Stepping into Jeff Oakes Design studio in San Francisco, one is greeted by a bouncing black standard poodle named Kate and with equal energy, designer Jeff Oakes. Delicately hand woven fabrics of vibrant blue, purple, pinks and with traces of gold flow throughout his studio. He has a passion for the fabric, creative designs and discovering the weavers of India. He decision to transition from corporate executive to fashion designer came in his forties.
“Cher’s not the only one that can reinvent herself,” Jeff said.
The fabrics and designs are all Jeff’s vision and inspiration, drawn from the world around him. His 2012 collection is inspired by rain, fog and mist. He is partnering with four weaving groups in India to create his designs. It is easy to see that Jeff’s inspiration and passion goes much deeper. His designs are innovative and beautiful, but his passion is the story behind the designs and uplifting the lives the people he encounters in his business.
Jeff’s love of textile design began with his love of architecture. He has a Masters Degree in Architecture and Design. At forty-seven, he had a fulfilling career at Gap, Inc. in the architecture, real estate and construction group. After eight years at the company, he began to contemplate his true purpose in life. The shock of two close friends who passed away, one leaving him his standard poodle Kate, was part of the reason for him to reevaluate his life direction. Confused and not know what direction to take, several people close to him mentioned finding a Life Coach. He had no idea what a Life Coach did, but believed in listening to the universe. He found one who helped him evaluate his life path and a new direction. He only knew he had a desire to explore textiles and travel. He did not know what direction it would lead him; he only knew he needed to explore the path. The work with his Life Coach led him to take the step of leaving behind the secure paycheck of the corporate world and step into a new dream of exploring textiles. Jeff felt textiles were an easy transition from the also creative discipline of architecture. The vision of building lines and design translated easily into textile design. Jeff also has a love of travel. He lived in Peru and South Africa as a child, spent a year abroad in Spain and has traveled extensively through Europe and Africa.
Jeff’s partner of twenty-six years, also named Jeff, suggested he take a trip to gain inspiration for his new pursuit. He suggested not just a trip to explore the fashion of New York, but a trip around the world. With the gift of time and a generous gift of frequent flyer miles from his partner, Jeff began an almost six month journey around the world to gain inspiration about textiles and fashion. He began going east, the first stop being London visiting the opening of the Golden Age of Couture exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum. London set the stage for the trip. The journey was also a spiritual one. He began each day in meditation asking to learn what he was meant to learn that day, to be inspired. He visited the museums of Paris, walked the avenues of Venice, search through the shops of Milan and explored the architecture of East Berlin. He expected to be inspired by the couture garments of Paris and the sleek Italian designs in Milan. He did not expect to find his strongest inspiration and connection in a small village in India.
“I didn’t find India,” Jeff said, “India found me.”
His journey continued east to India. He read about Bundi, India from a friend of a friend’s travel journal. He loved the description of the town. He originally wanted to visit the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, India and then journey to Bundi. He planned to stay three days in Bundi and ended up staying three weeks. Here he was introduced to the community of weavers through a woman named Victoria. She later connected him with Sally Holkar, the founder of the Women Weave Trust “an organization dedicated to empowering and improving the lives of women who weave in rural India. The goal of the trust is to make handloom a profitable, fulfilling and sustainable income-earning activity for women.” Sally is American and was disturbed by the poverty in India and wanted to make a change. She wanted to teach the people a marketable skill, to help the families stay together and lift themselves out of poverty. Jeff felt a connection with the vision of the organization of teaching the women a marketable skill and was moved by the beauty of the textiles. He promised he would return in one year and did return in October of 2009. Women’s Weave trust is one of four similar organizations he is working with in his design process.
Jeff returned from his trip inspired, motivated and ready to turn his designs into a reality. He went back to school at forty-eight to learn hands on design at Apparel Arts in San Francisco. The self-paced program allowed him to launch his design business in conjunction with the program. He works closely with the weavers in India. He communicates his vision of a fabric or a design to the weavers and they return the product. He is constantly amazed at the product he receives. The quality they put into the weaving of the fabric and the sewing in the designs is unmatched in today’s automated production. He gave the example of an idea he had for a basic tote. He communicated the vision of his design and they not only created it, but added functionality to it beyond his expectations. Some of the fabrics use the Kota Doria style of weaving, a fine detailed style of weaving of the Kota area of Rajasthan. His designs are classic, but also incorporate the Indian influence by weaving in small lines of gold or modifying traditional Indian block prints.
One of the most fulfilling parts of the process for Jeff was when he was asked to teach some of the children. He loved the idea, wanting to see the families become even better through education. Through the trust’s Young Weaver Program, the children learn to weave alongside their mothers. They begin learning to weave at thirteen and at sixteen begin taking classes in business and English. Jeff’s goal was to teach the children about creativity and why behind the fabric or design.
“Let’s use wind, fog and rain as our inspiration today,” Jeff told the children. He guided them through examples in areas such as literature, poetry, art, architecture or design and taught them the process of creativity and how it is incorporated into textile design. After finishing a workshop, Jeff asked, “What did you discover about yourself in workshop?” One student responded that he realized he could be a designer. The children formed a cooperative, designing their own name and logo. Two of the children are now applying to attend fashion programs in India.
Jeff continues to develop his design business and says, “If the Fishers can start a successful company like Gap in their forties, so can I.” Jeff’s enthusiasm and confidence is contagious and his designs reflect it. He found continued support from his life coach and business help through San Francisco Small Business Development Council. His strong business plan keeps him on track and he has strong support from friends and colleges in the design community. His advice to others thinking of breaking away from a corporate career to launch their own vision is to believe in yourself, your vision and your dream. “Work for something bigger than yourself and inspire others to better themselves.”
To learn more about Jeff Oakes Design, please visit http://www.jeffoakesdesign.com.