Clean white walls, natural light, simple vintage finds, and a giant black and white image of Sade make up the overall aesthetic of OwlNWood's new location in Old Oakland. Upon walking in, I was greeted by the warm smile of Rachel Konte. A Copenhagen native who came to the Bay in the 90s to work for Levi's, Rachel's style is effortless and laid back, something she attributes to her Scandinavian background. After a quick introduction, we walked across the street to bask in the Oakland sun and talk about her background, sources of inspiration, and recent move from Grand Ave.
On her background
"I went to design school in the late 80s and early 90s. I actually worked for Levi's Europe and was then transferred to San Francisco. I ending up staying, meeting my husband, and I worked for Levi's for almost 15 years. The last year I was the design director for women, so basically I designed jeans."
On starting the store
"In 2009 there was a big layoff, at Levi's and many other places, and when I got laid off I thought 'well what am I going to do now?'. I never thought I would have a store; I was always on the design end of stuff. But it gets really stressful in the corporate world, so I had little dreams of doing my own thing. After a year or two, I took a business class through Women's Initiative, I think it's called Renaissance now. The initial plan was to do an online store with just vintage furniture and housewares. I love vintage secondhand furniture! But that same year I met another friend from London who was also a designer, and at that time, in 2011, Oakland didn't really have all these small stores. We saw this huge 3000 square foot space in Downtown Oakland that was boarded up and unused, so we went to the city and asked if we could put something there. We ended up doing a pop-up shop for a year and a half - it was supposed to just be three months! That's when I started to do my own little line and mixed in my personal vintage finds. It made me comfortable with the idea of opening my own store, so in 2012 I decided to take my little savings and try to find a spot. My first spot ended up being on Grand Avenue, which was such a dream location. I wanted it to be in an older building, and it was in such a cute area that was up and coming. So I started the store in the summer of 2012, and it was focused on vintage finds and local designers."
On moving to Old Oakland
"Recently I was ready to close down. I really wanted to sell my own products, but you can't do it all because I spent a lot of money buying my wholesale products. But then I got this amazing opportunity right when I was about to close it down. This new store is really exciting because it's half the size of the other store. I decided to just do women's and focus in a little bit. When you decide to revamp it can be really fun! I took the best of what I had and put in slightly new products. My vintage selection was heightened a little bit; it's more unique and special selected items. The most exciting part of this store was that I was able to connect with and old friend and patternmaker from my Levi's days and found a local place to make my own stuff. So I actually have my own product line at the store. Styling and decorating it is also fun! This location has a more modern look while the other one was more rustic."
Pictured above: Black and white stripe tees and rust dress are part of Rachel's ONW by OwlNWood collection.
On her clothing line, ONW by OwlNWood
"It's a basic collection with really nice fabrics. I like really simple shapes, really loose shapes. That's probably a Scandinavian thing. So all my styles right now are just one size, and then people can wear them as they fit their body. Hopefully when the collection is bigger I'll be able to accommodate more sizes."
On the importance of vintage
"I like to bring the quality of older things in with the new stuff. As a designer at Levi's, we spent so much time trying to recreate the old stuff, but we could never get the quality. I felt like this was a way for me to get really high quality at a decent price. My own line is very simplistic, but when I look for vintage I always get attracted to patterns and beautiful, sometimes odd, things. I'm probably drawn to the 70s and 80s a lot. Sometimes I'll pull out a jacket that most people would say 'oh this is so horrible, the patterns are so 80s', but when it's put in a different environment, a more modern situation, I think it has real strength compared to the mass produced patterns. What I love about those eras is how they put colors together. Sometimes it's just the perfect green and the perfect brown. There's a little more soul to the way they put patterns together because they didn't have computers then. I work now on a computer myself, even at Levi's I did, but by hand it's a little slower, a little more intuition. So I really like that."
A view of the store from the outside. Rachel is also a graphic designer and designed the new logo when moving to this location.
On vintage sourcing
"I'm always on the hunt, and that can happen anywhere. I go to Alameda Flea Market once a month and work with special brokers who do wholesale. But you have to get there at like 5:00 in the morning for that. Sometimes I'll travel to their warehouses, and that's their livelihood so they get so much stuff from all over. When you get close with them, they get to know your style. So sometimes they'll bring a box with just what I'm looking for. Overall, it's an ongoing thing. I get new vintage once a month or just whenever I find something. There's a lot of excitement in finding the right stuff!"
"This sweater is just beautiful, even the tag. They just don't make things like this anymore"
On Scandinavian style versus American style
"At least in Denmark, where I'm from, sexy is defined in a different way. It's a little less overt. Americans are more feminine in their style. In Denmark, granted a lot of people are very tall and thin, so they get away with a lot. But they have a kind of natural, less overt sexy style. It's less about your body and more about how you put it all together. However, if something is "fashion", everybody wears it. You can't miss it! But they dress really well and spend a lot of time and energy on styling themselves really well. They put things together in a way you wouldn't expect and it can be really fun and daring."
Rachel carries her own unique blend of oil perfume that she likes to wear.
"There's something very laid back about Oakland. People have their own style. It's different from New York where people maybe feel like they have to look a certain way to be taken seriously. Here I think there's a lot of different looks that people can wear. It gives me, as a store owner, complete freedom to create my own look. I'm not trying to follow a specific style or trend; I like for people to create their individual style with my product offering at the store. The challenge is that there's not as many people, and maybe fashion isn't the first thing on people's mind. So to find that niche and have people actually support all the local stores can at times be a challenge. We don't have critical mass yet, but I think it's growing. Oakland is putting the stamp in the ground like 'we're here!'"
Rachel also carries a variety of beauty products, including this "Oakland Stay Fresh" soap by Stoaked.
"The frustrating thing that I think every little store is challenged with is having a cash flow. A lot of us didn't have a big investment at first, so it's a bit like living month-to-month. And as a small store, it's hard to get loans and support, so sometimes you feel a bit on your own."
...and on rewards
"The most exciting thing is, well, when I was opening this new store, it was great seeing the community come out and support it. I also get this great feeling when people come up to me and tell me 'oh I got this jacket from your store' and they're wearing it in a really cool way. The best thing is when I have this really cool, unique item and the perfect person comes in and it fits them perfectly. The challenge with vintage is that there's only one size, so it has to be a real match. When it happens, it's just the best. That's what I love."
Oh, and finally, on that giant poster of Sade
"She's just so timeless. That photo was taken over 30 years ago in the early 1980s, but she still looks so modern. She's an inspiration."
So, what did I end up trying on? A lot of things! I tried some of Rachel's own line, ONW by OwlNWood, and it definitely lives up to the hype. The fabrics are super soft and the silhouettes drape beautifully. Featured in the ever-so-necessary in-store mirror selfies are Rachel's 3/4 sleeve oversized sweatshirt in cream, her black and white stripe tee, and a casual oversized vintage blazer that I actually ended up purchasing. Everything in the store fits together beautifully, and you can definitely see Rachel's Scandinavian influence and eye for unique vintage come together with every item.
You can find Rachel at 471 9th Street in Old Oakland and follow the shop on Facebook or Instagram for updates and inspiration. If you enjoyed the post, don't forget to follow me on Facebook and Instagram as well! Many thanks to Rachel for letting me chat with her and for sharing her beautiful space with me and the rest of the world. Stay tuned for who I'll feature next!
The lovely Rachel holding some fun tee shirts by Jenny Strange.