Zipless frocks: Designer Cari Borja, who once worked at Chez Panisse, says “you just slink into” her ruffled pieces that are inspired by (among other things) vegetables and mermaids. Left and right photos: © Gabriel Harber. Middle photo by Jock McDonald, shot on location in Havana, Cuba.
Cari Borja was honeymooning on the Island of the Sirens, just off Italy’s Amalfi Coast, in 2000 when she realized what she really wanted to do: “I want to make clothes for the sirens.” Out with the old, in with the new—in the same year, Borja wrapped up a Ph.D. in anthropology and film at Cal and launched her career as a designer. Today, at 40, she lives in West Oakland with her husband and children, Royal, 9, and August, 6. She’s writing one book on fashion, and another on planning dinner parties (every month, she hosts a salon bringing together local luminaries ranging from winemakers to movie directors).
STYLE: Borja makes dresses, coats, skirts, tops, jackets, scarves, and cloth jewelry. Whether she’s designing for everyday wear or for red-carpet events, she aims to create pieces that are “fluid and languid [so that] a woman is transformed when she puts it on.” She cuts on the bias—on a 90 percent angle—to give her garments some stretch. Her dresses aim also to be kind to sirens who want the eye diverted from the waistline and their curves flattered. Seams are on the outside; Borja doesn’t use buttons or zippers. “You just slink into it,” she says.
RESUME: Borja once worked as a vegetable prep cook at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Recently, she experimented with hemlines inspired by that experience—curly and undulating like kale and lettuce or layered like asparagus tips and artichokes. Perhaps not surprisingly, Alice Waters has been known to wear Borja’s handiwork.
MORE VEGETABLE MUSES: She is now designing a crushed velvet dress in a pinky-red hue; the frock stems from a dish served at Daniel Patterson’s Coi restaurant in San Francisco—beets cut into roses on a beet-and-ice “snow.”
QUIRKIEST CONCEPT: For a Project Inform event promoting safe sex, she created a dress made entirely of rosettes fashioned from condoms.
SALES: Sold in seven East Bay stores including Berkeley’s Red Bird, all of Borja’s pieces are made in-house at her atelier on Fourth Street in Berkeley. She sells around 400 pieces a year, ranging from $25 for a marked-down sample to $1,000 for a red-carpet or bridal gown.
PHILOSOPHY: Stay small. Going into manufacturing, Borja says, “You lose a lot, you find yourself making really simple pieces—10,000 cowl neck sweaters. That is so uninteresting to me.” (And she wants to be able to pick up her children at 3 p.m.)
Designer: Cari Borja
Cari Borja, 2117 Fourth St., Studio B, Berkeley, (510) 981-0067; cariborja.com.
Jamie Westdal Studio, scarves only, 232 Brookwood Road, Orinda, (925) 254-9689; jamiewestdal.com.
Rabat, scarves only, 1825 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 549-9195; rabatshoes.com.
Red Bird, 2938 Domingo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 644-0294; redbirdberkeley.com.
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Cari Borja. Photo Nicolo Sertorio.