What Drives East Bay Fashion Designers?

This group of local garment makers lets personal philosophies of inclusive and socially conscious politics inform their clothing lines and ethical sourcing and manufacturing processes.


Photo by Melati Photography

Whether it’s fashioning genderless clothes or keeping a keen eye on ethical sourcing and manufacturing, the work of these designers is part and parcel of their personal politics — inclusive, socially conscious, and taking aim at the status quo.


Designers: Morgan Brown, Ron Eclarinal, Paige Ricks

The “unisex workwear” of fledgling Oakland brand DWNSTRS was founded by former co-workers who met at a San Francisco fashion startup — downstairs of course. They were frustrated by the unimaginative confines of the city’s fashion scene and wanted to challenge the “fast-fashion system,” which is dominated by fleeting trends and cheap materials. DWNSTRS crafts uniform-esque, limited-run clothing fashioned from reclaimed and American-made materials, using processes that are as minimally harmful to the planet as possible. The work not only blurs class and gender, but is also is designed to last through multiple seasons as well as serve a dynamic variety of bodies and personalities.

What sort of fabrics did you gravitate toward in designing this line — what role do they play in creating DWNSTRS?

We started with fabrics traditionally used in workwear garments and suiting, like canvas and twills. We then started adding reclaimed fabrics, diverting them from becoming landfill waste. We mix traditional fabrics with unexpected prints and materials, melding ideas of workwear and high fashion.

Some of your pieces boast big juicy asymmetrical pockets on them — can you talk about why?

With workwear comes practicality but also a design opportunity to be creative. The pockets were an ode to the mechanic suit and janitorial uniform, but also a point of differentiation from the market. We didn’t feel fashion needed another coverall, but instead an elevated and reinterpreted take on a classic. We hope to offer more opportunity for self-expression outside of, and within, the fairly monotone uniform construct.

Find the garments on DWNSTRSBrand.com or follow @dwsntrsbrand to find out more about an upcoming pop-up shop Dec. 1 at Standard Parts Studios, Oakland.


Designer: Yoshimi House

Founded by designer Yoshimi House in 2013, Snacku crafts lush, handcrafted, made-to-order lamb leather jackets. All the pelts are sourced from a nearby farm in Napa and sewn by a tiny team of skilled artisans in House’s “Squirrel Factory” in San Francisco. Each of House’s coats carries the painstaking and ancient craft of leather-working; each piece is designed to withstand the shifting shoals of fashion trends and defy the insatiable maw of consumerism that dominates most major fashion labels.

Just what’s so special about leather coats to you?

Leather runs very deep. I still have so much to explore, but I wanted a rule for my fashion. There’s a traditional poetry style in Japan called a haiku, and it’s strictly only three lines — totaling 17 syllables. But because of this restriction, each word has more weight and resonates beautifully. That’s the idea behind Snaku. The leather jacket is the “rule,” but my design ideas can explode within it.

What role does fashion play in being politically active?

Any good art should be related to politics. Good art should always be a rebel! The important thing to ask is, “Are you being honest? Is your voice authentic?” All artists — including fashion designers  — are like “mediums.” We translate what’s going on out there and embody it through our work.

What’s next on your creative horizons?

I want to make a “made in Tokyo” collection. There is this tiny, old factory in Japan that produces amazing leathers, but they told me their business is suffering because of the bad economy after the disaster and also globalization. I realized I could help preserve Japan’s great traditional craftsmanship; if I make a Tokyo collection, their craftsmanship would be renown in the U.S., and that might lead other designers to order leather from them. Fast fashion is the mainstream right now, but we need to fight that stream.

Find Snacku at SF-Snacku.com or follow @snack_u

photo by melati Photography

Ari in DWNSTRS office uniform paired with a leather grocery bag at the Articles of Interest launch party at Standard Parts Studio in Oakland.

Kali Made

Designer: Victor Kali

As a fourth-generation Bay Area denizen, Victor Kali means it when he says, “I’m from Oakland.” His fabrics are almost entirely sourced from vintage and deadstock fabric warehouses in LA’s Garment District or from Huston Textile Company out by Sacramento, and each and every garment — Kali designs an ever-evolving array of shirts, sports coats, and track suits — is sewn 15 minutes from his Oakland home. Kali Made couples the everyday with luxury, crafting limited-edition small-run collections — sometime designing only two or three of a particular piece — all aimed at being cherished instead of consumed. 

What relationship did you have to fashion growing up?

I wouldn’t consider myself particularly fashionable growing up, but clothing always had a way of making me feel more confident in my own skin. I loved dressing up in suits to go to church — I’m probably the only kid who ever felt that! It made me feel like I was good at something unique. I got more explicitly into fashion as a teenager, when I started to fully realize the power of garments as a tool for self-expression.

How do your politics intersect with the way you think about self-expression or design?

Obviously, there have been looks and uniforms that are intrinsically linked to political platforms (e.g., the Black Panthers), but on a personal level, I think encouraging people to express themselves through their garments means they might feel comfortable expressing their viewpoints and adding to the public discourse. It all comes down to how do we as a society accept and encourage (or discourage) dissent and different forms of expression, and fashion can be an immediate signifier of personal and political values. I strive for a state of radical inclusivity.

It’s not my place to tell people how they should look — all I can do is provide a little bit of beauty that I hope they can relate to and feel good about.

Find the clothes at KaliMade.com or follow @kalimade_garments


Designer: Isabelle M Le

Designer Isabelle Le’s clothes work as a kind of sartorial storytelling; each of her pieces — conceptual and wearable alike — read like a kind of fairytale, coupling together a variety of mediums from knitting and dyeing to print and embroidery with clever nods to history and modern art. Every piece Le creates is one-of-a-kind, handmade, and fashioned from vintage or industry leftover fabrics and natural dyes, impacting the environment as little as possible.

Can you talk about how color, texture, and fabric can help tell a story?

For me, color gives life and energy to a garment. I think the choice of color, fabric, and texture can dazzle the eye much like seeing a dance performance or watercolor painting. There is all this dimensionality to play with that creates movement within a garment. I want the viewer’s eyes to linger on a garment like they are reading a book and see that there is all this life if you look closely.

What role does fashion play in being politically active?

Fashion can be a performance, which means we have the potential to act each day we get dressed. “Stargarten” comes from my desire to return to a place of cherishing what the Earth or “garden” has given us and to remember that we all came from stars. I think if we all were more connected with nature and our own bodies, we would treat each other better and tread more gently on this planet.

Find Stargarten at Stargarten.com or follow @stargarten_studio

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