Gifts from Oaklandish give back

While the pandemic will force the reinvention of many holiday traditions this year, gift-giving will persist. But before you start speed-scrolling Amazon’s virtual aisles for perfect presents, take a socially-distanced breath and consider this proposition from Oaklandish, Oakland’s 20-year-old apparel brand and social experiment in culture-keeping, community-building, and promotion of civic pride.

“Buy gifts that mean something, and more importantly, buy and give gifts that give back,” says Oaklandish CEO Angela Tsay, adding, “We believe we have some to offer.”

Gifts from Oaklandish, ranging from their signature tees, hoodies, and snapbacks printed with a spreading-crown-and-roots oak tree to their already-sold-out branded dominoes and doormats, will help you give back in ways that are layered, multiple, and—in the current moment—vital.

Buying right now from any local business, large or small, helps keep neighbors employed and sends sales taxes into our towns’ coffers, which are unusually depleted due to pandemic-related expenses. Simply shopping locally, even from the most conglomerate stores, is a form of giving back this holiday season.

Buying from small independent businesses—say, Oaktown Spice Shop or Umami Mart, among the many unusual establishments that enliven the East Bay retail scene—takes your “giving back” a step further: It helps sustain special places that contribute to our region’s unique character. This could be especially true this December, a potential make-or-break month for stores that have been financially walloped by 2020’s weeks of pandemic closures plus months of low-traffic shopping.

Buying from small independent businesses that feature the work of local artists and artisans, such as Oakland’s Bay-Made or Crown Nine jewelers, helps make it possible for the makers and creators who fill those shops with high-touch goods to continue to live, work, and share their creativity in our towns.

Buying from Oaklandish confers all of these give-back benefits, and more.

While the Oaklandish “empire” now consists of four stores—two Oaklandish shops, in downtown Oakland and the Dimond district; and sister emporiums Bosk (offering streetwear at Bay Street in Emeryville) and Oakland Supply Co. (showcasing American-made goods on the waterfront at Jack London Square)—it is still very much a small, independent business that prominently features the work of Bay Area artists.

Angela Tsay’s ex-partner Jeff Hull launched Oaklandish in 2000 as a guerilla art project that aimed to make Oakland’s history and culture visible—literally. Hull projected slideshows of Oakland’s historical figures and rebel saints onto the sides of landmark buildings such as the Grand Lake Theater, and plastered wheat-paste posters of local notables (Isadora Duncan, Bruce Lee, Calvin Simmons, “Lil’ Bobby” Hutton) all over town.

The current version of Oaklandish, which Tsay calls “the second incarnation,” leverages apparel to showcase Oakland’s special features, and to support local nonprofits. “Both iterations recognize that history shapes us,” Tsay says. “Both try to stand in the face of the erasure of this special place.”

Sales of a huge number of Oaklandish products directly financially benefit key Oakland nonprofits: Alameda County Food Bank, Children’s Fairyland, the Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland Feather River Camp, the Oakland Museum of California, the Oakland Zoo, and others. Oaklandish also offers free design services and marketing support to smaller grassroots organizations that are, in Tsay’s words, “doing the work of uplifting Oakland.” Giving gifts from Oaklandish supports an ecosystem of local institutions that serve our community.

Beyond all that, gifts from Oaklandish do something enormously important to a city that is still sometimes diminished as San Francisco’s lesser sibling or vilified by misapplication of Gertrude Stein’s sorrowful epitaph for her lost childhood neighborhood, “There is no there there.” Oaklandish gear taps into and wildly amplifies Oaklander’s deep sense of place and hometown pride. Gifts from Oaklandish give back by building community and bridging societal divides.

“People who don’t know Oakland can have such a weird perception of this place,” says Jennifer Wong. Wong and her husband are the adult brains (and parents) behind wunderkind entrepreneurs Brianna (age 10) and Ashley (age 7) Wong of duck+chick, Oakland-based makers and purveyors of leather accessories, and newish Oaklandish collaborators. Duck+chick have a line of leather coasters that feature and fiscally support Oakland’s anchor cultural organizations; the first drop at Oaklandish in September sold out in a week. “But when you’re part of this community and you know what a gem this city is,” Wong continues, “it’s a joy and honor to wear a shirt that shows you’re proud of where you’re from. Angela and Oaklandish help people literally see one another, and see one another sharing in city pride.”

Oakland-born artist, poet, and model Justyce Key agrees. “There’s nothing better than feeling you belong,” he says. “When you wear Oaklandish gear, you have that sense of being a part of a community.”

This couldn’t happen unless the goods Oaklandish offers appeal to multiple generations and people from a wide variety of backgrounds. They do.

Oaklandish stores stock a constantly refreshed stream of bright, creative, screen-printed apparel and accessories for adults and kids. The company’s collaborations with local artists and organizations give rise to designs celebrating aspects of Oakland as diverse as Laney College’s football team (which garnered recent national attention when it was featured in a season of Netflix’s Last Chance U series), female muralists and graffiti artists (such as DJ Agana), the local history podcast East Bay Yesterday, and Oakland’s 18-month-old professional soccer team, Oakland Roots Sports Club.

The Oakland Roots, an unusually purpose-driven team with a devotion to local culture, were thrilled to partner with Oaklandish to produce and sell team merchandise. The result has been such a success that the still-new Roots are already in the top three United Soccer League teams in merchandise sales.

“I meet people in the streets who are wearing our gear and don’t even know that the Roots are a soccer team,” says Roots co-founder and chief marketing office Edreece Afghandiwal. “That makes me completely happy. The colors and crest represent pride in Oakland and that’s what matters.”

Kymberly Miller, Executive Director of longtime Oaklandish collaborator Children’s Fairyland, sums up Oaklandish’s appeal this way. “Oaklandish is Oakland in high relief,” she says. “Angela is deep in the weeds of what’s going on here. She sees all the things and people and artists and trends that are truly of this place. What Oaklandish creates is authentic. People embrace that.”

While rising Covid case numbers may squash in-store visits this holiday season, it’s still possible to shop locally. Oaklandish has robustly enhanced its online presence, as have many other local retailers. A new online aggregator of independent shops called Keep Oakland Alive, which launched in September, features 30 local shops and offers free contactless delivery within Oakland.

However and wherever you shop for gifts this year, consider Tsay’s plea for conscious consumption. “There are so many people and groups who may not make it through this pandemic,” says Tsay. “Our choices can make a difference in that.”

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