Rachel Konte’s OwlNWood
By Lou Fancher
In the midst of the 2007 recession, Danish-born designer Rachel Konte stepped away from a 15-plus-year career in corporate fashion and her then-current high-level position as design director at Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco to consider future options. “My whole career had been exciting and exhausting, so finding myself thinking of what to do next and founding OwlNWood and then Oakollective, a popup fashion shop I started with a friend, was me dabbling,” Konte says.
In 2021, Konte’s “dabbling” led not only to the Oakland resident becoming the founder/owner of the design and consulting studio OwlNWood and co-founder/operator of Oakollective—the shop is now inactive—but also to becoming chief of brand for Red Bay, the roaster and cafe her husband, Keba Konte, established in 2014. After years spent in corporate settings, she says life as an entrepreneur is liberating.
“I found curating my own vision was just so satisfying,” Konte says. “I was schooled in Levi culture, but I had become a good designer at designing primarily for that brand. It took maybe three years to find my vision, to see who I am.” Konte never looked back—except with gratitude for expertise sharpened and vital entrepreneurial skills gained. “As a designer, the challenge to execute whatever design is desired by a brand or a client, while also having the flavor of who I am remain in the design, was satisfying. It was always exciting, never the same thing; there’s a need to constantly exercise your design muscles. Levi’s challenged me and gave me opportunity to work with different people. Now I’m using that knowledge base for my own design models: simple, comfortable, casual classics and vintage clothing with contemporary styling.”
Recently, leading her own operation allowed Konte to join forces with Fredrika Newton, widow of the Black Panther Party’s Huey P. Newton, to design a fashion-clothing line with the Panther logo and the “All Power to the People” slogan. A portion of the proceeds circle back to the Huey P. Newton Foundation and more recently, through an exclusive brand, ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE PROJECT.LLC, to supporting Black female entrepreneurs. The product line in 2020 grew to encompass face masks, bandanas and other facial coverings that found impressive popularity during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement social-justice activities.
OwlNWood, in its earliest iteration, specialized in product development and custom design, producing a limited mix of casual apparel and lifestyle merchandise under the OwlNWood label. Oakollective expanded the offerings to include a wider array of casual clothing, upcycled vintage fashion, kitchenware, accessories and a curated collection of international fashion lines in a 3,000-square-foot store in downtown Oakland. Local makers and artists, many of them Black, set up tables and participated in popup speaking and music events. Konte is of Afro-Scandinavian heritage and says, “I come from complexity: a multicultural family and upbringing. My biological mom was Danish and my dad Nigerian. I was adopted, and my dad was part Polish, part German. He died when I was six. My mom was Norwegian, so I was basically raised by a single mom. This was in the 1970s and ’80s, so it was unusual. Oakollective gave me opportunity to support other designers and friends in the community.”
In 2019, after establishing the brick-and-mortar store in Old Oakland, and well before the pandemic hit, Konte closed the store and began converting her company to an all-online business. When Covid-19 shuttered people in their homes, and the killing of George Floyd lit a glaring light on the social inequities, violence and economic suffering of Black people and people of color in marginalized communities, Konte found herself ahead of the pack as e-commerce boomed.
Even so, she recalls, “As a Black-owned business suddenly in the Black Lives Matter, George Floyd era, there was a new kind of attention. My online business did really well. I and my friends felt we were finally being seen … but there was always the idea of ‘where will it all go?’ There’s always concern that—as Black-owned, women-owned businesses—the eye-opening attention and more opportunities for us are there only because it was a politically right thing to do and not because, maybe, we need these things created by Black people?”
Konte says she and other Black and women entrepreneurs supported each other in small organizations, sharing knowledge concerning essentials—like managing daily expenses and rent—during a stressful time. “There were also more holiday popup shows curated with Black businesses and supported in areas where we’d felt like unicorns before,” she says. “That internal support network has been beautiful. We can support each other and not be competitive. In my store even before the pandemic, I used to curate friends who’d join me and be inclusive with that, although online it’s harder to find that community and build on it.” The long-term solution? Konte says, “We need to give more space and place for these businesses in large-scale stores and larger venues.”
The name, OwlNWood, speaks first to the deep reverence Konte holds for owls. “I bow down to old wisdom, longevity, quality; which is a big part of my store,” she says. “Owls are spiritual and represent that to me.” Wood is a nod to Oakland, but the word also signals her appreciation for the durability of old oaks—and of vintage clothing. She attributes the latter to her mother, who with limited income was gifted with the ability to recognize value and quality in vintage goods and brought beauty into the family home.
“I had instincts about things that last and retain their value from that, and the ability to recognize high quality from working at Levi’s,” Konte says. Carrying vintage clothing that incorporates her own design was also smart marketing. The cost to create and produce a distinct, original fashion collection is exorbitant for small businesses. Incorporating classic vintage fashion with contemporary expression added otherwise hands-off possibilities: jackets, pants, shoes, sunglasses and other items paired with her signature T-shirts and sweatshirts. A well-known item, Konte’s Heart Oakland sweatshirt with a graphic heart hovering above the city’s name in lowercase letters, presented a strong match for line-expansion-type items.
Moving forward, Konte will focus on comfort and channeling her multi-mixed roots in a modern perspective. A friend in Kenya sends beautiful scarves that Konte pairs with basic sweatshirts, like the soft-jersey, soothing ocean-blue Made in Cali unisex sweatshirt. She enjoys juxtaposing handmade Senegalese beaded cuff bracelets with retro, tie-dye-style Earth Tee’s and a pair of jeans. “I love the past brought into combination with the future,” she says. “I like surprises such as Ethiopian scarves made with the methods of traditional weavers but with classic, more contemporary sailor stripes. I’d wear it with old jeans and a big sweater, or maybe with a floral dress. I like function and transcending expectations by allowing things to rest in themselves.” She says trends come and go, but well-designed fashion is something that endures without being disrupted by temporary shifts.
Asked about upcoming projects and movements in fashion she believes represent directions this fall and winter, Konte highlights color, followed closely by comfort and quality vintage clothing. “Coming out of Covid, there’s an excitement about socializing and getting out with people,” she says. “I’m still hearing a call for items that mean you can be comfortable but also dressed-up. There’s a call for more color overall: neutrals but with pops of bright colors that impact mood. I used to wear a lot of all-black, and now I find—after two years of tough emotions and rough political times—color lifts me up. We’re not following the typical fashion dictation of seasonal colors so much, especially with many of us leaving corporate settings and finding our own way. Personally, what makes me happy is to pay attention to color and textures. Looking at birds while having coffee with Keba today, we were struck by nature as a source of inspiration.”
More work with Newton on the All Power line, and a new collaboration with chef and cookbook author Bryant Terry, are exciting. “Our families have known each other from way back,” Konte says. “Bryant has always loved wearing OwlNWood. My style is unisex, so he’s been wearing my sweatshirts. He came to me a few months ago and said he was doing a new book and asked if we could do something together. I had been working on an American-made sweatshirt that is produced and garment-dyed in L.A., so we wouldn’t have the distribution delays and problems associated with the pandemic. I suggested we take the graphic of his book, Black Food, and do a black sweatshirt and little bags. It was fantastic working with him. He’s professional, trusting, hands-off, easygoing.”
In a separate interview, Terry says he’s big into design and has long desired a collaboration with Konte. He expects the new fashion to roll out along with the release of his book in mid-October.
Even farther down the stretch, Konte says interior decoration work she has been doing for friends in cafés and restaurants has her thinking about houseware, textiles, reupholstered vintage furniture, more sweatshirts and T’s with simple one-word messages that invite conversation and pots, pans and ceramics including bowls and vases with “those ’70s browns, deep-blues and maroons and other rich colors you found before computers did everything.” Is there anything else in her dream scenario? “I’m looking at my own line of leather bags and jackets,” she says. “I have patterns made and drawings styled. So …” Fingers crossed and spirits lifted by bold fall colors, there’s hope for more dabbling by Konte and new, signature fashion from OwlNWood.