimmed-down format — a free, one-day patio party marking the release of TLE’s 11th annual Friends & Friends of Friends compilation. But Meola hints that we could see the return of a full-scale festival in the future. Fingers crossed.

Visiting Tender Loving Empire

From locally crafted leather goods and hand-blown glassware to quirky cards and top-notch Portland jewelry makers like Tiro Tiro and Minoux, TLE most certainly has something handmade to strike your fancy. Walk into a Tender Loving Empire shop in Downtown Portland’s West End, Southeast’s Hawthorne District, Northwest 23rd’s retail row or Portland International Airport, and you’ll likely overhear someone say, “Hey, my friend made this!” The retail shops also double as community event spaces, hosting maker tastings, vendor pop-ups, hands-on DIY classes and live music.

Tender Loving Empire offers thoughtful gifts and unique souvenirs—all tax-free, of course. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

Tender Loving Empire’s PDX airport store opened in Concourse D in 2017, offering a collection of handmade local products that stands out — even in the airport’s notably awesome retail landscape. Bridgeport Village, an outdoor shopping mall in Portland suburb Tigard became home to TLE’s largest shop yet in fall 2018. The space brings in more than 100 new vendors and offers an expansive music area, complete with comfy couches and three listening stations.

While some Portland companies are cautious about growth, the TLE team isn’t afraid of expansion. (In late 2018, in fact, TLE doubled the size of its downtown flagship store, located just two blocks away from Powell’s City of Books.) As Meola explains, “At the end of the day, we’re trying to support artists, and the bigger we get, the more we can do just that.”

Tender Loving Empire’s artist collaborations and incubation

Through every moment of their growth, TLE’s spirit of collaboration and community support has guided the company forward. In 2018, Tender Loving Empire launched the Artist Collab Series as a way to engage directly with artists.

“We picked five of our favorite vendors and got to co-create unique products with our friends that simply wouldn’t exist otherwise,” shares Marketing Manager Rachel Milbauer. Working closely with artists from Betsy & Iya, Upper Metal Class, The Far Woods, Penrose and Sissy Moon, the TLE team has created collections that capture Portland’s collaborative spirit , available exclusively at Tender Loving Empire stores.

Understanding that many artists get into it for the love of their craft and not necessarily for the love of marketing and sell sheets, TLE has taken on a new role over the past few years: mentoring new artists and creative businesses. “We accept product submissions from makers of all levels of experience, from brand new businesses to seasoned professionals,” says Lead Curator Ashley Vaughan. “Alongside showcasing and selling their handmade goods, we also host seminars and workshops on topics like how to pitch your products to stores, what retail buyers are looking for, and guidance on product design and presentation.”

At its heart, Tender Loving Empire preserves a truly special view of Portland. “In most of our stores, we have the words ‘You are part of this place’ in a mural, or in neon, because it’s true!” says Brianne. “When people spend their dollars in a conscious way, other people are positively impacted by those spending decisions. We see that in a real way every day.”

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