Designed and made in Chico
Meet four women whose fashions are both original and meant to last
Anita O’Harra’s name has the exotic ring of an old-school Hollywood movie star. “The second ‘R’ is for ‘royalty,’ ” she joked of the unusual spelling. “That’s what my uncle always used to say.”
O’Harra, who lives in Chico, is part of a growing crop of local fashion designers following in the pioneering footsteps of local sewing collective Chikoko. They are selling their unique, finely crafted and often environmentally friendly wares in shops around town and online.
O’Harra’s specialties are crochet and weaving. Her “Off the Hook” line—sold at downtown’s BOHO boutique and by word-of-mouth—consists of dresses, tops, hats, scarves and wraps.
For our interview, O’Harra showed up at the Has Beans coffee house on Humboldt Avenue wearing a striking, bright-red, sleeveless, crocheted dress that fit her like a very attractive glove.
She’d made the dress herself, and said wearing her own designs (which she pretty much always does) is the best advertising.
“People will ask me, ‘Where’d you get that?’” said O’Harra, a vigorous, friendly woman of undisclosed age. “And I’ll say, ‘I made it.’ And they say, ‘No way!’ And a lot of times they’ll want one.”
O’Harra—who also has a multiple-subject teaching credential and runs her own tutoring business—never started out to be a fashion designer.
Back in 1998, when she was a student-teacher, she “got a book from the used bookstore” and began teaching herself how to crochet, thinking she could teach her first-graders how to crochet for “quiet time” and in the process teach them math skills because of the careful stitch-counting involved.
“I thought ‘multiples’ [such as double- and triple-crochet stitches] would be good for math and counting concepts,” said O’Harra. “And I thought it would be good if the kids could have individual projects—we would start with hats—that they made for Christmas or by the end of school.”
But O’Harra never had a chance to implement her idea. After taking months to learn to crochet (“Everybody got hats for Christmas,” she laughed), her student-teaching time was over, and O’Harra was concentrating on building her tutoring business.
Then came a car accident that put her flat on her back in a brace. “I thought, ‘If I have to stay in bed, it can at least be productive.”
And that’s when she really went to town learning to crochet dresses, tops and bikinis.
“I just started pumping out all these dresses and tops,” O’Harra recalled. “And all my fashionista friends said, ‘You’ve got to do more!’”
A now-mended O’Harra continues to pump out her washable, “mostly 100 percent cotton” dresses and tops, as well as cute, crocheted beanies (some are designed with a hole in the back for a ponytail to go through), and a line of woven scarves and wraps. She is particularly fond of crocheting with a brand of cotton yarn called 2nd Time Cotton, which is made from recycled textile waste.
O’Harra debuted her wares—which have proved to be very popular—at BOHO at the beginning of the summer.
“I want things to last a long time and be comfortable,” said O’Harra of her garments that, in the case of her beautiful dresses, take about two months to make. “I want us [as a society] to get back to quality, and away from a throwaway society—craftsmanship versus wearing something new all the time.”
O’Harra plans to spend the coming winter knee-deep in crocheting bikinis for next summer, which will be available at BOHO.
“I really appreciate BOHO and stores like it,” offered O’Harra, “that are giving designers the opportunity to promote our wares and get people to shop locally.”
Twenty-six-year-old jewelry and clothing designer Claire Fong is another local designer featured on the racks of BOHO.
Fong, a graduate of San Francisco’s California College of the Arts with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design, also sells her designs at Chico Natural Foods (where her signature, recycled “leather feather” earrings are available), LuLu’s online shop, handmade-goods Web marketplace Etsy.com and S.F. boutique Needles and Pens. She also designs and makes all of the costumes for Chico Community Ballet, and has put on numerous multimedia fashion/performance shows featuring her innovative designs, such as May 2008’s “Decadent Disasters” show in downtown Chico’s “Secret Gallery.”
While Fong’s designs are often avant-garde, her work ethic is decidedly old-fashioned.
“My design philosophy is very traditional,“ said Fong, a former Chikoko model who makes her living solely as a fashion designer. “I’m a classically trained seamstress; everything I make is ‘finished’—the hems, the seams. … My first sewing teacher [at Butte College, when Fong was a 14-year-old home-school student] stressed that your garment should look as nice on the inside as it does on the outside.”
Fong’s attention to detail, artistic vision and ecological sensitivity in using recycled materials whenever possible help make her designs the things of beauty that they truly are.
Sisters Kris Nunes and Julie DeMaggio, who run GreenDot Designers Lounge on Broadway, are vocal about their love of eco-friendly fashion design and support of local designers.
GreenDot’s Web site (www.greendotfashion.com) advocates “respect for the environment through creative reuse and recycling,” and advertises its “truly unique fashion items made by local designers & artists.”
Some of those unique items are made by DeMaggio and Nunes themselves, both accomplished seamstresses. Along with teaching sewing classes at GreenDot with Nunes, DeMaggio also teaches at Butte College’s fashion department.
An eye-catching window display features sturdy, colorful lunch bags, farmers’-market tote bags, and aprons and bibs that the sisters made from laminated oilcloth printed with various “retro” floral designs. Inside the shop hangs an assortment of “pillowcase tops and dresses,” which DeMaggio and Nunes made from recycled pillowcases and tablecloths and “old linens.”
“I don’t want to buy new,” offered DeMaggio. “There’s already enough stuff out there.”
Currently, DeMaggio is “working on a plaid thing”—her creative new clothing series made from plaid-patterned “old wool”—“blankets, or old skirts or fabric from second-hand stores.”
She’s completed one dress so far—a daring frock made from three different plaid fabrics in plums, tans and gray.
“You’d think it’d be kind of nutty,” said De Maggio, “but it turned out great!”
Claire Fong articulated a sentiment that it’s fair to say is representative of the spirit behind so many local designers—which is why buying a thoughtfully, creatively and painstakingly made dress or scarf or woolly hat from one of them is so darned satisfying.
“In everything I do,” Fong summed up, “my ultimate question is, ‘How can I make art, do what I love and make the world a better place?’”