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Behind the Design: East Bay Fashion All-Stars

These three savvy designers and boutique owners are changing the face of fashion.


With an eye for innovation, a finger on the pulse of what’s trending, and the brains to build a business, these three designers and boutique owners are redefining fashion from the East Bay.


Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Candid With Candice

The reality TV star brings a healthy dose of high fashion to Walnut Creek and beyond.

Sipping a hibiscus tea at Walnut Creek’s Coffee Shop, Candice Cuoco can’t help but stand out. While it could be her fire engine red lipstick and jet-black hair that are warranting a few double takes, it’s likely her run to the finale of the most recent season of Project Runway that’s drawing the second glances. Cuoco impressed the judges with her avant-garde take on design, mixing her use of unconventional materials with a wearable, edgy style.  

Instead of using the show’s momentum to pack up and jet to a fashion mecca like New York or Paris, Cuoco chose to put down roots in Walnut Creek, where she has opened a new work studio. As she tried to decide between preparing for the London or Los Angeles fashion weeks, we caught up with Cuoco to talk about her stint on the reality competition show, the inspiration behind her nontraditional designs, and why the East Bay suburbs are primed for a big dose of high fashion.


Q:  How did you get on Project Runway?

A: [The show] reached out to me. I don’t know how they found me. I told my daughter that I didn’t think I was going to do it since I would be away from my kids. I remember her standing up on her tippy toes and getting in my face. She said, “If you do not do this, I will be so disappointed in you.” I submitted at 11:59 p.m. the day [the application] was due.


Q: What was it like being on the show?

A: Project Runway felt like my version of heaven. They feed you, take you to a giant beautiful studio where you get to work, provide all of your materials, and give you inspiration for what you need to do. It was stressful, but I didn’t realize how worth it it was until I made it halfway through. Being that close and realizing you may not make it to the end was maybe the worst.


Q: What was the most memorable piece you created for the show?

A: The most memorable piece for me was surprisingly not the week that I won, but my three-dimensional avant-garde gown. [Visiting judge] Mel B. said she wanted to wear it to a red-carpet event. It just shocked me because some of the judges weren’t too crazy about the gown, but that’s OK because I loved it.


Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Q: On the show and off, you tend to use a lot of leather. Why?

A: I have a personal connection with it. A lot of qualities I love about women, I love about leather. I love how much you can put it through, and it still passes the test of time. There’s a strong message behind leather when women wear it. It makes you feel good, more confident; it gives you an edge.


Q: Is your style similar to your designs?

A: That was a lesson I learned on Project Runway. In the beginning, I would create things that I probably wouldn’t wear. I would do color and all these crazy pieces because it felt good to create them. One day, [Heidi Klum] was critiquing me and said, “You have a cool style; you’re put together really well. Why don’t you make pieces that you would wear?” That hit me, and it’s recently changed my aesthetic.


Q: Out of all the places in the world where a successful fashion designer could set up a studio, why Walnut Creek?

A: I’ve stuck out like a sore thumb since I’ve gotten here, but I like to watch the women. They have this very powerful elegance—they are a soft punch to your face. It’s hard to do, and it’s a hard thing to pull off. It’s also a great place for my two kids to be, and it’s close enough to the city that I can still work there when I need to.


Q: What’s up next for you?

A: I’m collaborating with This Is Ground. The owner [and leather designer] Mike Macadaan is probably one of the coolest guys you’ll meet. He is really down-to-earth, cares about his product, and creates functional pieces. I’m really excited about my design and his design coming together. It’s got a story to it, and that’s what I love.


Q: And after that? Is there a master plan?

A: I’d like to be in a number of different stores, but it has to be the right relationship. Some of my pieces would do well in Saks; others would do well in London. I would love to be a costume designer for a few films in the near future. Down the line, I don’t want to do brick and mortar for 10 years, but you never know in fashion. I’m the kind of woman that doesn’t turn down anything. ccuoco.com. —Caitlin McCulloch


Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Looking Back With Erica

The Berkeley-based designer reflects on 25 years of crafting timeless pieces.

For more than two decades, Erica Tanov has cultivated a lifestyle based on an effortless, bohemian aesthetic. Tanov settled back in the East Bay in 1994 with an eye on designing lingerie and loungewear dedicated to detail and craftsmanship. Since then, the Berkeley resident’s brand has expanded into a complete women’s collection, home goods line, two retail stores, and a book showcasing her work. Here, Tanov shares what she’s learned.

— “My customers have grown and aged with me. There are pieces from the first collection that I can wear now that still feel relevant, and I think other people feel the same way.“

— “Nature plays a big part in my design process. Whether that means taking a leaf pattern and putting that into my fabrics or just the overall feeling I get being surrounded by trees, it’s crucial for me.“

— “At Tilden Nature Area, I love the walk around Jewel Lake: the trees and ferns; the shade with dappled sun; the moist, damp feeling.”

— “For the past few years, I’ve collaborated with local artists to create prints using their art. I’ve worked with Berkeley artists Lena Wolff and Emily Payne, and this year, I’m collaborating with Oakland artist Kelly Ording.”

— “I’d love to continue doing collaborations with artists. It makes what I do more rewarding and meaningful to me, and I think it lets other people see two worlds come together to make something really beautiful.”

— ”For the brand’s 25th anniversary, I gave photo-grapher Todd Hido access to my archives. I wanted to work with him because he’s not a fashion photographer. It was his eerie, haunting, beautiful sensibility I was after.”

— ”I’m still a small, independent designer. I believe in doing things with integrity: producing locally, using artisans, and making as small a footprint as possible.”

— ”In the end, no amount of financial success can change the fact that, if you’re not feeling good about what you’re producing or designing or creating, it will feel a little empty. I would tell other people to stay true to their vision. I’m happy I’ve done that.” ericatanov.com. —Lexi Pandell


Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Talking Shop With Sherri

From the runway to real life, one Oakland boutique owner continues to redefine high fashion.

Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Continent hopping is all in a normal day’s work in the stylish life of Sherri McMullen, Oakland resident and owner of haute couture Piedmont boutique McMullen. She flies to Europe five times a year, culling inspiration from foreign runway shows and designers who have an adventurous side that you won’t find in the States. “In London and Paris, they experiment more,” she says. “The risks they take with lines, patterns, and silhouettes help infuse my inventory with a unique perspective.”

After the shows—trend notes taken, favorite pieces committed to memory, and iPhone photos shot—she’s off to designer showroom appointments to curate her store’s collection while chatting up the glamorazzi’s best and brightest. Here, business meets the pleasure of fashion, and McMullen hits her well-heeled stride.

For as long as she can remember, McMullen has loved fashion, but not in the must-create-it kind of way. “I’ve always been drawn to its business side: How the product got to stores and how it got into consumers’ closets,” she says.

After majoring in business and working as a buyer for Neiman Marcus, she helped launch Pottery Barn Kids as a textile buyer. “The thrill of taking something from scratch and shaping it was addictive—it left me wanting my own store,” says McMullen. She fine-tuned her business plan for four years, making sure the store’s pillars were foolproof and its location ideal.

“No one was doing high fashion in Oakland, or no one was doing it well,” says McMullen. “It also didn’t hurt that I lived there and loved it. If the store had beautiful products and exceptional customer service, everything else would fall into place.”

McMullen opened the doors in 2007 and in almost a decade has grown the boutique into a destination for high fashion with a fresh edge—stocking elusive labels such as Marni, Ryan Roche, Brother Vellies, Tanya Taylor, and Rosie Assoulin. “We carry brands you can’t find anywhere else in the East Bay and in limited stock because—let’s be honest—no one wants to see someone wearing the same thing,” says McMullen.

Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Entering the store is an experience in itself. Clothes and accessories are displayed like art instead of being crammed onto shelves. For McMullen, finding the right mix is a labor of love. “You can’t just pluck from the runway: I lay out all the photos I’ve taken of the upcoming season on a big table and over hours, eliminate 30 percent,” she says.

With twentysomethings to moms in her client wheelhouse, McMullen’s impeccable eye and skill for selecting the perfect cuts make her a curator of fresh fashion. “You can get the jist of pattern mixing, but you can’t learn what looks good on women’s bodies. You’re born knowing, and no amount of fashion school is going to tell you,” she says. But what’s most important to McMullen—more than the clothes—is her relationship with clients.  

“I try to anticipate what my customers want before they know they want it,” she says. This includes launching a two-hour delivery service within a 20-mile radius and a window display you can scan with your phone to purchase items. McMullen also posts behind-the-scenes peeks—and some of the boutique’s more avant-garde inventory—on Pinterest and Instagram, and has had designer samples shipped to the store for private viewings. “It’s like we’re pulling for family,” McMullen says.

McMullen focused her business and style instincts on Oakland nearly 10 years ago, and like this spring’s shoulder-baring tops and chunky heels, the city is now trending. A combination of veteran businesses, a growing art and food scene, and a younger, more discerning crowd has changed the city’s silhouette. “There’s a special energy here, and people are expecting something with a totally different, distinctive point of view,” she says. “It fits McMullen to a T.”  shopmcmullen.com. —Sarah Damassa


McMullen’s Favorite Brands

Ulla Johnson: “When I saw her first 10-piece collection, I knew there was something so special in her work,” says McMullen, who’s been carrying the line—a customer favorite—ever since. “The wearability of her clothes really appeals to women.”

Ryan Roche: This do-good designer works with an all-female co-op in Nepal, helping to support families by providing sustainable wages. “It’s fashion that believes in something meaningful,” McMullen says.

Rosie Assoulin: “She’s modern, cool—think dresses paired with cargo pants. And red-carpet celebs love her less-formal sportswear feel,” says McMullen.

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