For some designers, their calling is crystal clear from the moment they sit in front of a sewing machine or pick up a pencil and draw their first sketch. And then there is Jeff Oakes, a San Francisco designer who almost accidentally stumbled upon his now-blossoming career producing hand-printed and woven scarves, totes and home accessories with a socially-responsible twist.
Some may call it a happy accident, others fate, but after a chance encounter with a weaver during a trip to India, Oakes had a literal “a ha!” moment. Launching a company focused on ethically-produced, woven textiles made by artisans from at-risk communities around the world would satisfy both his interest in social responsibility and his love for textile design.
With an extensive background in the corporate retail and the design industry (he’s an alum of Gap Inc.) and a degree from San Francisco’s Apparel Arts under his belt, Oakes opened his design studio in 2008.
His goal? To create ethically-made luxury products that support and promote artisan entrepreneurs through a variety of educational projects designed to encourage creativity and improve their skills. Oakes hopes to preserve the artistic heritage of multiple at-risk communities by working with artisans in places such as India’s village of Bagh in Madhya Pradesh, as well as rural southeast Rajasthan and New Delhi.
We caught up with Oakes to discuss his transition from the corporate world to social entrepreneur, his designs, life in San Francisco and what the future holds.
So, prior to starting Jeff Oakes design you were working as an architect. Why did you decide to make the transition and start your own line?
The short answer is “ by accident.”
The more complicated answer is that starting my own line happened over a period of time. At the end of 2007, I was on a quest to see how I might parlay my experiences as an architect and corporate retail executive into playing with textiles.
I was on my first visit to India and by sheer chance I was introduced to an accomplished weaver. He brought me to his village in rural southeast Rajasthan. I literally had an “ah ha!” moment as he was showing me the entire process of making cloth. I knew instantly that I had found a team to begin designing and producing textile products.
When I got back to SF, I enrolled at Apparel Arts to learn apparel construction techniques and the language of the business. Almost two years later, I met and started working with a fantastic business coach assigned to me through the SF Small Business Council. Together we honed my business plan, developed two five-year financial models, a short-term and long-term web strategy and put a launch date on the calendar.
What kind of woman wears Jeff Oakes designs? Can you describe her?
Almost all of my clients are genuinely interested in how a design was inspired and executed. They often will be looking for unique or limited-edition designs to gift or to compliment wardrobes they have built over a lifetime. I would describe her as a well read and confident woman.
What types of designs are you drawn to when creating pieces for your line? What and where do you draw inspiration from?
Inspiration? This is the easy part. It’s all around me – literature, dance, music, parks, travel, my dog Kate, architecture, antique textiles, sculpture, museum exhibits, the weather – it’s endless. The challenge for any designer is in the “editing” of all the ideas and questions that come into your head. Once you have a clear idea and clear parameters – the decisions you make in developing a product go pretty quickly.
The final pieces for a collection are always informed by the final output of the R&D phase of the process. The weave, fiber content, the hand, the weight of the cloth, the prints, the color will dictate if something should be scarf, a wrap, a top, skirt or pant. I let the magic of the concept and process meld and influence the collection we present. Having said all this, I do enjoy designing accessories, scarves, wraps and bags.
What are your favorite materials to work with?
My current favorite fiber to work with is wild silk from India.
The silk often comes from the forests in rural and very poor areas in the northeast. Tribes people steward these forests and process the silk to supplement their incomes. Being that the worms are exposed to all the elements, when processed the sheen, texture and color of the fibers are much more interesting to me than farm-raised and the finely spun silks.
When you’re not designing and creating, what else do you do?
I am paraphrasing a mentor of mine: “you don’t decide you are going to be a designer on Thursdays at 2:00 pm. The line between life and work is always blurred. Through the process of discovery, each is always informing the other.”
I think this is true. I read a lot, and, by design, I travel quite a bit. Observing people, especially in city squares, is a favorite pastime, so is cooking and playing with my dog Kate. OK – I admit it – playing with Kate may not be related to design. She simply reminds me to stay present and to live joyfully.
Tell us some of your favorite shops in San Francisco? What are your go-to spots to find indie apparel and designers?
MAC on Grove Street. The owners Chris and Ben present a wonderful point of view of the industry. I live in the heart of Hayes Valley, so I don’t have to go very far to find great indie designs and designers.
What inspired you to start your own line?
I can think of many. One of them is reading a lot of biographies of successful businesses and creative people. The most recent book I read is by Barbara Corcoran, SHARK TALES. She writes about how her mom and dad influenced her approach to her life and work: working smart, using common sense, having integrity and surrounding yourself with the best people to help you be successful.
At the end of the day you have to trust yourself and understand you don’t have to do it alone or know all the answers.
How would you describe the Jeff Oakes aesthetic?
I would describe my aesthetic as modernist. However, you wouldn’t always see that looking at my products.
Where can we find your designs?
You can find my designs at The Gardener in Berkeley and at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Rubicon and the Vine House at Beringer Estate Winery up in the Napa Valley. By appointment, you can visit and shop in my studio in the Mission.
What new and exciting things are you working on at Jeff Oakes design?
Currently we are working designs that are inspired our study of rain, fog and mist. We’re looking at how these elements are expressed in literature, architecture and music as a way to express pattern, color and texture in cloth.
For Spring/Summer 2012 I will be introducing new home products, including cool retro hand-woven cotton throws, a line of hand-woven and printed table linens. I will also introduce my first collection of women’s tunics.
Photography courtesy of Jeff Oakes