Interview with Berkeley-based fashion designer Cari Borja

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Kelly Puleio Photography/Courtesy

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The Bay Area may be known for liberal politics, an entrepreneurial spirit and hippies, but fashion doesn’t usually make the cut. Just ask Jake Wall, a co-founder of Artful Gentleman, a fashion company based in San Francisco. “Hopeful designers move to New York or LA for that,” he said in an interview with The Daily Californian last month. However, the Bay’s creative spirit is slowly changing the area’s reputation. Cari Borja, a Berkeley-based fashion designer who describes her work as “feminine,” “resilient” and “practical,” has recently been featured in a San Francisco Chronicle photo shoot and is collaborating with Wall on a runway show benefiting the San Francisco branch of the Human Rights Campaign. The Daily Cal spoke with Borja via email about her design inspiration, her involvement with the HRC and the intimacy the Bay provides for her fashion collections.

On her company’s Italian inspiration: I was finishing my Ph.D. in Anthropology and Film at Berkeley, and I was on my honeymoon in Italy after getting a sunrise wedding at Dogana (near Venice) … and we stayed with a friend in Sorrento who also had an island off the coast called Li Galli, (which) was known as the Island of the Sirens. During lunch one of those days, a friend asked if I wanted to be an academic for the rest of my life, and I said, “No, I want to make clothes for the sirens.” That was almost 13 years ago, and I have been making clothes ever since — mostly part-time, since I have two children, Royal, now 10, and August, now 7. I have been attempting to balance a family with my career, with much help from my husband Lloyd, who is a technical director at Pixar and has been the rock in our lives to allow me to continue to create new collections that I love.

On what Cari Borja Clothesmaker’s motto would be: “If you want to feel like a siren, you should look like one — clothes that create desire.” Something like that. I have a hard time with sayings that are short and sweet, like a motto should be.

On her involvement with the Human Rights Campaign: (My involvement began) through my friend Jake Wall. He and I first met at the SNOW runway show in January. Since then, we have collaborated on a photo shoot and, now, a show benefiting the Human Rights Campaign. The photo shoot was the key moment, though, when he decided to pull me into this idea he had of doing a bridal shoot that playfully mixed and matched our bride/grooms and ideas of marriage. I loved seeing Jake’s and the photographer Kelly’s ideas come to life in reinterpreting my gowns in such a clever way.

On the intersection between fashion and politics: I prefer to see what I do as political in the sense that my clothes make the women who wear them feel beautiful, powerful and confident in who they are in their bodies. That to me is political — empowering women to feel in control of who they are. This to me is the potential of fashion and what I love about the sensuality, fluidity and femininity of my clothes.

On nontraditionally working in the fashion industry in the Bay Area: Having my own business in somewhere (that is) not NYC or LA has allowed me to make it as I want it to be without feeling any pressure to be part of a fashion world or culture. I love how I can make my business in a more organic way and not have to necessarily do the market circuit, or show two collections a year, or have to deal with manufacturing and distribution. Living the way I do, in Oakland/Berkeley, has allowed me to be able to still create primarily one of a kind pieces that are still all made in-house in my studio on Fourth street in Berkeley. Each collection itself, as well as the designing and selling process, are very intimate and personal, which is exactly what I think is so special about each interaction with the fabric, design and client.

Contact Addy Bhasin at [email protected].