Last April, fashion designer Hiroko Kurihara walked by 477 25th Street in Oakland as a realtor and was showing it to a prospective renter. She peeked in, saw paint peeling off of gorgeous brick walls of the former auto glass warehouse, and fell in love. She knew this was the home for the collective she envisioned—an incubator where several small businesses would work in a cooperative, sustainably minded environment.
Today, Kurihara is building the 25th Street Collective step by step—recruiting other entrepreneurs to share the space with her brand, making improvements to the interior, and fundraising on the collective’s web site. The collective will allow businesses to share space, resources, employees and feedback from fellow artisans.
Her brand, hiroko kurihara designs, focuses on sustainable fabrics, sewn almost entirely by Kurihara herself into blankets, shawls and other cozy items like fingerless wool “glovettes.” Retailers in the area carry Kurihara’s scarves, while her blankets are for sale online. She also runs what she calls a blanket shares project—for every blanket she sells, Kurihara donates one to someone in need.
Her acts of charity have a local bent to them. “If you’re living in San Francisco and you buy something in San Francisco, then the shelter that I donate to is in San Francisco,” said Kurihara. “And the same goes for any other city.”
A few of the other businesses currently on board are Two Mile Wines, an urban vintner; Global Action Through Fashion, a non-profit aiming to enact social justice by educating consumers and manufacturers on sustainable practices and labor issues; fashion label Platinum Dirt; and COLE Coffee, which will soon set up a satellite vendor in the 25th Street space.
What do these businesses, and the ones Kurihara is looking to recruit, have in common? They all either work in slow food, a movement focused on preserving traditional food and sourcing food locally, or what’s now being dubbed “slow fashion.”
“Slow-fashion to me is something that is artisanal. It’s something that’s one- or some-of-a-kind, local, sewn responsibly, and sourced responsibly,” said Kurihara, sitting behind a sewing machine at the collective on a rainy Thursday. She has intelligent eyes, a bobbed haircut dyed maroon, and is dressed in an architecturally cut array of garments—some designs are hers, some are her friends’. “Sustainable or slow fashion really looks at the whole life cycle of a product, from the beginning to the end and then to the beginning again,” she said.
As collective members, these brands will work and create in the physical space, and engage the community as a unit, holding workshops and an open house on Art Murmur First Fridays. For example, Kurihara hopes to launch a class called Mending Men, at which the studliest males in Oakland can come over for wine, conversation, and a lesson in the delicate art of sewing.
The businesses at 25th Street will also share resources like an accountant, or other commodities that might be hard for a small business to afford on its own. “I’m convinced that this goes along with the whole ‘slow life’ movement, because you’re incorporating sharing. To grow your business, especially if it’s craft-based, you need to share space, you need to share marketing,” said Kurihara. “And we’ll be able to provide living wage jobs. Instead of me hiring someone just when I need them to help me, there could be someone here full time that five people share.”
Entrepreneurs can apply to be collective members—either members that share the physical space, or members in affiliation only, who would participate in group events. Kurihara said contenders will be judged on their sustainability, including involvement in their communities and environmental practices. If the business is in fashion, for example, Kurihara will need to know that their fabric is responsibly made, or made of sustainable materials using equitable labor practices.
One of her goals is for a sewing co-op to emerge out of 25th Street Collective. This way, Kurihara hopes that people will come to know and trust the work that members of the collective put out. “We want to be able to say, ‘This was produced at the 25C,’ and to have that provide certification for people that the item is fair trade,” said Kurihara. “We want people to know that this is a lovely place to work.”
This vision is in line with Kurihara’s career history, a fascinating meld of fashion, architecture and community development. After graduating with a degree in textiles from the Rhode Island School of Design, the New Jersey native moved to Oakland in 1990, where she has lived ever since. She held jobs at the City of Berkeley, Habitat for Humanity, the Unity Council in Fruitvale, and at Made in Oakland (a non-profit venture that focused on creating crafts and local jobs) before launching her own line in 2005.
Her business grew steadily—Kurihara recently paid off the $10,000 loan that started her up. She knew it was time to expand. “The New York Times wrote an article about my blankets,” said Kurihara. “Then I started to think, ‘I really need to do something with this.’”
For those interested in joining her group, Kurihara suggests entrepreneurs visit the 25th Street Collective web site. Workspaces for rent range from 300 to 1,200 square feet, and Kurihara hopes that ten businesses will eventually operate out of her warehouse.
Moreover, she hopes 25th Street, which is home to many artsy storefronts, like The Moon, a home made crafts and fashion shop, is preserved over time. “We’re trying to retain this as an artists’ district,” said Kurihara. “We don’t want to see this become another South of Market in San Francisco or a SoHo in NY where the artists are displaced because of rising property values.” To that end, she’s looking into various land trust options through the Northern California Community Land Trust Organization. While there is no agreement at the moment, the organization has the ability to ensure affordability for rents where the land is held in community trust, although this is more easily done with housing than commercial property.
For now, though, what’s most important to Kurihara is fostering a healthy, creative environment in her 25th Street Warehouse, and turning her vision of a collective into a self-sustaining reality. “There’s beauty in this,” she said. “A lot of us are working in our own little garages or basements or studios. It’s wonderful to be able to share, not just our experience, but also our feedback on the work.”