The dress: you’ll never guess who inspired it
on February 24, 2015
THE DRESS. It’s simple but classic — a polyester-cotton blend A-line with a round neck and fitted sleeves that sit below the elbow.
It’s also fire-engine red. That’s the sophisticated edge the dress designer Lesley Evers had in mind when a sudden bout of inspiration hit her as she relaxed on her couch one evening admiring the wardrobe of Claire Underwood, the ruthless political wife on House of Cards.
“I designed the Claire dress months ago — it had nothing to do with Libby,” Evers says.
But the Claire dress, which turned into part of Libby Schaaf’s “Made in Oakland” campaign, was what the new mayor-elect wanted to wear the day she celebrated her election. “It was perfect on her,” Evers says. “I was proud to see her wearing it.”
Evers, who identifies as a Democrat and a huge Schaaf supporter, says she met Shaaf a couple of years ago at a party at which the then-city councilmember was wearing another Evers-designed dress. “I found out Shaaf liked several of my Oakland-made designs, and that she wore them to work, through one of my store managers, who is Libby’s neighbor,” Evers says.
Finally Schaaf visited Evers’ Rockridge store, which is named after the designer, and liked the Claire so much that she placed an order for one, at $150. Evers combined two of her previous popular dress designs into the pattern for the Claire—which also comes in deep green, champagne, and a textured grey. As a gesture to her special customer, Evers held off selling any other red Claires until Schaaf had hers.
Evers was born in Oakland. She studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and then returned to Oakland in her late twenties, a newlywed, to start her life as an architect.
So how did this architect make the transition into clothes design? “On my fortieth birthday, I had a now-or-never kind of realization,” Evers says. “I had always wanted to do clothing design — I actually wanted to attend fashion school instead, but my mom kind of steered me away from it. And it has now been seven years since I decided to go for it.”
Evers was eleven when she first began taking sewing lessons from what she recalls as a strict grumpy neighbor who let Evers and two friends come into her house every week to learn. Evers recalls making a skirt for herself, and some minor alterations to some of her own clothing, adding buttons or sequined detail to her tops. She continued to pick it back up throughout her life — in her college years, for example, she decided to make all her clothes. The designing process suited her background in architecture, and today Evers continues to design all of her textiles, and cut and sew her samples at her studio in Emeryville.
But Evers also believed it was important to find the right factory, one that didn’t outsource its clothing orders to countries that underpay and exploit their employees.
“I realize there are many reasons people manufacture overseas, but I don’t need to, and I don’t want to,” Evers says. “Most factories don’t want to work with small businesses — they are interested in mass production. I operate at much smaller scale, so it doesn’t make sense for me.” As an example, Evers says she will usually design one dress in two colors and then order one or two hundred pieces in that design.
Eventually Evers was able to find a couple of small factories she felt comfortable working with, in the industrial part of Oakland, near Chinatown. She says the relationships she has built, with the small group of seamstresses she works with to this day, are now among her favorite parts of the dressmaking process. “It’s very rewarding,” she says. “I love going to the factory and figuring out the best way to make something. So it becomes this collaboration with the women who sew, and building those relationships takes time.”
Evers has developed those relationships long enough to understand the process of manufacturing, and to foresee a challenge that she predicts will occur within the next decade.
“Although manufacturing is growing in the Bay Area, these very skilled women who know what they’re doing on the machine are older and are going to retire, “ she says. “Their daughters don’t want to do it, so I don’t know what will happen.”
For now, Evers’ perspective is as California-cool as her clothing. Her style is influenced by the mid-century aesthetic, clean and simple. But her line is more chic than retro. “All of my pieces are something I would wear to go about my day,” she says. “I definitely approach my design with a practicality in mind.”
Evers has two boutiques now open, the original Rockridge location on College Avenue, and a recently-opened shop in Burlingame. 2015 promises to be a big year, she says; she’s planning to open a third boutique in the Corte Madera town center in January. And maybe, she says — why not? – she’ll create a Libby dress.
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