Jennifer Lynne grew up in an extraordinarily artistic household, so it wasn't surprising that she chose fashion design as her career. Raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, Lynne designed and sold her first item — a reversible off-shoulder shirt — to a friend in eighth grade. She eventually went to fashion school in New York, where big-name designers like Anna Sui would speak to her class about the rigors of making it in the notoriously cutthroat fashion industry. But, unlike most of her peers, Lynne wanted to set out on her own.
After relocating to San Francisco six years ago, Lynne decided to start her own line. She chose lingerie because she wanted to do something completely different. Her first collection of Porcelynne lingerie was ambitious: about ten or twelve designs, all silk and hand-painted. But it also was a total failure; she didn't sell one piece and ended up losing about $25,000.
It could easily have ended her career. But instead, Lynne went back to the drawing board. She chose a single design — a lace-up boy-short — in lace fabric. She sold her product through trunk shows, at co-op stores like RAG in San Francisco, and at bazaar-like shopping events such as Chillin'. Little by little, as she learned more about the business and developed a clientele, her collection expanded to include yoga pants, stretchy camisoles, thong underwear, and a new line of underwear in bamboo fabric. Now, Lynne, who recently relocated her studio to Oakland's Chinatown, finally has something resembling a viable business.
"I honestly think that this is the best time to be a designer, because the big companies aren't doing that great and people are shopping local," said Lynne, a five-foot-ten-inch blond with Betty Page bangs. "I don't think I would be surviving if it wasn't for the local support."
Like many Bay Area designers, Lynne is finding success doing small runs and using green, eco-friendly materials. It's a concept that's been around for a while but is now exploding in the Bay Area, where eco-consciousness is no longer a trend but a way of life, and where independent-minded entrepreneurs have more cachet than trendy global brands.
It's also a shift that could spell major changes for the Bay Area's position in the fashion world. San Francisco's fashion scene has long been overshadowed by New York and Los Angeles, and attempts to legitimize the region as a fashion center have been slow-going, especially after the cancellation of San Francisco Fashion Week this year. But now, an active group of designers and supporters of local, sustainable fashion are hoping to coalesce this disjointed scene into something cohesive and cutting-edge that could not only put the Bay Area on the fashion map, but help it lead the way in the burgeoning world of slow fashion.
If only it were as easy as it sounds.
When San Francisco Fashion Week was canceled this year due to financial reasons, many viewed it as a step back for a fashion scene that has struggled to assert itself.
Although the Bay Area has never come close to rivaling New York or Los Angeles, it does have its share of industry standards. Levi's, Gap, and the children's company Gymboree all are based locally, as are respected fashion programs such as the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and the Academy of Art University.
A big part of the problem is the lack of resources here — such as production factories and fashion weeks that attract buyers. "That's the big downfall," said Desiree Salas, an Oakland fashion designer who's been in the business for thirteen years. The absence of resources, coupled with the high cost of living here, explains why many Bay Area designers feel they need to move out of the area to achieve success. Erin Featherston and Alexander Wang, who both relocated to New York, are now household names in the industry. Only a few, like Erica Tanov, stayed in the area and still managed to establish a reputation.
Another contributing factor is the style preference of local consumers. Bay Area folk are notoriously casual, which is why stores such as REI, Title Nine, and the yoga-clothing line Lululemon seem to be just as popular — if not more so — than, say, Barney's or Saks Fifth Avenue.
Yet the same qualities that make the Bay Area tough for the fashion industry also help make it a haven for the independent design scene. "What I've found is that the uniqueness of the Bay Area allows artists to be extremely creative here outside of the fashion market," explained Cicely Sweed, curator of public programs at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, who's been working in fashion for sixteen years.
Increasingly, that independent spirit has lent itself to the emerging green fashion biz. Indie designers here don't have to produce on such a large scale, says Sweed. "Probably out of necessity and resources, they have come up with these more sustainable practices and are now setting a precedent for the nation and the world for what the sustainable practice looks like," she said.
After all, conscientious consumers no longer just want to buy something locally made, but also want more detailed information on how a product comes to be. "The consumer almost wants a personal relationship," said Salas, referring to her face-to-face talks with customers when she sells her cotton wrap dresses at trunk shows. Among their questions: Where is it produced? Who's sewing it? Can they get something specially made?
It's a phenomenon that seems to be centered in — but certainly not limited to — the Bay Area. "When we go to ... these big trade shows, a lot of times the buyers that come through don't give a rat's tail who you're giving to, they just wanna know if they put it on a mannequin next week will it sell," mused Erica Varize, who operates her custom-fit boutique, Evarize Fashion Cafe, in West Berkeley, and donates a portion of her sales to a school in Uganda. "Folks out here wanna know, oh, where did you make it, who are you giving back to, who are you loving through your business?"
As a result, some shoppers aren't hitting the malls anymore, or looking to so-called "fast fashion" retailers for their clothes and accessories. And the recession isn't helping matters. Hayward-based Mervyns recently announced it was closing its stores after filing for bankruptcy, and Pleasanton-based Ross Dress for Less also has seen its sales tumble.