Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lesley Evers: Finding the Four Leaf Clover

This morning, as with most mornings, I dropped my kids off at school and popped in to see friends Lesley and Curtis. We sip our coffee and chat for half an hour while Lesley packs her lunch, checks her emails and plays for her bitsa rescue dog, Dottie. The we all head off: Lesley to work, Curtis out the backyard to re-model his 1971 VW Camper Bus and me, home.

On the way out the door it suddenly occurs to me.  Lesley Evers, a great friend for eight years is actually also a great "story". Mind if I follow you around today for a bit, Les? I asked. "Course" she says: "I'd love that".

You may have already met Lesley on my blog at her photo shoot at my house and when I flew with her to New York for the trade show, Coterie.... first and second day. I've also worn her dresses in Fall and Winter.

Lesley was born in Berkeley - she is fourth generation. Her grandmother is 104 years old and still lives in the original family home in Tilden Park. Lesley and her husband Curtis met through their grandmothers pictured below, who were best friends.

Raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Lesley has a gentle Southern manner and a Bay Area openess to all-comers. She is the most relaxed, fluid person I know. I've honestly never seen her rattled or in a bad mood. Amid the busyness of her dress business she is always there for her friends and their kids; painting, sewing costumes, cooking and babysitting. 

She was the one who pushed me to start this blog. A journalist for 15 years in London I hadn't worked since Harley, now 13, was a baby. "Sit down" she said one evening last May. "It's time for you to start writing again. Here I'm setting up a blog for you." We mooted blog names, she took a photo of me, showed me how to upload it and stood over me while I wrote my first post.

The Start: Lesley makes, as we would say in New Zealand "frocks". Loads of them. It started in January 2007. After ordering a shirtdress on-line, she didn't like the fit or the print. Now she was mad, so she sat down at her sewing machine and made herself a frock she liked. Some of the Mums at school liked her frocks too so she made them each one. Seven months later she sold 30 dresses at her first trunk show.

Lesley recruited three mothers from the playground as well as her first model. Four years later she has a full-time staff of four with seven part-time.  And last month she shipped 2,500 Spring dresses, skirts and tunics to 120 boutiques in the US, England and Ireland. One boutique Bella Vita on College is just down the road in Oakland.

The Spring range alone has 20 different styles, each one available in a range of her own fabric design.

She has no formal training for dress design, having studied architecture at UPenn and then worked as a fine artist in New York selling her paintings though a Madison Avenue gallery.  

Back in Oakland, she devised a new style of graphic recording which included extensive art work. She has "recorded" meetings involving presidential candidates, government agencies and private corporations.

An example of Lesley's graphic recording

Inspiration: Her style "Modern Nostalgia" recalls the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. She remembers when she was little sneaking a piece of chocolate and hiding in her mother's closet to eat it "next to her boldly patterned and day-glo dresses.....My mother would wear really sweet, pretty print dresses all day long, to the park and to school. And I remember thinking 'That's what I want to look like.'" Her aim is to meld artful textiles and flattering cuts in the hopes of creating fond memories for someone else. For me they have the easy charm and breeze of  Slim Aarons photos by a Palm Spring pool.


The tumbleweed pattern for Spring "I stewed on that for days, carried a pen and paper around with me all the time drawing. Then I just spit it out one night while pretending to watch a movie with the kids"

Image by Lara Rossignol of Piewacket
Since she was a tiny child Lesley has been legend amongst her friends and family for finding four-leaf clovers on people's lawns. Rockridge Four Leaf Clover started as a doodle and was named by her son Chase, 11. The men in her life have a different knack ...for finding her heart-shaped rocks on the beach. Her collection below is held in a stone heart carved by Curtis for her birthday.

Lesley's original clover drawing

Image by Lara Rossignol of Piewacket

Lesley's heart-shaped rock collection

Image by Quentin Curtis Bacon - Heart dress available in November 2011
For Resort - available in November 2011 - she was inspired by large-patterned Seventies wallpaper and the heart dress above illustrates this: "I love the fade-out, how it starts richer and gets lighter and lighter." She's also inspired by her long vintage finds, like the pantsuit she's wearing in this post, as well as her Grandmother's dresses.

Image by Quentin Curtis Bacon

Image by Quentin Curtis Bacon
Her Day: Every morning she's up at 7am and makes fruit, eggs and home-made granola, all organic after she viewed "Food Matters". (Incidentally she just lost 10lbs eating the same amount of food, but cutting out sugar, white food and most meat.) She sees her two boys, Chase, 11, and Will, eight, off to school and by 9am is checking in at the factory. Then she is off to her office where she spends most of the day on the phone, in meetings, ordering fabric, packing, checking store orders and pattern-making. Her husband Curtis stays home and looks after the boys full-time.

Lesley is usually home by 5pm, cooks dinner for the boys, does a spot of carpooling to basketball or Scouts or helps with homework.

Chase and Will
The kids are in bed by 8pm. After that she concentrates on textile and style ideas. "Designing is the easy part. But you need to have that lalala space and time to think about colour and pattern and to be in your head...I think about it when I have white space." In the evenings she also likes to watch shows and documentaries on Netflix. One of her favourites is Herb and Dorothy, about a postman and a librarian who accrued the largest collection of American minimalist and conceptual art in the world.

This morning she spends two hours at her office in Berkeley selling dresses - Tuesday and Thursday they are open to the public -

The office in Berkeley on Gilman 
She picks me up to visit the factory in East Oakland which makes her dresses. "I manufacture here because I want to support local business and also you also have more control." We walked past the graffitied vans and open the iron gate to see a large room of women sewing, a world of colour, pattern and whirring.
Lesley outside the dress factory in East Oakland 

"Welcome, Welcome!" they call from their sewing machines.  If it's lunchtime Lan loves to share their homemade noodle soup with Lesley and try and tempt her with delicacies like chicken feet.

Inside the dress factory in East Oakland, Lan and Lesley 

The owner Susan, 59, who left Vietnam 30 years ago for Oakland, lights up when I ask about Lesley's designs: "The material is very good and the design is very nice" - Susan breaks off and does a little dance, bouncing her hips from side-to-side and we all laugh - "for all women, walking, dancing, whatever they do in the day".

We laugh again when Susan's boyfriend Tony insists he is just her "helper". Then we load up with dresses and head out to San Francisco.

Tony outside the factory

Parking on Florida Street, South of Market we head down a narrow alleyway to the button factory, a magical little place where they also sew every kind of braid, stitching and trim you could think of.

Button factory, south of Market St in San Francisco

Over the next hour Lesley gets about ten calls from her sister Drew who is holding a trunk show in Charlotte, North Carolina. What size and colours do you have in the Jenna? Drew asks - and Lesley answers precisely each time even though she's in the car, not at the office.

Challenges: The first trunk shows averaged between $5,000 to $6,000, then the recession came and it was more like $2,000 per show. Although the company was still small it was an indicator of how much harder the market was. Now trunk show sales are up and boutique and online sales are the core of their business. Another challenge is planning 12 months in advance.  Decisions have to be made so far in advance and there is no break. They are selling for Spring now, cutting for Fall 2011 and designing for Spring 2012. A further challenge has to do with working with prints. Lesley saw a gap in the market for prints. She laughs: "Now I know why there was a gap in the market, there are so many things that can go wrong with prints".

It's only 5pm and I'm exhausted from our travels and in need of a reviving glass of Kim (see below No.3 reason I will never start a business) and I know Lesley will be going for another eight hours at least. Her designing day is just starting. Her husband Curtis says: "She's totally devoted from the moment she gets up until the moment she goes to bed. I'm her husband and I don't know how she does it."

Curtis and Lesley

So how does she do it?


1. My car is my mobile office with spare pairs of reading glasses, pads, pens and paper and bins in the back. As soon as know I need to deliver something - even if it's two weeks away - it goes in one of the bins in the back.

2. I pack all my food for the day which saves money and time. Also I have more control over what I'm eating.

3. I never drink in the evening because I have to work nights and feel sharp the next morning. I only drink socially on the weekends and we mostly go out in small groups with close friends. I like to get to know people through doing things together, through life experiences, not just socialising. Otherwise it feels forced and uncomfortable.

4. I like all the people I work with, that really gets me through the day. I have total confidence in them and their abilities.

5. I accept that people make mistakes and I don't let it bother me. If you don't do that then people become paralysed with indecision. If you are too controlling trying to ensure that mistakes don't happen, you don't let people take a stab at it, make the best of it, then take another stab. It's about the iterative, doing things again and again, each time with improvement. Everyone needs space to be creative - and by that I don't mean just artistically. All people are creative by nature. If everything is perfect you aren't pushing yourself. It's like skiing - if you don't fall down you will never improve. Life is about taking risk. If you want to be really good at something you have to take lots of risk. I guess that's why I'm not a good skier, I hate to fall down. Starting a business is messy and you have to comfortable with so much being unknown.

6. I try really hard to pace my schedule and be on time. This is to do with respect: I really respect other people; their time, their effort and I try to treat them really well.


  1. I love this post Jody! So nice to learn more about my FAVORITE Oakland designer! Thanks for giving me a shout out!

  2. What a wonderful insight into Lesley's life and world. It is amazing to see how of her much goes into her beautiful frocks!

  3. Thanks for this post Jody! I learned about Lesley recently from stopping in Jennifer's shop (bella vita, obviously). I can't wait to try out some of her dresses and support a great Oakland designer! It is also great to know how local all parts of her designing is, I love it!!

  4. Amazing, inspiring post! I'm so glad Lesley nudged you to start your blog!! :) Great interview- she is great at what she does and offers wonderful advice!

  5. that's really interestig !

    what about following each other ?

    ciao ave

  6. I love inspiring posts like these! I love her style. What a great designer she is!

  7. Great interview - I so enjoyed learning more about her. I admire people like this. They follow their dreams and while it is a lot of hard work, they can truly celebrate the fruits of their labor. Cheers to her!

  8. So inspiring, Jody!! Thank you for posting this. Leslie really does seem like a charming Southern Belle.
    Fabulous designs! I can vision her adding a children's clothing line as well. Is she hiring??? (just kidding) Really enjoyed reading this.
    I love stories like this. When people keep going and achieve success no matter how tough it gets. Sort of like "when the going gets tough, the tough get going."
    Love her attitude too. Being respectful to others is very important part of one's character.

  9. well, I'm lucky enough to have met Lesley several times, and I own many of her beautiful pieces (I get compliments on them everywhere from the White House to the Tory Burch store!), but it's been a lot of fun seeing the design & production process more in-depth, through this "day-in-the-life" you've done, Jody. Also, to learn more about Lesley - i know that she's a talented designer and kind person, but never knew her background as a painter in NYC, how she & Curtis met, what her daily routine looks like (yes, #3 would do me well to follow, too!), etc. And how cute are the Grandmothers!!!? Here's to Curtis, too, for helping it all work out! LHK

  10. sounds like an amazing woman. Those dresses are gorgeous!

  11. Wow she is a busy woman! Love this post, its so cool to hear her story and learn more about her :)

  12. I love everything about you and your friend! I love that she inspired you to start your own blog. That photo of you with your mom is adorable!

    How amazing is your friend Lesley, up so early in the morning and she keeps going all day and night. I have respect for a woman who does all that and doesnt complain or quit. She rocks!

    And you rock for being an amazing writer, mom, friend, woman, and an inspiration to others as well.

  13. I need to try that trick of not drinking during the week! maybe it will help :D

  14. wow i love her stuff! and her dedication and free spirit . . . thank you for the great post and introduction

  15. Oh I love this story!! I was in love with her dresses before & what a cool, grounded person she sounds like. & I *adore* the long printed dress with the watercolor feeling -- when is that coming out? How gorgeous!!

  16. I've just spent probably about 30 minutes reading this post... really soaking it in.

    I'm not usually at a loss for words, but I just want to say that it was truly inspiring. I'm feeling like I've been not surrounding myself (in the internet & real world) with truly positive, confident, creative people as of late. And not elevating myself. It's hard to explain... but I just want to thank you for sharing this. She is incredibly creative, and deliberate in everything that she does- professionally and personally. And what a great friend to encourage you to start a blog!!

    Thank again for sharing her story.

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  18. Thank you so much for writing this, Jody! You know I LOVE Lesley's clothes, and I have so much respect for her as a person and a business owner. I especially appreciate her philosophy regarding mistakes. I think sometimes I forget that I'm only human and I try way too hard to make everything perfect! (Case in point: I removed my previous post because of an aggregious spelling error! Hah!) We also owe her a debt of gratitude for encouraging you to write this wonderful, witty blog!


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