View Slideshow

OAKLAND, Calif. — A fashion and arts scene is blooming in the warehouse district that connects Berkeley and Oakland.

In pockets such as San Pablo Avenue and Dwight Way, amid tire shops and auto dealers, prostitutes and drug dealers are still able to do business. But they are coexisting in this streetscape with the likes of Jess Feury. She and her shop, Hobbyhorse, are at the center of the neighborhood’s evolution. The shop, which opened in August, sells a range of merchandise, from retooled $60 vintage skirts and blouses, embroidered bags and unique buttons and brooches to $36 silk-screened T-shirts and vintage shoes, the base of any hipster uniform.

Feury — whose first exposure to fashion as a kid was a buying trip at Betsey Johnson’s showroom with her mother, who owned a boutique in New Jersey — sells Bay Area designers with a focus on bohemian, handmade goods, in addition to her own clothing line, Magpie, which features pieces embellished with Native American beadwork.

Fashion is only one dimension of Hobbyhorse, though. The back room serves as an installation, gallery and performance space for local musicians and artists, with new shows going up monthly. In February, the “Unrequited Love” show brought in pieces of all sorts, including one artist’s final divorce papers. Other shows are less tongue-in-cheek. The most recent installation, “Flora and Fauna,” which opened in April, blends the worlds of fashion and art, in addition to transforming the back gallery into a “fabric forest,” replete with stuffed woodland fantasy animals and featuring an installation of 1,000 origami paper cranes all made of recycled Vogue magazines.

“The shop is like an art installation in and of itself,” Feury said. “All the designers and artists that work here or sell here leave an imprint with each new show and each new piece. A lot of the designers end up teaching a workshop, so we have classes here on appliqué and patchwork, or silk-screening. So it’s a boutique, but it’s also a workshop.”

Eventually, she hopes to have high school students intern at Hobbyhorse and host their own fashion shows in the gallery. The organic growth of the shop and Feury’s entrepreneurial, grassroots view of art and development — she once ran an art collective out of the basement of a record shop in Washington — reflects the tenor of the neighborhood.

This story first appeared in the May 8, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In the 10 months since Hobbyhorse opened, three more vintage shops have appeared on Feury’s side of San Pablo Avenue: Icon Vintage and Dolled Up Vintage opened in spaces down the street. And, in perhaps the most telling example of the neighborhood turnaround, the vintage shop Twisters, next door to Hobbyhorse, took over a space that used to house local marijuana dealers, Feury said.

Across the street, on the same block, gentrification is moving at an even more aggressive pace. The quirky, higher-priced Dollybird offers funky, space-age-like accessories and clothing such as purses and belts made from kimonos. Perhaps more surprisingly, at the sleek, high-end boutique Magnet, Kasil denim sells for $145, while a pair of Paala pants go for $200 and Paala wrap dresses are listed at $385. Next door to Magnet, and directly across from Hobbyhorse, sits the upscale Café Trieste, where patrons can nurse lattes and espressos.

“I think this neighborhood runs the risk of losing what makes it edgy and cool in the first place,” Feury said. “I get inquiries every day of people who want to talk about real estate and putting in superexpensive, high-end shops.”

Feury, who originally wanted to open in San Francisco and was priced out of the real estate market, is active with the owners of Icon, Dolled Up and Twisters to help keep the neighborhood affordable and exclude fashion chains. They are lobbying the landlords to put a record shop, bookstore or bar in the area.

“It’s funny. Everybody talks about how this neighborhood is so bohemian and cool and so affordable,” Feury said. “But since when is it bohemian to buy an $8 coffee and a $100 T-shirt?”

Twenty minutes away, in the Uptown district of downtown Oakland, where city economic planning officials have pushed for redevelopment, the bohemian and the gentrified are tackling challenges of their own. The tension, however, seems to be cultivating both a stronger gallery and independent fashion scene and more luxury residential and retail options.

The three-year-old Mama Buzz cafe is a destination for East Bay hipsters and artists for a cheap cup of coffee, sandwiches and shows by local musicians and artists. The cafe is the nucleus of what many refer to as Oakland’s “gallery ghetto,” which spreads out from Mama Buzz’s location on Telegraph Avenue and 24th Street. Here, the artist community’s anxiety about the rapid changes is clear: a recent installation in the adjacent performance space and gallery has the familiar logo of Starbucks, with the words, “Coming Soon.” Though the piece was just commentary on the gentrification in Oakland, there is a Starbucks around the corner.

A block away from Mama Buzz, the Rock Paper Scissors Collective features installation art pieces and sells everything from records to racks of self-published books and magazines to $20 to $40 T-shirts and velour hoodies from Twospace and silk shirts and purses from lushorchid. RPS, Mama Buzz and several other galleries in the area have organized a First Friday — on the first Friday of each month, of course — when all of their gallery spaces are open late for locals to enjoy.

“Oakland is the real thing,” said Justin Go, a volunteer at RPS. “People here care about what they are doing and the community as a whole.”

The priorities of the artists and the developers and national retailers interested in the area are more in concert than they may appear at first. While young artists and entrepreneurs have been successful in building a creative community in the East Bay, the City of Oakland for the past decade has pushed forward on several redevelopment initiatives to create a 24-7 community, including a major effort of Oakland mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K Downtown Housing Initiative. The program recently met its goal of bringing 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland with a major housing development effort. After no new residential development for several years, there are more than 7,000 residential units completed, under construction or approved in downtown Oakland, with the largest chunk of them in Forest City Enterprises’ Uptown project, which broke ground in December.

The Uptown project will add almost 900 rental units to the neighborhood and 30,000 square feet of retail. “This is just in one area of Oakland,” said Susan Smartt, senior vice president of Forest City Residential West. “But you will begin to see a renaissance in all of the communities in Oakland.”

Forest City isn’t the only national developer interested in Oakland. Though the city kept mum on many pending deals, Daniel Vanderpriem, director of community and economic development for the City of Oakland, confirmed that General Growth Properties is considering developing in the area.

“Because of the investments that the city has made and the pioneering of companies like Forest City, you are seeing new entertainment venues, housing and these national retail developers discussing an area that for decades has been very, very quiet,” Vanderpriem said. “A year ago, nobody was talking to us about retail. Now we have multiple national commercial shopping center developers talking to us about Oakland.”