Shock & Awe on the Runway 

The shock: Oakland has a fashion scene; the awe: It's pretty groovy.

In a dimly lit industrial space south of Market, a big San Francisco crowd is waiting for Oakland to strut its stuff. The ceilings high above are cobwebbed with green networking cables from the place's dot-com days, while the floor below is packed with a thousand or so professional types in their twenties and thirties. They mingle about sipping free wine, soaking up mellow house beats, and eyeing the backlit black curtain leading to the space's three catwalks.

They're set for a rare treat. The fashion world, after all, views even San Francisco as Siberia. As for Oakland, it's not even on the map. That's just one of the reasons two local designers, Tilden Yamamoto and Barrie Brouse, teamed up fifteen months ago to start the Oaktown Stitchdown, which has since evolved into a thirteen-designer East Bay fashion guild. Tonight's garden-themed show, "Growtesque," is their first outside their hometown, and it's all about representin'.

Behind the curtain, the backstage is alive with the repressed energy of a shaken champagne bottle. Brick-walled executive offices have been transformed into dressing rooms with racks of clothes and fabric steamers, and a conference room has been commandeered as hair and makeup headquarters. Stage manager Ginny Kleker, clad in a red polka-dot dress, weaves among the thirteen frenzied designers and their 39 models, offering red wine to tame the nerves. "Can I steam the clothes on her?" designer Stefanie Charren calls out to anyone within earshot, glancing up from a rack of her sateen hip-huggers and chiffon numbers. "Oh, no!" gasps Jocelyn Whipple in her British accent, laughing through a mouthful of pins as she fits a floral embroidered hemp gown -- part of her eco-fashionable "Damask" line -- to a Rubenesque model.

Across the way, the coterie of Kiki Stash is sporting the designer's zigzag stretch shirts, snappy, Coney Island-style pants, and over-the-top punk hairdos, while the dreadlocked Yamamoto and his biz-partner Brouse -- their fledgling company is called En Route Apparel -- fit a male model with an angular army-green jacket trimmed in orange neon.

The eclectic parade of models, designers, and jesters that conga-lines through the curtains an hour later elevates the crowd from mellow to rowdy. Clowns, courtesy of Oakland comedy troupe Lunchboxing, keep the lanes open between platforms while the models maneuver through the crowd, attaching fabric scraps from the designers' workspaces to the onlookers. The audience loved it -- not that they'll be wearing these creations anytime soon.

Oaktown Stitchdown was born in December of '01, when Yamamoto and Brouse, longtime friends from Humboldt State and SF's Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, dreamed it up over cocktails at Radio Bar, the downtown Oakland watering hole where Yamamoto pours drinks. "We wanted to form a group of working designers and novices with the interest of showcasing local talent with varying degrees of experience and style," says Brouse, who's wearing a garnet velvet blazer bejeweled with an antique brooch. "The original idea was simply to open a venue for designers of all calibers to be able to experiment."

In the ensuing months, Radio's basement became the Stitchdown's boardroom, and the bar its runway. The collective started out as a think tank for the edgy-but-mathematical outfits of En Route Apparel, but quickly expanded to include other local designers. Members meet every Thursday night at Radio, where they plant themselves on Budweiser boxes and rusty chairs, sharing ideas on how to further their mission: "to help rejuvenate Oakland's long legacy in the arts, promote local designers, and inspire others to find their own expression in our urban panorama," according to the group's get-to-know-us pamphlet.

"The way it's happened is so uncontrived, but it's just blossomed," says Whipple, a 25-year-old working designer who chatted up the bartender one evening, only to find herself showing last May in the Stitchdown's second show at Radio, aptly titled "Burning the Midnight Oil."

Charren, a 31-year-old Spaniard who moved to Oakland two years ago, had a similar experience: "I walked into Radio when OS was having their second or third show, had been thinking about learning to sew and design clothes, and after a few drinks introduced myself as an aspiring designer." Key word: aspiring. But Charren found herself a 1960s sewing machine and got to work; she's now the group's hypemistress.

Last September, the Stitchdown staged a more ambitious show, "Oaktopia," at the Alice Arts Center, just blocks from the group's alcohol-logged downtown headquarters. It incorporated projected visuals, DJs, and runway walks for a crowd of five hundred. That set the stage for large-scale collaborations with other art collectives -- "Growtesque" was the fashion component of a multimedia arts event called Platform, staged by SF production company Plado Media. Most recently, Brouse, Yamamoto, Whipple, Charren, and Stash put on a private fashion show at the Oakland Museum to accompany a preview of its current exhibition, Iconic to Ironic: Fashioning California Identity. This Saturday, five Stitchdown designers take part in Platform's one-year anniversary show in San Francisco.

While these fashion shows are by necessity collective efforts, the Stitchdown isn't about pushing any particular look. "In terms of aesthetic, we are a very diverse group with no set policies on what's acceptable or trendy," Whipple says. "Each designer is totally free to create their own aesthetic, which is embraced by the collective."

And yet, collectively, the group manages to exude an East Bay sensibility that a fashion critic might call gritty glitz. Consider Stash's metal belt buckles, Whipple's hand-dyed, sea-green neo-Renaissance blouse, and Erica Varize's fetish for vintage ties. "When you come to an OS show, you know that you will see something unpolished, an element of unpredictability that engages the audience even more," Charren explains.

Brouse believes En Route's designs are also informed by an Oakland aesthetic. "The city directly influences our urban edge and realness," she says. "We combine new, stylized designs with classic tailoring techniques to give our clothing a unique and modern appeal."

Spoken like a spokeswoman. Yet in the meantime, none of the Stitchdown's designers have quit their day jobs. Charren, a contract manager for IBM, doesn't necessarily want to be a pro -- this is her social hobby. Kiki Stash, however, has haute ambitions, not to mention a perfect designer moniker. "My day job is my fashion aspiration," she says.

Brouse and Yamamoto aspire to be concept-makers for industrial design groups. They've already scored such work on several occasions, designing the prototype of a futuristic all-weather suit for Nike and a biofeedback suit for NASA.

As for Whipple, whose motto "roots to rags to racks" reflects her idealism, if she had any clout, she'd like to compel the garment industry to change its wicked ways. Sourcing sustainable hemp and silk fabrics from Asia, the Bay Area-born half-Brit constructs couture pieces at home on her industrial sewing machine. "I would always suggest that a potential contract facility be toured during working hours before contracting services," she says. "I am very much aware of the substandard facilities and dubious and illegal practices in terms of hours and pay rates in the Bay Area because I've done extensive research, worked in a garment factory, and there are many 'cut and sew' contractors in my neighborhood, 14th and Alice."

Stash, too, is aware of the Oakland sweatshops, but makes a point never to visit them. She sews her own lines, while lamenting the homogeneity of mass-produced clothing: "They are just crunched out uniformly with no recognition of good ol' T&A," she says.

Oakland's fledgling fashion guild is unlikely to change the practices of the fashion world anytime soon. Fortunately, however, the designers have simpler aspirations for the Stitchdown itself. Charren sums it up best: "I hope we keep inspiring others and making people smile, and surprising them -- and ourselves."

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