Designer Rachel Konte has always been drawn to basics. Which doesn’t mean that you won’t score some colorful vintage prints inside her Old Oakland boutique, OwlNWood. It does mean that if you learn about her style philosophy, you might just learn more about yours.
“With basics you can have cool and interesting people wearing the same piece so differently. I like creating those types of products that you can put together and let the person set their style,” she said. “I’m trying to leave it up to the consumer rather than dictating the look for them.”
Rachel’s love affair with basics formed over her lengthy career at Levi’s. After graduating from design school in Copenhagen, where she was born and raised, her second job out of school was working on designing the company’s Scandinavian collection. She moved up the ladder, eventually landing in San Francisco as director of women’s products for the U.S.
“It has taken me a while to figure out what kind of designer I am, I always had to work for corporations and was designing for them, so it’s an interesting perspective when you get to design for yourself.”
In 2012 she opened OwlNWood on Grand Avenue in Uptown Oakland, a brick and mortar shop selling international and American brands, select vintage products, and local designers. At the time there were only a few other boutique retailers in the area and Occupy Oakland was in full protest, but Oakland First Fridays brought people in from all over, and she gained momentum. Back then it was a lot of hustling, she said, but she was helped along with a well of support from the community and other Oakland-based entrepreneurs.
“We are deliberately in a community of people making it on their own. That’s the spirit of Oakland: no one hands us anything on a silver platter, and a lot of us opened businesses because we had to,” she said.
Earlier this year she relocated the store to 9th Street in Old Oakland, in a quietly budding shopping district near other independent Oakland retailers Bosk, Maple Street Denim, Umami Mart and Marion Rose.
Her small batch line, O.N.W., is made up of simple silhouettes in soft and comfortable fabrics, sometimes with printed graphics, and often in one-size fits all. Items are made at a sewing factory in Oakland.
“It has taken me a while to figure out what kind of designer I am, I always had to work for corporations and was designing for them, so it’s an interesting perspective when you get to design for yourself. I knew that I did not want to reinvent anything new, I really just liked super basic sweatshirts, t-shirts, and one pocket t-shirts.”
In her self-discovery as a designer she leaned towards comfort, quality and simplicity, while taking inspiration on sizing from vintage shopping. Like any good thrifter can relate to, she was drawn to the idea that typically there’s just one vintage piece in one size, creating a dance that’s much more personal between the product and the person. She believes that making beautiful, classic basics that work for different body types allows dressers more freedom to express themselves.
“I think it makes people relieved when there is just one size, the fashion industry pushes us to feel guilty if we’re not a small or medium,” she said. “So, this is a different way of looking at it, and it’s been liberating.”
Thanks to photographer Laila Bahman for the photo shoot in collaboration with Rachel. Laila is a self-taught Arab-American portrait photographer. She creates images with directors for their films, makes photo stories with editors and likes to get creative with clients.