Originally published in Piedmont Post, March 6, 2019
Few cities outside the likes of New York or Paris can boast having their very own fashion designer, but Oakland is one such place. Lesley Evers, a native Oaklander and Californian fashion’s tour de force started designing dresses when she was eight—and she hasn’t stopped. Every item in her eponymous clothing store on College Avenue has been designed by Lesley herself. And while her dresses are unique, the responses they elicit are uniform: wearing a Lesley Evers dress, you can always count on a compliment.
Since launching her fashion business in 2008, Lesley has dressed thousands of local women. She also sells nationally and to US, UK, Australia and Canada. Clothes designed by Lesley Evers are instantly recognizable for their colorful prints, often a creative riff on 1960s classics that feels at once nostalgic and current. For people like myself, attracted to the glamor and originality of that period, Lesley Evers’ dresses are simply irresistible.
For all the success she has enjoyed, Lesley is perhaps the most down-to-earth fashion designer you would ever meet. At the store’s recent warehouse sale in Rockridge, she was working the floor herself, advising her customers—who kept turning up in droves—about the best fit for their bodies, how to best care for the item they were buying, or what it felt like, wearing a particular jacket or skirt. Had it not been for a Piedmont friend who brought me over, I wouldn’t have known that a lively blonde woman digging into a pile of clothes with me as I hunted for the right size was the famed Lesley Evers herself.
Later, carefully hanging my trophies in my closet—two colorful summer dresses, a navy-blue faux-suede jacket, a red cocktail dress and a matching cashmere scarf— I decided to reach out to Lesley and interview her for the Post. She agreed. As we sip on our coffees in Rockridge’s La Boulangerie, right across from the Lesley Evers store on a rainy Sunday afternoon, Lesley and I talk about her business, her fashion philosophy, and why she does what she does.
Q: Lesley Evers’ clothes are very distinct. How would you define the style you’re working in?
A: Print has always been very important to me—I am comfortable with larger prints, and I strive to make them artistically recognizable. I think of my clothes as canvases. Fashion is just framing, you know. I constantly invent new prints, something that larger companies can’t always afford: when they land on a pattern that works, they have to redo and redo. I am free to try new things as often as I want.
Q: 1960s seems to be a perennial theme. What attracts you in that period?
A: The clean, the bold, the colorful. I love midcentury. I think of those styles as “modern nostalgic.”
Q. What is different about Californians’ fashion sense?
A: We certainly have a special relationship with color. Think of well-known artists like Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud (both part of Bay Area Figurative Movement): color is extremely important to their work. Californians are more experimental, more edgy, more willing to take risks. Our fashion reflects our attitudes.
Q: Where do you get inspiration for your dresses?
A: A dress starts with a textile idea. I really like to make shapes that are flattering and comfortable. I design patterns on a digital drawing board, then email the file to my fabric printer in Los Angeles, where I keep my custom milled fabric stocked and ready to go.
Creating is not always easy: you need to have the space and the flow. Luckily, I have this giant library of prints, where I can always dip for inspiration; over the years I’ve developed hundreds of styles. I’m continuously adding new ones and modifying old ones.
Q: Where are your clothes manufactured?
A: We make all the dresses right here in Oakland, because local works for me. I can easily oversee the production and have a relationship with everyone involved. The women who work at the factories I collaborate with are incredibly skilled. Sometimes they have better ideas than me.
Q: For clothes designed to make one stand out, Lesley Evers’ styles are surprisingly practical. How do you achieve that?
A: I know that I don’t have the time and that my customers feel the same way. So I choose fabrics that are easy to handle. Almost everything I do is machine washable.
Q: You don’t use professional models. Instead, your customers model your dresses. Why?
A: Working with real people is the best: I just love featuring my friends and customers and getting to know them. My photographer, Amelia Plumb, does a great job of making these women feel comfortable and capturing them in a natural way. We call it #LErealwomenproject.
Q: What did you do before launching your business in 2008? Was it scary to dive in?
I knew I wanted to do fashion from the beginning—but it wasn’t a straight shot. I studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, then worked with some fashion companies in New York, and as a fine artist; the paintings decorating the store are mine. That didn’t really pay, and I moved to graphic recording, doing mapping and storyboarding for various companies. I even managed to work with a senior team on mapping out Hilary Clinton campaign.
In 2008, I decided to do what I always wanted to do: my own dress business. So I took a loan and went all out. It was hard for the first five years, so hard I couldn’t sleep at night. I didn’t know much about inventory management or forecasting. What would sell? How many items should I make? I knew I had to be super-careful and couldn’t just throw stuff out there; but how to do it was a different story.
Now things are stable. I’m much more comfortable with numbers, and our forecasts are fairly accurate. I no longer sell to department stores, as it can be very demanding in terms of delivery windows and quantities. Instead, Lesley Evers concentrates on our direct relationship with customers. We have a very loyal pool, and there’s nothing that I like more than making every woman who walks into my store feel pretty.
Q: You dress Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. What does that entail?
A: It's a lot of fun. It’s often last minute, she’ll text me and say “I need a rainbow dress for the Pride event, I am desperate, help!” I like working with Libby because she’s very nice and I really like what she’s doing. Supporting Oakland.
Q: What are Lesley Evers’ plans for the future?
A: I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. I love my clients, love the people I work with. Right now I am concentrating on growing Lesley Evers’ online business: it is more predictable and lower risk than opening actual stores. We do a lot of testing of ads, which helps us understand what ticks. It is organic growth: I don’t want to push too hard. And I am always on the lookout for ways to keep my dresses affordable. I want my friends to go into the Lesley Evers store and get anything they want.
Q: What do you do when you don’t design dresses?
I really love nature, love hiking with my dogs. We have three terriers. I also love cooking for my husband and my two sons: I cook a proper meal every night. And that’s about all I can afford with my schedule: the business takes the rest of my time. But it’s good. I really love what I do.
Back in the coffee shop, I glance at my watch and realize, with surprise, that we’ve talked much longer than we’ve originally planned. As we part, Lesley heads into her store, even though it's a Sunday; that’s what passionate people do. I fight an impulse to follow her inside—I love her store—and just rest my eyes on the colorful items in the window for a little longer. It’s one of those rare moments when I feel in harmony with the world.
Lesley Evers store is located at 5501 College Avenue, about a block away from the BART station. The store is open Monday-Tuesday 10am-6pm, Wednesday-Saturday 10am-7pm, Sunday 11am-5pm. You can also shop online at lesleyevers.com