Profile: Erica Tanov

By Regina Connell

As we started thinking about who to include as our first design/craft hero(ine) in the area of clothing and fashion, we struggled a bit.

Unfortunately, we live in times when anyone who’s seen Project Runway and knows their way around a sewing machine (or knows some who knows someone who does) fancies themselves a designer. We needed the real thing.

But then, talking to a good friend (and fashion guru, Elyse Adams,) we realized that we needed to stop trying to over-complicate things (as we’re a bit wont to do). “Get back to the basics: who understands the craft of design, and the design of craft? Who obsesses over materials? Who knows what to do with those materials to make something with that je ne sais quoi?” Yessss, we thought: that’s it. And who has a faultless design compass that keeps them headed in the right direction amid the distractions and buzz of the fashion world?

And that’s when it got easy. (Thanks, Elyse.) It had to be Erica Tanov.

Erica’s been in the business for over 15 years (inner compass, tick) and works with a team of four in a Berkeley studio, while contract sewing is based in San Francisco. Even before we met her, we knew fabrics were her obsession (numerous sessions pawing through the sumptuous silks, linens, wovens and knits at her eponymous Bay Area stores told us that).  And that je ne sais quoi? Yes. A fair number of our friends with their own je ne sais quoi (real women, all) wear her grown up boho-luxe designs.

We got to visit Erica at her somewhat anonymous (from the exterior, at least) design studio located in that hotbed of fashion design: Berkeley (not). It’s got a girly vibe to it (funky chandeliers, dressmakers forms, patterns hanging on racks or stacked in the corner, and rolls and rolls of luscious wovens from France and Italy and prints from India and Korea) but still feels like what it is: a commercial space that serves as the nerve center of an enterprise that in addition to stocking its own stores sells the Erica Tanov line to stores across the country and in Japan. And oh yes, on the racks: delectable, covetable clothes in just our size…

The simple fact that it’s housed in a building her grandfather owned says everything you need to know about what her style–and business–is all about: it’s personal and not about trends (even though she ends up innately on-trend). It’s about meaning, not about surface. It’s about timelessness, and the present. Refreshing.

Clearly, you have roots in this area. Yes, I was born and raised in the Bay Area (and grew up mostly in Piedmont).

What got you into design? I was always small–I only fit into kids clothes for the longest time. So I started taking sewing classes and ended up making a lot of my clothes. I think that was the beginning of my interest in fashion.

But I have the sense that it’s more than necessity being the mother of invention…what made you decide to get serious about clothing and design? I was always interested in the arts: I was in dance, I sang in an a capella choir…and I knew I wanted to go to some kind of art school. I remember picking up the brochure for Parsons [School of Design] and reading about all the programs they offered. The section on the fashion design department really struck a chord with me. And that was it: I decided that was where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to study.

And your parents embraced this? My parents have always been very supportive, but they wanted me to go to a liberal arts school before committing to an art college. So I went to UCLA for year, transferred to Parsons, and ended up staying in New York for 9 years. After graduating, I worked for designer Rebecca Moses for a couple of years, but became disillusioned with the industry. How so? It seemed that it was all about the shows (fall and spring), and so much time and energy went into these shows…for just 10 minutes of glory. And then I got to thinking about the difference between what models were paid and what the venue cost, versus what the sample sewers received for all their hard work and dedication. It seemed so unfair and it just didn’t mesh with my values.

So what did you do? I quit, and took time off, not sure of what I’d do next. Then this hat designer I’d worked with at Rebecca Moses contacted me–she was going away for the summer and needed someone to oversee things. So I did that for a summer, and it was then that I ordered some fabrics and started making things, just for fun…not thinking I would start producing a collection.

What kind of things…? All lingerie-inspired items based on vintage pieces, little chemises, that kind of thing. (And lingerie-inspired items continue to make it into her line today.)

So then? I thought…I have a little collection here, why shouldn’t I try taking these around? I sold to stores and boutiques in SF and NY, including Henri Bendel and Barneys…I just showed up with a vintage suitcase with all my wares folded away nicely in it. (You can just see Erica doing this. Perfect.) Anyway, I had this studio apartment, with one of those early fax machines sitting on the floor. It was one of those fax machines with the single roll of thermal paper, remember those? (Sorry to say I do.) Anyway, it starting printing out onto that roll, and that roll just kept going and going.

Who was the order from? Henri Bendel. And suddenly I was in business. I decided that I’d do it my way. I found a showroom and people to sew. I grew bit by bit, and then decided to move out here to the Bay Area when I heard that this building (that my grandfather owned) was becoming available. For a while, I lived upstairs, had a store in the front, and had a workroom in the back.

That certainly saves on commuting. What was that like? Well, it was great before I had kids, I could work all the time. But you can’t do that forever–nor would I want to. After my daughter was born in 1996, we bought a house which enabled me to have some separation between work and personal life.  In 1998, I moved the store in Fourth Street in Berkeley (keeping the San Pablo Ave. space as the design studio), then opened a store in NY in Nolita, opened the store in San Francisco (Fillmore Street), then recently opened a store in Larkspur in Marin (the store shown in this article.)

And your process? I start with the fabrics–the colors, patterns, and texture–then move to shape and silhouette. Creating the color palette, choosing fabrics, and designing the prints is my favorite part of the process. The fabrics often dictate the styles: fabrics have inherent qualities that can provide limits. For the example, the French hand-loomed fabrics (which I adore) cannot have a lot of seams because of their delicacy, and their tendency to unravel. When do you start to edit? The editing process begins when I start to see samples made, and I discard what doesn’t work for me. But then sometimes we put those “rejected” pieces into the store, since they’re perfectly good garments…and it sells right away. (Big shrug, big smile.)

So, to ask the obvious question, what inspires your style? I’ve always been a tactile person.  I began going to flea markets with my aunt when I was little, collecting antique linens even then.  I have stacks of vintage fabric and textiles that I’ve collected over the years from which I draw endless inspiration.  I still love going to flea markets and finding unexpected treasures.  I love mixing old with modern, combining details of different of eras and cultures and bringing these elements into my clothing collection.

Speaking of your prints…how do you design those? I hand-paint or draw some of my prints.  I often create my prints from vintage patterns–a dish towel, wallpaper, scrap of paper–anything, really, that I find beautiful, and then I re-color or rescale them.  I’ve also used my children’s drawings and paintings and have created prints from those. I then send the artwork (via airmail) to India and Korea where the screens or blocks are made and printed onto fabric. I have also created some prints on the computer and sent the artwork via email but still prefer the old fashioned way: it’s what I’m comfortable with.  I think prints created by hand have so much more life to them. Do you design your jacquard weaves? No–but I would love to! There is a mill in France that would be open to collaborating with me. That would be really exciting.

Image courtesy of Erica Tan

So let’s get specific: what inspired the Fall collection? It can be the most random thing. Sometimes the collection will just start with something I’ve found on the ground walking Earl (the dog). And that’ll be the start. For me, inspiration can also be found in something as simple as the way a napkin is folded, or the pattern on a manhole cover. Looking through art books, of course, always provides ample inspiration. Last fall’s collection started with Gustav Klimt paintings–”The Kiss” in particular–hence the naming of one of my prints “baccio” (kiss, in Italian.) I’ve always been drawn to the rich colors, opulence, and eeriness of Klimt’s paintings. But…at the same time, I also happened to be reading Just Kids, the Patti Smith memoir. And it somehow made its way into my collection. Her rawness and strength, the grittiness of New York at that point in time (late ’60s), rock and roll, various bits and pieces. I can’t help but let what surrounds me affect what I do–my collection–and somehow turn it into beauty.

Some designers talk about having a story in their heads as they design. Sometimes I do, but the collection usually just has an overall feeling for me that cannot be put into words.  I often create a story for the photo shoot that happens once the collection is complete, this fall being a perfect example.  I imagined this collection being photographed in a beautiful, crumbling mansion.  The perfect place existed right near my house.  I received permission to shoot there and created a story based on the luxurious clothing and the incredible estate.

In my mind, it was set in a once-grand and luxurious hotel–now in decline, but all the more beautiful–as well as the heroine, a once-famous actress down on her luck.   Creating the mood with the clothing, accessories, furniture and props is what I love doing.  it’s my true reward–I guess my version of the fashion show (but it last a lot longer than 10 minutes).

You’ve been in business for a while, and it always takes compromises. Are you able to avoid the practices you originally shied away from? I try. I do find myself going back to the very beginning when I started my collection and thinking about that. And it’s almost instinctual: knowing who’s sewing, keeping it local, making sure people are treated nicely.  I use organics when possible but it’s not always available. You do what you can.

OK. So who would play you in the movie of your life? Oh, I’ve been told I look like Penelope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker and Charlotte Gainsbourg but I’m not sure if I see any of those playing me except possibly Charlotte Gainsbourg–but she’s French (and tall!)  Maybe Catherine Keener? (We could see all three.)

And what genre of movie would it be? Hmmm, well, some movies I love….

A Single Man

Lars and the Real Girl

Please Give

Beginners

They’re all very real, intimate, beautiful in their own way and contain a bit of humor.

And what 5 objects that define you?

1. My 1980 mercedes (that runs on biodiesel)

2. The  tattoo on my forearm –a monogram of my children’s initials

3. My rainboots or cheap flip flops (depending on the time of year)

4. Our sitting room

5. The Moroccan wedding blanket at the foot of my bed.

Lovely. Absolutely lovely.

Details

www.ericatanov.com

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