"Part of the reason the sewing machine's out is to show people they can do it, too."
To share her philosophy, Caroligne agreed to write Reconstructing Clothes for Dummies in the fall of 2007, encouraging fellow fashionistas to reuse old materials. She was surprised to reach not only an earth-loving, crafty crowd but also a non-sewing, mainstream audience. People were motivated to salvage their materials, whether they made their own clothes or not. Now, her style is becoming so popular with typical shoppers that some conventional retailers have started "faking" reconstruction. But Caroligne says her authentic pieces are about reducing waste and avoiding conformity, not just about looking good.
Now, on a typical Friday afternoon at her boutique, as she sits at her old-fashioned sewing machine with a pile of white, ruffly fabric exploding out from under it, she waves playfully at a child strolling past the shop with his family. Another woman walks in and gives Caroligne a hug. "It's less about fashion and more about meeting people, helping them get in touch with themselves," she says. She wants everyone to be able to express themselves by wearing clothes that reveal how they feel. While her designs are meant to be fashionable, they're carefully crafted based on how they feel and move while wearing them. Her background in physical therapy helps her understand the way fabrics are supposed to flow with the body, as well as how light or heavy the materials should be. She tests most of her skirts and dresses for these characteristics, because she says the weight of a fabric can change the way someone walks in it, depending on his or her physical composition. "They don't teach you that in fashion school," she says, noting that she's glad she didn't attend. "It's rigid."
Most designers she knows went to fashion school, though, and have taken a more standard route: they've created clothing lines and sold them to national retailers. While this route is probably the easiest, Caroligne says she'll never regret opening her neighborhood boutique and sewing her designs herself. "There's a life that happens when hanging up a new piece," she says. Curiously, it's the one people ooh and ahh over when entering the store, even though everything looks new to them when it's their first time in. Caroligne gets new ideas when sewing one-of-a-kind articles, which she says wouldn't happen if other people sewed the clothes for her.
This March, however, Caroligne and her sales rep plan to start taking orders for a nationally distributed clothing line without abandoning her boutique. Her "adult contemporary" collection will comprise pieces she has crafted for her store and her fashion shows, which are usually fundraising events for groups such as the Black Rock Arts Foundation.
On top of everything, she runs a sustainable art-retail-fashion cooperative, Trunk, in Upper Haight. Formerly known as Pandora's Trunk, the shop has been renovated inside and out since she and her business partner split last fall. Caroligne says the corporate structure and leadership has changed, and for the first time it feels like a true San Francisco co-op, where people encourage each other and each other's art. "There's a sense of community support in San Francisco," she says, thinking about the differences between the Bay Area and Boston. "People live better here." Now there's more space for local designers in the store, including the San Franciscoborn, world-renowned company Wildlife Works, whose proceeds benefit endangered species and help create jobs and schools in Kenya. Caroligne donates regularly to Wildlife Works, which gives her scrap fabric and clothing in exchange.