My column this week takes a look at the recent Sofada fashion show, but a mere 450 words could not contain the long conversation I had with Sofada designer Alice Dobson. Below is the full Q & A, with more pictures from the show taken by Minh Tran.
You've been designing in Portland for quite some time. Recap?
I've been sewing my whole life. Right around eight years old I have concrete images of sewing, but I know I started earlier than that. All through grade and high school I liked to make things. I went to Seaside High School, which offered sewing as an elective, and I felt so fortunate to finally have a teacher. When I moved to Portland, I worked at Washington Mutual, and although I had been selling my things through word of mouth, for cheap, it never dawned on me that that could be my job. It seemed like a pipe dream. I was working at the uptown branch, and this really stylish guy and his wife would come in to do their banking. They told me about FIDM in Los Angeles, and I immediately knew that I would go there. My degree is in apparel manufacturing, because that program also included classes on how to make a business. I was 20 when went there, and moved back at 23. I heard randomly about Seaplane, and was totally excited because even three years before there was nothing going on in Portland. It's been this huge bubble burst of fashion designers since. I met Kate [Towers] at Seaplane, and my stuff started selling immediately. Kate and Holly [Stalder] were sending people to me all the time who wanted a certain dress in a different color, etc. I was tired of people coming over all the time, so I started looking around for shops, and found the teeny one on Fremont. It had no bathroom, no air conditioning--which in a shop is horrible.
In retrospect, what do you think about your decision to pursue apparel design in Portland as opposed to New York or another large market?
I think it was the best decision I ever made. And I cried when I was leaving LA. I loved my life there. There's an omelet named after me there. I thought, "What am I doing moving back to Portland, Oregon?" But my husband and I wanted to buy a house. It only took two months to see that things had changed, and probably because of Kate and Holly. I feel like I am lucky to have gotten in on the ground floor. It's definitely been nice, and I feel special to have been part of that growth. I've been in business six years and it just worked out, because of really good timing, good people. I never had any ambition to go to New York. It's too far away, I have my family. Even when I sold my line in LA, I had so much trouble just getting paid. Here we have a pretty good handful of designers, but in LA there's like two million. I thank every day that I went to school in LA, and that I moved back when I did.
Can you talk a little but about your business plan and current goals? How important is growth to you?
It's changed over the years. In the beginning, growth was really important, but I was taught in school "baby steps, baby steps, baby steps." I just want to live nicely, like anybody. The business doesn't need to be huge and I don't need to be rich. I just want to keep on working and building the business. When I went to New York fashion week, I was six months pregnant, and when I had my son I had to step back. I got so much good press and so much business, but in hindsight, it was sort of too big of a step. I had to make a choice: I have my family and my business. I decided to focus on the wholesale accounts that really loved me, and concentrate on the store. The store is my bread and butter, and I wanted to get my production in-house. We now even offer production for other lines outside of Sofada under the name Alice, Inc. We've always sewn in-house, but we used to send things out to local contractors too, and always had problems. I'm so much busier on Burnside [2937 E Burnside], and I'm so happy we were able to buy the building. I now have four employees, plus interns. I personally don't make much money at all. I pay my mortgage and pay the girls, but that way everybody has a job.
Do you have any insight as to how Portland designers should move forward?
I think that things are going well. I don't really know where it's going to go. I think we should make sure what we're representing to the rest of the world is really well done, and to industry standards. I think that Fashion Week is trying to do that. The fashion industry needs to show that we're on our game. Five years ago when I'd see other local designers' stuff, I'd just be like "Oh my god." Now I see designers all the time and I'm like, "Sweet. Good job."
What sorts of things were you thinking about in this collection? To me it seemed more confident, sexy, strong. It also reminded me of Mad Men, was that conscious?
You are like the third or fourth person to have said that! But I've never seen the show! The '60s for me is way not my thing. Normally I'd be like "Ew, '60s," but I took what I like from it, and I've been seeing it all over the place. There's something in the air that makes these things happen.
Do you buy into the notion that there is a desire to return styles of the past during worrisome times?
I'd have to give that way more thought. Right off the bat I'd say subconsciously, yes. People are also into being at home and making their homes nice right now. Like being a homemaker, but maybe a sexy one who drinks and takes pills.
How have you been influenced by things that have been discussed in the media regarding Portland's design scene--the frenzy for "green," for example--as well as the fact that the bar is being raised for both designers and boutiques?
I am not your average advertised green designer. I don't use fabrics that are organic. But I think there's definitely a frenzy going on. In Portland there's definitely a movement. Just the fact that we have all our sewing in-house means we don't use any gas to move things around. A lot of the girls walk or ride the bus here. We don't do a lot of shipping. I never drive to work. But I think that you have to be careful about calling yourself green, because not everything is. You can try. Maybe it's part of the reason I'm more re-inspired that we have some good designers coming now, and that definitely puts the pressure on a tiny bit.
Your collections are always very colorful, how do you settle upon choosing colors and patterns each season?
I find my textiles first, mostly from Los Angeles. I usually will have some sort of theme or idea that I know I'm kind of shooting for. I chose the '60s and '80s because I never touch them. If anything I veer away from them. I was aware that something new needed to happen. I wanted to pick something new but still be Sofada: almost everything is made to look good on a huge range of women's bodies. After I realized it would be '60s and '80s, I started looking at magazines. I get asked a lot where my inspiration comes from. It'll be something kind of subconscious, but it's always right. And it's not just me. It ultimately is my thing, but I get the perspective of other people.
Do your collections reflect what you yourself wear? What are the go-to elements of your wardrobe?
Skirts and dresses with a casual top. I don't wear blouses much, I wear casual, sexy little knit tops. I'm in dresses and skirts most of the time.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about your line?
One of my biggest things is that when you see models walking down the runway, it's not geared to just that type of body. We all need fun, bright stuff to keep us up, and we need to embrace that. Definitely shopping is an outlet to feel better. And my line is affordable. It's definitely not cheap, but for women who are into building a wardrobe, its not outrageous. And hardly anyone I know goes to the mall. I hate the mall, you have to force me to go.