Fashion forward

› culture@sfbg.com

Looking at fashion designer Miranda Caroligne today, it’s hard to imagine she ever did anything other than sew and sell clothing. In addition to running her namesake boutique on 14th Street, she manages the co-op Trunk, peddles her wares at events across the country, and was asked to write Reconstructing Clothes for Dummies (For Dummies, 2007). Thanks to her gorgeous, whimsical, reconstructed styles, as well as her dedication to environmentalism and artistic community, she has become a well-reputed force in the SF indie fashion scene and beyond.

But she didn’t start that way — and the road to the present was neither easy nor direct.

Caroligne grew up in the woodland areas of Rhode Island with her mom, an elementary school teacher and brilliant seamstress, and her dad, a textile scientist. As a child, she spent most of her time hiking, exploring, or working on creative crafts with her mom, developing equal interest in both art and science. By high school, she was passionate about three very different subjects: writing, health care, and fashion. But when she got to the University of Rhode Island, she chose her major based on which jobs she thought would be available after she graduated. Health care won by a long shot. "And I was afraid of this thing called writer’s block," she jokes. Sewing remained a captivating pastime.

After graduating with a MS in physical therapy in 2000, Caroligne began working with children who had sensory system problems in Washington, DC. "Being young and having a job that relied on my physical strength — that time was psychologically stressful," she recalls.

Caroligne’s stress level hit the roof after a bicycling accident in 2003, which left her with a crushed nerve in her neck. Her physical strength had failed her, and she was without a job. It was a sign that it was time to turn her lifelong hobby, fashion design, into a career. With her short-term disability insurance and unemployment checks, she moved to Boston and found an art studio, where she spent nearly all her time at the sewing machine. "Sometimes when I don’t know what to do, I just do," she explains. "I’m not one to be idle." She spent so much time working at the studio that she decided to sublease her apartment, leaving her nowhere to sleep but on friends’ couches. After a few months of couch-surfing, she cashed her unemployment checks and moved across the country to pursue a career in fashion.

It was January 2005, and Caroligne lived in a closet in her friend’s apartment. Her only possessions were a disco ball, which hung from the ceiling next to the skylight, a sewing machine, and a few pieces of colorful fabric draped over a stretch canvas which served as sewing material by day and bedding by night. Soon, she found her dream store in the heart of the Mission District.

She opened the shop in November of that year. About the size of a large dorm room, the cluttered space is filled with radiant, one-of-a-kind garments that reflect many years of hard work. She stitches them with a beat-up machine that faces a window on the street, so she can smile and wave to people as they pass. Her wares are reconstructed garments (made from donated clothing that she dismantles and pieces back together in different ways), articles produced from original patterns, and offcut items (made from the leftover scraps she accumulates while working on patterned pieces).

And her reuse of materials is more than just style — it’s an outgrowth of the environmentalism she learned as a kid. Caroligne advocates sustainability and makes use of almost every shred of old fabric, no matter how big or small. "I have this philosophy of not having sizes," she says. "I alter everything to fit." Sometimes she lets her customers alter pieces with her, so inspired buyers can learn how to make clothing on their own. "Part of the reason the sewing machine’s out is to show people they can do it, too."

To share her philosophy, Caroligne agreed to write Reconstructing Clothes for Dummies in the fall of 2007, encouraging fellow fashionistas to reuse old materials. She was surprised to reach not only an earth-loving, crafty crowd but also a non-sewing, mainstream audience. People were motivated to salvage their materials, whether they made their own clothes or not. Now, her style is becoming so popular with typical shoppers that some conventional retailers have started "faking" reconstruction. But Caroligne says her authentic pieces are about reducing waste and avoiding conformity, not just about looking good.

Now, on a typical Friday afternoon at her boutique, as she sits at her old-fashioned sewing machine with a pile of white, ruffly fabric exploding out from under it, she waves playfully at a child strolling past the shop with his family. Another woman walks in and gives Caroligne a hug. "It’s less about fashion and more about meeting people, helping them get in touch with themselves," she says. She wants everyone to be able to express themselves by wearing clothes that reveal how they feel. While her designs are meant to be fashionable, they’re carefully crafted based on how they feel and move while wearing them. Her background in physical therapy helps her understand the way fabrics are supposed to flow with the body, as well as how light or heavy the materials should be. She tests most of her skirts and dresses for these characteristics, because she says the weight of a fabric can change the way someone walks in it, depending on his or her physical composition. "They don’t teach you that in fashion school," she says, noting that she’s glad she didn’t attend. "It’s rigid."

Most designers she knows went to fashion school, though, and have taken a more standard route: they’ve created clothing lines and sold them to national retailers. While this route is probably the easiest, Caroligne says she’ll never regret opening her neighborhood boutique and sewing her designs herself. "There’s a life that happens when hanging up a new piece," she says. Curiously, it’s the one people ooh and ahh over when entering the store, even though everything looks new to them when it’s their first time in. Caroligne gets new ideas when sewing one-of-a-kind articles, which she says wouldn’t happen if other people sewed the clothes for her.

This March, however, Caroligne and her sales rep plan to start taking orders for a nationally distributed clothing line — without abandoning her boutique. Her "adult contemporary" collection will comprise pieces she has crafted for her store and her fashion shows, which are usually fundraising events for groups such as the Black Rock Arts Foundation.

On top of everything, she runs a sustainable art-retail-fashion cooperative, Trunk, in Upper Haight. Formerly known as Pandora’s Trunk, the shop has been renovated inside and out since she and her business partner split last fall. Caroligne says the corporate structure and leadership has changed, and for the first time it feels like a true San Francisco co-op, where people encourage each other and each other’s art. "There’s a sense of community support in San Francisco," she says, thinking about the differences between the Bay Area and Boston. "People live better here." Now there’s more space for local designers in the store, including the San Francisco–born, world-renowned company Wildlife Works, whose proceeds benefit endangered species and help create jobs and schools in Kenya. Caroligne donates regularly to Wildlife Works, which gives her scrap fabric and clothing in exchange. She uses the leftovers for her reconstructed and offcut designs, noting that this swap is just another way she likes to support the community and reinforce its connectedness.

Years after accomplishing her goal of becoming a successful designer, she has only one piece of advice for others with a similar ambition: "Just do it." She remembers one of her college professors who’d had many different jobs in various fields, and back then she thought he was a failure. But now his story inspires her.

"There are different ways of looking at life: you can work to financially support the life you want to live, or you can figure out a way to make the thing you love to do a source of financial stability," she says. With a humble smile, she adds: "I think I’ve found success in that." *

MIRANDA CAROLIGNE

485 14th St., SF. (415) 355-1900, www.mirandacaroligne.com

TRUNK

544 Haight, SF. (415) 861-5310, www.myspace.com/trunksf