By Julia Hannafin
“As the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we are one tough crowd here! We are not giving up,” said designer Stella Carakasi addressing a crowd of shoppers and supporters at the grand opening of her Stella Studio store at 1370 10th St. in West Berkeley on Wednesday. The event also celebrated Stella Carakasi’s parent company Two Star Dog‘s 20th anniversary.
The new Stella Studio store is located in the Gilman corridor, a once booming shopping area of Berkeley that was dealt a blow by the recession. “We have seen this area be a bustling business area, but when the economy went down in 2008, it literally became a ghost town,” said Carakasi.
Two Star Dog, at 1370 10th St., was started in Berkeley in 1993 by Allan and Steven Boutrous. Carakasi joined the company shortly after its founding as head designer. Two Star Dog made design history as the first U.S. company to create a clothing line made entirely of hemp, unheard of at the time. With Carakasi’s influence, an initially menswear-centered line quickly became a woman’s line. When the eco-market crumbled in the late 1990s due to a slew of bad manufacturers giving eco-friendly clothes a bad rep, Two Star Dog began to incorporate other fabrics and came to be known as a natural fiber clothes company.
“I wanted to be a fashion designer ever since I can remember,” said Carakasi this week. Her road to a label with her name on it is an interesting one. Born and raised in Germany by Greek parents, Carakasi initially pursed one of her natural talents: language. In Germany it is essentially mandatory for students to learn English by the time they reach high school, so by Carakasi’s graduation she was fluent in four languages – English, French, German, and Greek.
Her mother was a sample seamstress, but did not want Carakasi to follow the same path. Even though Carakasi was heavily discouraged from a career in fashion, she grew up surrounded by it. “I’ve always been around clothing; I’ve seen how clothing was constructed since my childhood.”
Carakasi went to college for English and French, and became a translator, following along the academic route her parents desired for her. But she knew it was not her future. After she graduated college, a friend attending graduate school at UC Berkeley encouraged her to come visit for at least a summer.
“When I came to Berkeley that summer, I knew I wasn’t going to go back. I knew it was the place for me to be. It clicked.” Following her visit, Carakasi took the leap and, to the dismay of her parents, went to design school. She quickly got a job in the industry after graduation. It was at that job that she met her current business partners, Allan and Steven Boutrous.
After economic struggles after 2008’s financial crisis, Two Star Dog decided to completely reinvent themselves. Carakasi had been head designer for the company for more than 15 years at that point, and her business partners pushed her to pursue her passion and finally put her name on the new label. The new brand, Stella Carakasi, became a reality two years ago.
“I had my own vision for what I wanted to do eventually, and that was the perfect platform for me to finally… recreate the things that I wanted to see,” explained Carakasi, whose main mission in her designs is to create for the “real woman.” She describes herself as a practical designer, one who designs with practicality as a priority. “I cater to the real woman,” she said. “We have busy lives, and we don’t have time to do much of the fancy shopping. You need practicality, but still want to look good.”
Stella Carakasi also does a great deal of its manufacturing in-house, while most major clothing brands rely on oversees manufacturers. The brand’s offices and warehouse are located right behind the new Stella Studio Berkeley store.
At Stella Studio’s grand opening on Wednesday, councilmembers Susan Wengraf and Laurie Capitelli read a proclamation from Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates expressing his support for the company reaching its 20th anniversary. They praised Two Star Dog for its role as a major employer for the city and its status as an eco-friendly garment manufacturer, calling the company both a great space for community gathering and a model employer. “All of us appreciate and love our independent stores,” said Capitelli.
Over the years Stella Carakasi has donated to a long list of local charities and schools, including Berkeley High School, The Berkeley School, Children’s Hospital, and many others. Carakasi said her recent passion is the Yoru Foundation and she introduced Lama Lakshey Zangpo, a Tibetan Buddhist Lama who is the Vice Principal of Tibet’s Sengdruk Taktse School, at the opening.
Sendruk Taktse School, which is supported by the Joru Foundation, is an elementary and middle school run by Tibetan Lamas for orphans and impoverished children. A portion of Stella Carakasi’s online sales, which launched two months ago, will go towards helping the school.
Julia Hannafin is a summer intern at Berkeleyside and a student at Columbia University studying creative writing and American studies. She writes for the music blog The Metropolitan Jolt.
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