Clothing the East

Across the pond from the trendy West Bay, indigenous fashion flourishes.

It’s not all about flip-flops and sweats. Honest. The East Bay isn’t known for being fashion-forward, but in the interstices between the Gap and vintage stores, talented local fashion designers thrive. They set up shop here instead of New York, Los Angeles, or even San Francisco because they find inspiration and creative sustenance in the way we live, and they’re helping define a style that suits the light and heat and individuality of our side of the bay.

Drunk with Color

Andrea Serrahn turned her backpacker’s fascination with the colors and textures of India into a business that connects Indian weavers, dyers, and tailors with American women who crave a bit of Bollywood in their everyday lives.

Her network of artisans uses traditional techniques like hand-cut block printing and bandhini tie-and-dye with natural colorants to produce rich silks, cottons, and rayons that combine Serrahn’s designs with traditional patterns. They sew these fabrics into garments with sensuous drape and flutter, as though ten thousand iridescent butterflies had descended on her Rockridge shop, Serrahna.

Serrahn’s line includes pants, skirts, shells, shirts, vests, jackets, and scarves that can be layered for a folkloric look or simply paired for a more structured effect. One ensemble in the window of her College Avenue storefront began with slate-gray reversible wrap pants based on a style worn by Thai fishermen. The designer refined the fit and added details such as a split cuff closed with a bow. The pants are lined with a chocolate-brown fabric with thin woven stripes of silver and black; the lining shows above the wrap belt, where the loose fabric bunches into a petal-like flounce. It’s topped with a shirt made from hand-loomed Bengali cotton brocaded in white and gray. A light violet shrug that ties in front completes the fascinatingly unmatched look she favors.

Her palette is slightly toned down from India’s brightest hues, but she finds her clients aren’t afraid of color, unlike their drably attired San Francisco sisters. “I think of color as a drug,” Serrahn says. “I need a color fix in the morning.”

The Constructivist

Jinjer Markley creates custom clothing in a large studio in Oakland’s newly chic warehouse district, although her atelier is in one of the more shabby original buildings. The low-key, functional surroundings suit her approach, which may require multiple sketches, patterns, and adjustments to get the fit and drape she’s looking for.

Markley says her label, Asarum, is firmly centered on the East Bay aesthetic: “In San Francisco, at the underground trunk shows, the aesthetic is overwhelmingly grunged-out and deconstructed. It’s a look I don’t go for. My stuff tends to be cleaner and more constructed, and East Bay people are more into that.”

Most Asarum items are designed for specific customers, and Markley takes pride in carefully shaping the lines to suit an individual body. There’s serious tailoring underlying even seemingly loose pieces. For example, a fuchsia and gold dupioni silk dancer’s costume with a multilayered petal skirt seems as loosely constructed as a flower, but, she says, “I had all these sneaky tricks so it would fall the right way and stay on while she was dancing.”

These techniques are illustrated by the dress she’s wearing, a ruby-red slip-on that she makes with variations as ready-to-wear. The fabric is a soft synthetic with a suede finish. Several rectangular pieces are sewn together, leaving a slit in front and a draped opening in the back. It’s slinky yet ultramodern, hugging her curves without gaping or sliding. “Even if it’s an outlandish design,” she says, “there will be a lot of other elements that are about practicality.”

Form Follows Fabric

Carol Lee Shanks includes plenty of black in her line, because it’s a sure seller, but she always sprinkles a collection with jewel tones to attract the eye. Her latest line focuses on the yellow-green of ginkgo leaves in lightweight wool jackets, tunics, and vests. They can be paired with black, gray, white, and cream in a variety of unusual fabrics from around the world.

Shanks has made unique and limited-edition apparel in Berkeley since the early 1980s under the name Lee Lee Lee. She favors geometric cuts that play up the qualities of natural fabrics. “For me, it’s about the materials,” she says. “They inform the way I work.” In her sunny upstairs studio recently, she was hand-sewing raffia trim onto a squarish African mud-cloth pullover. Small buttons hand-cut from ostrich eggshells emphasized pockets and seams.

Shanks, whose fiber art is shown in galleries and museums, does all the work herself, often manipulating the fabric. To create an ethereal ensemble, she took silk still stiff with sericin, a protein coating on the fibers that is usually removed, and skewered it into tight gathers to make a clingy tube skirt with a regular pattern of tiny holes. For the oversize, long-sleeved top, she tightly sewed irregular patterns into sericin-coated silk georgette, discharged the coating, then removed the stitches, leaving a pattern of tiny ridges where the sewing was.

These designers say this kind of craft is an element that differentiates East Bay clothing design from West Bay. Not craft as in an artsy-craftsy homespun look, but rather in attention to details such as the tiny square of reinforcing material Markley sews into the seam between two layers of jersey in her slit dress. It’s telling, both she and Shanks said, how the Oakland-born California College of Arts and Crafts dropped the “crafts” from its name when it moved to San Francisco. “In San Francisco, craft clearly does not belong in art,” Markley says. “In the East Bay, it does. When you have a clearly defined technique or craft element in your work, that’s appreciated here.”

There’s a practical streak here, too. Everything Shanks makes is washable, for example. “People here are more funky, more casual,” she says. “They want to be able to wear a piece over and over, not just for special occasions.”

Markley concurs: “East Bay people care more about whether this garment will have a lifespan. Am I going to be able to find a place to wear it and not be worried about it falling apart?”

Far from feeling they’re in a fashion backwater, these three designers say living here lets them thrive personally as well as professionally. “In Oakland, particularly, there’s very much a work ethic that’s missing in San Francisco,” Markley says. “It’s more inspiring to be surrounded by people who are really competent rather than flashy.”

Serrahn speaks for a lot of East Bay women when she says, “I’m finding my comfort zone in not having to wear black and spike heels. I can be more playful in my look. We can create an alternative.” These three designers certainly do that.

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