Local designer Maya Epler melds ethics and style

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Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

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Retail therapy has long been a panacea for stress; with fast fashion and Internet shopping, it has become easier than ever to impulse buy a lion’s share of everything from Chelsea boots to bomber jackets. A dark truth, both labor-wise and with respect to the environment, belies much of today’s fast fashion, however. Among a small faction working against unethically sourced and created clothing is local designer Maya Epler.

Originally from Israel, Epler moved to Berkeley a little over a year ago. She works out of a home studio where she custom sews almost every piece herself, which she sells on Etsy. Epler’s designs draw from a wide slate of inspirations; the host of rich textures she works with provides a canvas for distinct blends of such diverse styles as Japanese gothic and French mod.

Given the eclecticism of her styles, Epler’s artistic idols are not necessarily all from the fashion industry; an avid music fan, she also channels the late great David Bowie in her work, with which she aspires to eliminate the gender binary as much as possible: “The fact that he’s really playing with roles is amazing. I love it.” Fashion-wise, too, she looks up to the styles of the time periods that pushed the aesthetic envelope, namely “the more rebellious periods like the ‘20s and ‘60s.” Her influences and devotion to unique textures are clear in her pieces, such as a quilted brocade jacket refashioned out of baby blanket material and a tangibly mod polka dot-patterned top with a square silhouette subtly reminiscent of Jazz Age flappers.

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Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Epler’s background in fashion has been long and varied. She actually cites closet-raiding as one of her earliest forays into fashion, recalling with amusement her grandmother’s clothes finding their way into her everyday look in high school. For example, she would often pair vintage French combinaisons, or dress slips, with pants for a fresh, unique signature style. That her casual, precocious dalliances in attire would result in an outfit so ahead of its time was an early indicator of the one-of-a-kind designs Epler would later craft professionally.

Fashion hasn’t always been her only path. “I have a BA in therapy,” said Epler. “I always say I have two big passions: I really like to work with people, but I also love to create.” Epler moved to France after earning her degree, and it was here that she first began to hone her second passion. “I worked with secondhand originals. I used to look for them, repair them, and sell them.” Returning to Israel afterwards, she studied fashion in Tel Aviv for three years.

Also stemming from early in her life is Epler’s passion for environmentalism, inspiring her to deal exclusively in vegan, humanely produced eco-fabrics. She credits her veganism with a photography gig she took on when she was nineteen, when she witnessed the animal cruelty rampant in the meat and dairy industries firsthand: “It’s far from our eyes, but it’s happening.” These images led Epler to embrace veganism both in her own diet and in the studio.

As expected, the path of ethical fashion has presented its number of roadblocks, especially in the relatively higher prices of pieces made from high quality eco-fabrics. “What I learned is that, with the big corporations, when you’re trying to save money, you are exploiting more,” Epler explained. “It’s happening with animals, it’s happening with fabrics, with the people you’re working with or who are working for you.” To Epler, as with many other ethical fashion designers, finding a way to sidestep this serial exploitation is worth the higher price for materials.

        Epler does recognize that ethical fashion can sometimes be outside of many people’s budgets and lamented the fact that these relatively more expensive designs are sometimes less accessible. There are still ways to combat harmful industrial practices; for example, she emphasizes the importance of knowing the source of clothes in order to avoid purchasing clothes produced in sweatshops as is often the case with fast fashion. To Epler, just this small step can be of help.

“People don’t realize how much influence they have when they purchase something, but it’s so powerful to understand that,” she said. “When you put money into something, just have a little bit of thought, and you can make a difference.”

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].

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