The Rise of Slow Fashion 

The Bay Area fashion scene has long been outshined by New York and LA. Now, a group of independent fashion supporters is trying to take the lead in sustainable fashion. Can they succeed?

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"Just from speaking to my friends in retail and the larger department stores and the chains, they're scared," said Kimberly Miller, the San Francisco editor of online shopping guide DailyCandy.com. "It's not just because of the economy. ... For the twentysomething female ... they would much prefer to spend their money on a lesser-known designer. ... In simple terms, in San Francisco it's all about being green and giving back; it's charity, it's your community."


A sense of community was the vibe emanating from the Fruitvale Transit Village one Friday evening in late September. A diverse group of fashionable women and men spilled out onto the sidewalk in East Oakland, while others sipped wine and listened to the drumming and singing of the Puerto Rican bomba dance group, Bomberas de la Bahia, inside an elegant, airy storefront. They were celebrating the grand opening of Made in Oakland (called m.i.o. for short), a new social venture nonprofit aimed at creating living-wage sewing jobs.

It's basically the antithesis of the fluorescent-lit, covered-window sweatshop. Funded by a $700,000 federal grant, the venture — in partnership with the nonprofit community development group the Unity Council — aims to spark a fundamental shift not only in the way fashion is made, but also how it's consumed.

Besides creating sixty to seventy jobs at an Embarcadero Cove facility that was renovated with green building materials, Made in Oakland also hopes to provide a place for independent designers to make samples and patterns, and do small runs. "I found that as an independent designer it was difficult to contract with local manufacturers without having to qualify with a minimum order," said Hiroko Kurihara, Made in Oakland's program manager, who also owns a socially responsible blanket and fashion accessories company. As a result, many designers contract with manufacturers outside of the area, or the country, where labor is cheaper but working standards are lower and shipping costs are higher.

"It seems like a one-stop place," said Desiree Salas, who attended the Made in Oakland opening. "They'll take your concept to production, which designers usually have to do on their own or find separate contractors, which is a lot of work."

To take a design from the drawing board to the hanger starts with the concept or development, then proceeds to sampling, fitting, pre-production, production, and, finally, delivery. The whole process can take about eight months to a year for a small designer. Keeping the pre-production and production steps in the Bay Area would not only inject dollars into the local economy, it also would diminish the industry's environmental impact.

Kurihara likens this philosophy to the Slow Food movement, which promotes regional diversity, sustainable agriculture, and artisanal foods. Similarly, her vision of slow fashion would take "green" consciousness to a whole new level. Not only would it promote the use of sustainable fabrics and nontoxic dyes, but also seek to transform consumerism into something sustainable and affordable — while still remaining high fashion.

Among Made in Oakland's other plans are to presort their waste products and have them reconstituted into new fibers and fabrics, which will become the basis of Made in Oakland's own product line. They're also looking at getting sewing machines that allow a sewer to stand, which are more ergonomically correct for the operator. Yoga will be part of the daily routine for the employees, Kurihara said, and Made in Oakland's location at the Fruitvale BART station will encourage public transportation.

But for slow fashion to truly have an impact, Kurihara knows it needs to be both accessible and competitive. "Do you spend $5 on a canvas bag that will fall apart, or $20 on a bag that will last?" Kurihara questioned. "As an industry we really have to address that. Otherwise it doesn't make much of an impact if only 1 or 2 percent of the population can afford the totally green option." How to solve that? Kurihara says they're considering allowing customers to lease-to-own Made in Oakland clothing items in much the same way that people now lease luxury automobiles.

Local entrepreneurs see Kurihara's venture serving another higher purpose. "I think what she's going to do is boost East Bay morale," said Salas, who now gets her sewing done in Alameda and plans to use Made in Oakland's services as well.

Made in Oakland's launch is just one of the many things helping to make the East Bay a more hospitable place for fashion. The area also has become fertile ground for indie designers and boutiques, thanks in large part to cheaper rent than San Francisco.

There's the eco-boutique Atomic Garden in Oakland and the Berkeley store Magnet, which carries indie designers and is part of the East Bay Style Collective. Oakland designer Amy Cools maintains an online list of designers, stores, events, and web sites dedicated to indie fashion called Afterglow's Guide to California Independent Shopping (ACClothingandBags.com/guideCAindie.html). Erin Kilmer Neel runs the shopping portal OaklandUnwrapped.com and launched the Oakland Indie Awards last year. Blog Fashion Forward – East Bay (FashionForwardEB.blogspot.com) promotes local businesses and events, paying special attention to vintage stores. Oakland jewelry designer Melissa Joy Manning and Cari Borja in Berkeley are blowing away the notion of the casual, unstylish East Bay.

"I am so thrilled by the energy in Oakland right now," said Kurihara. "I think it's finally hitting its stride. I almost don't want people to know about it."

Not that there isn't plenty of activity on the other side of the bay. There are eco-boutiques like Ladita and Clary Sage Organics; regular shopping events like Chillin' and Appel and Frank; blogs like SFIndieFashion.com devoted to indie shopping; sustainable fashion classes offered at CCA; the Fashion Industry Network at the SF Renaissance Entrepreneur Center that offers courses in helping indie designers (and which recently offered a class in the East Bay). There's also the Perma Couture Institute, which promotes sustainable textile and clothing manufacturing. DailyCandy's Kimberly Miller estimates that about 30 percent of the site's content now covers eco-friendly businesses.

All this is changing how the local fashion industry positions itself. The Innovative Fashion Council of San Francisco, which started with the purpose of creating a fashion district in the city, has since refocused on making it a green district. "My gut instinct was that we should focus on sustainability because that's our future," said Yetunde Schuhmann, the council's founder and executive director. The nonprofit holds regular networking events with guest speakers on topics like sustainable textiles and using plant-based nontoxic dyes.

With all this surging interest in indie fashion, Oaklander Letitia Ntofon decided to gather as much info as she could into a forthcoming book called The Bay Area Guide to Independent Fashion. "I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people have woke up to the whole 'we don't want to do this corporate thing,'" said Ntofon, who used to own the Ghetto Flowers boutique in East Oakland. "We don't want to work for anybody; we want to work for ourselves."

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