‘Barbie’ may have influenced Rockridge shop owner, but don’t tell her that
By Lou Fancher
Fashion designer Lesley Evers owns an original 1977 GMC Palm Beach RV with olive green plaid seats and shag carpeting that’s very similar to the one owned by toymaker Mattel’s iconic Barbie doll. Her line of women’s apparel and accessories also features matching outfits with classic cuts rendered in celebratory, playful fabrics occasionally designed with retro ’60s-style eye-popping pinks, sun-never-sets yellows, clear sky blues and Granny Smith greens.
Paradoxically, though, the clothing and items in Evers’ College Avenue store in Oakland’s Rockridge district have nothing to do with the Barbie-crazed all-things-pink movement sweeping the nation now that Hollywood director Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” film is showing now in movie theaters. Or perhaps that’s overstating the case, because Evers’ decision in 2008 to found her dress company was the result of a spark lit by Barbie clothing.
“I don’t really go to movies, sorry,” Evers says, apologizing for her cinematic delinquency before getting to the big disclaimers for her sleek RV ride and clothing designs that bear inadvertent similarities to the Barbie universe. “I didn’t have a Barbie and didn’t even play with dolls (as a girl). It wasn’t a thing I was into.
“My parents both went to Berkeley High in the ’50s and in the ’60s, so dolls and Barbie culture were not popular and my mother was not buying me Barbie dolls. She did sew, though, and made little outfits I’d put on my cat and push around in a stroller.”
Evers did also, however, have a friend very much into Barbie whose mother made a full set of Barbie outfits for Evers, despite her not having an actual Barbie doll.
“I remember the detail and the little hangers. It was the first time I was wowed by clothing. They were outrageous, with trim. They were kooky and special, and she made at least a dozen pieces. Who does that?
“And it was women’s clothing, not baby doll clothing. It was sophisticated and still playful, so yeah, I suppose that was the seed planted for what I do now.”
When she was in second grade, Evers and her family moved from the Bay Area to Charlotte, North Carolina. After studying architecture and art history at the University of Pennsylvania, she and her husband, Curtis Evers, returned to the area in 1997. While raising their two sons, Chase and Will, now 24 and 21 respectively, she maintained a busy career as a strategic planning consultant for large companies.
Along the way, she grew frustrated with dress-shopping in stores and began making her own clothing featuring simple A-line dress cuts, geometric prints and colors reminiscent of 1960s designs from Finland’s Marimekko company. For reasons even she can’t entirely explain, she began to search for a vintage recreational vehicle. The 1977 model she found that resembles the Barbie motorhome is hence another unintentional happenstance.
“It took five years to find it, and I’ve had it for five years. I just fell in love with it. The Palm Beach was so advanced for its time. It has a vacuum installed right in the wall. You just plug in the tube and can clean the whole RV. It has a wet bath that’s fiberglass, and the sofa back flips out and turns into a bunk bed that suspends from the ceiling.
“My kids were 9 and 13 when I started looking for it, but its took so long to find that when we got it they said, ‘We’re not sleeping in the bunk beds.’ They were too big for the beds by then, but we did take it during COVID to tour colleges for Will.”
The RV’s interior and everything else are original. The owners who lived in Iowa had only taken it to football games, so it was “fresh,” Evers says. It even came with 1970s eight-track tapes and a player.
“Do you know it has leveling that works like airbags to level it if you park on something uneven. It’s wacky,” she says.
What’s not wacky are the little repairs the engine often needs, but for that, Evers counts on the fix-anything skills of her husband.
“The engine is under the plywood floor right under the front seats. I can sit in my captain’s chair when he pulls it up and see the engine and the ground below it. He gets his tools, works his magic, puts the floor down, and we’re off again.”
Evers’ savvy business and marketing skills and her instinctive, astute eye for form, line and color as a designer are an equal match to her spouse’s mechanical abilities. Deciding to open her store in 2012, she chose to have everything made locally, maintained a tight inventory and relied on herself to be the sole, early investor.
“I continued consulting, drawing no income from the business for eight years. Everything I made, I reinvested into the business. I didn’t start with funding, I just started with credit cards. It’s not a business for getting funding: You can’t just say, ‘I want to make dresses’ and people give you $200,000 dollars. Fashion is difficult, but I just stuck to it.”
From the beginning, marching outfits, classic vintage design, bold use of color and awareness — but never strict obedience — to fashion trends or movements defined Evers’ clothing.
“I try to make things flattering. I’m practical because I want the dress to look great and the women to feel confident. The form and shape are so important I will obsess about one-quarter-inch differences. I’m no-frills, bows or ruffles, but I do like bold prints and colors.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Evers had to close the store and let staff go. She turned to mask-making, rested and even considered leaving the industry. Rejuvenated, she says the online shopping boom of the pandemic continues — from 2021 to 2022, online purchases tripled and are on track to double in 2023.
Evers and her team are negotiating contacts to open more stores in other states in addition to California.
“I guess I’m just good at knowing what will be good,” she says about a pink corduroy pantsuit that’s had a bump from the movie and the Ruthie dress that was a slow-starter before she posted a short video online that went viral and sold out in one day.
“It’s so flukey. I just need to show things I feel confident about, maybe in a different way like a video, and they sell. It’s a wonderful puzzle.”