Chillin’ with Irene Hernandez-Feiks

In many ways, although a tiny city compared to the huge continent of Africa, San Francisco’s fashion industry parallels that of Africa’s. For example, like Africa, San Francisco [SF] has a unique identity. In addition, like Africa, it has been a challenge for San Francisco’s fashion industry to be taken seriously in the industry, much less make its mark on the global fashion map. As a result, the very independent city has lost important names in fashion like Obedient Sons, Peter Som and even the edgy Surface Magazine to big fashion capitals such as New York, to name a few. In 2004, the city by the bay looked like it finally had the chance to redefine its role from insignificant to relevant with the launch of San Francisco Fashion Week [SFFW]. However, the excitement of SFFW quickly wore off as the yearly event could not garner the kind of media and buyer response most in the industry, especially designers, had hoped for.

Enter the beautiful and energetic Irene Hernandez-Feiks who started ‘Chillin’ ten years ago to provide a platform for emerging SF & Bay area designers. Today, Chillin’ is a huge event that attracts designers within SF and across the country. The event is produced four times a year and features 60 fashion designers, 60painters/photographers, 60 filmmakers, 7 DJ’s and live music under one roof attracting over 2,000 consumers at each event who come to take it all in and shop, shop, shop! The cost of admission to the event is only $6.00 plus all featured artists/designers get to keep all of the profits they make from their sales! Over time, I’ve had the chance to cover the Chillin’ event as well as sponsor some of the events. I was thinking this is just a perfect avenue for African inspired and focused fashion designers to sell directly to American consumers. Accordingly, I caught up with the very busy entrepreneur/producer/fashion designer who speaks four languages {Spanish, English, German and Italian}; and routinely sorts through over 5,000 e-mails a day to find out how you readers, especially our African fashion creative minds, can chill with Chillin’!

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Hola Mama! It’s been quite a long while. How have you been?
Irene [Spanish pronounciation “E-ray-nay”]:
Hello there, good thank you! Just busy and getting excited about new projects for 2008.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Great! We’ll get to the projects soon but first fill me in on the home front. How is Houston [husband] and the little red haired beauty Isabella [daughter] doing?
They are great! Isabella is in Montessori Kindergarten and she is an amazing artist. Houston is working hard at Oracle as an art director and just launched a new start up, http://www.ipling.com/

LADYBRILLE.com: Very nice! I guess Isabella is taking after her grandparents. Irene, I had to introduce you to our readers because I feel what you are doing with Chillin’ is very important and they should know. First give us a brief look into your background. You are from Mexico, correct?
I was born in Mexico City. My mother is an artist and her parents were Jews who escaped from Hitler. My father is also an artist and he is Mexican and Spanish. When I was 16, our whole family moved to Orange County, California. Later, I moved to San Francisco, attended San Francisco State University and got a degree in broadcasting.

LADYBRILLE.com: When most people hear about Mexico, they are programmed to think illegal immigrants trying to cross the borders or migrant workers. Could you paint the other Mexico we do not get to see, especially its fashion scene? I heard Gucci just opened a store there.
I have been all over the world and Mexico City is one of the most cosmopolitan cities I have ever been to, surpassing Paris, New York or London. We have the coolest architecture in the world. We mix modern and classical Mexican architecture. Some of the most famous architects come from Mexico. We have the most beautiful restaurants and the food is cutting edge and avant garde. We do not eat burritos….. The people there are super stylish. Most of them travel, a lot, to Europe and shop there. Also they are extremely well educated. Most people speak [at] least 3 languages. Beverly Hills is nothing if you compare it to some of the neighborhoods in Mexico City. Shopping is incredible there.

Back in the day, Chillin’ use to be every Tuesday at 111 Minna Gallery [Famous gallery that serves as a hangout for a very urban hybrid crowd in San Francisco]. It was called “Chillin’ on Tuesdays at 111 Minna Gallery.” About five years ago, I stopped doing weeklies and I only do four huge Chillin’ shows per year. However, I now feel it is not enough so I have decided, in between my four big ones, I will do a monthly that will be a smaller version focused on local Bay Area artists and that will be at 111 Minna Gallery. Hopefully this will create more opportunities for all the talented people we have in the Bay Area.

Local designers are incredible and we have been having Gucci, Channel anything you want for as long as I can remember. Shopping there is way better than in the States. You can find anything your heart desires. Our culture is rich and amazing!!! The problem Mexico has is that we have no middle class and all the poor people try to move to the States to [have] better lives because they feel trapped in Mexico. That is one thing we truly need to be better and provide our people with more opportunities. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It makes me sad.

LADYBRILLE.com:Sounds like what we see across the globe and now I’m afraid, America, the erosion of the middle class. Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk Chillin’ as we chill. [laughs] How did that come about?Irene: As a designer in San Francisco, I felt there were no true opportunities for local designers. You had to have connections or money to get noticed. Chillin’ started ten years ago with the intent to create exposure and money for designers. Ten years later, I still do not charge designers to do my shows. Also, the show helps them get connections and maybe some press. I like things that really and truly help people. It makes me so happy when I see designers grow and become better!!! About six years ago, I incorporated art and film to the equation. I know how hard it is for artists, so we need to help and support each other.

LADYBRILLE.com: Now woman you’ve got to be crazy! You don’t charge designers to do your shows, plus, you charge the public only $6.00 with all profits from sales going to the artists? What about your cut? How do you make your money?
Irene: I feel so passionate about what I do and I know that some artists really need the money. I feel the reason we are successful is because people know we care and are not greedy. I produce other projects during the year that pay me money. At times, I do feel stressed because I feel I should be making more money; but I believe that because of what I do, I get other projects that help me financially. The only time it is hard for me is when a designer says bad things about me because they did not sell anything. It is a free show and I have over 2000 people attending the shows. If they do not sell, that is their problem, not mine.

LADYBRILLE.com: Beyond Chillin’ what other projects are you working on?
I am on a project on Mint Plaza that will also incorporate fashion and music. I am also putting together an event for a liquor sponsor that will use artists to create the new branding of their product. An art opening at the Mexican Consulate, helping with the International Fashion Consulate to launch a fashion district in San Francisco, doing PR for http://www.ipling.com/, doing PR and representing a few artists here in the Bay Area. I will also be spinning records at a few parties and being a mother. So far that is it.

LADYBRILLE.com:That’s a lot! Okay mi amiga [my friend], speaking of launching a fashion district in San Francisco, where do you see the future of San Francisco’s fashion industry going?
I am not sure. I feel we have incredible talent here in the Bay Area; and the coolest thing about us is how we embrace and love other cultures. My concern is that I feel we do not have enough opportunities for designers. So instead of helping each other out, we fight one another. Also we need to take it to the next level. We need to have fashion shows that are for buyers and press. I feel our fashion shows are more of a social scene. We need to take more risks. We need to provide resources to our designers so they can take it to the next level. That is why we are trying to create a garment district.

LADYBRILLE.com: As you know by now, Ladybrille is about giving the platform for African fashion industry professionals to get their work noticed by Western consumers. For the many African designers/painters/filmmakers who want to be a part of Chillin’, what is the process to get a booth at your event?
They can call or email me and I will be happy to talk to them. Once we talk they will be in my database. Then when I start booking for my shows, I send an email. However, they need to respond really fast because I get booked in less than an hour. Even though Chillin’ is a free show, we do have contracts and if the designers do not honor their end of the deal, they have to pay Chillin’ a fee.

LADYBRILLE.com: Alright mama, some very easy questions. [Laughs]

LADYBRILLE.com: Do you follow African fashions? Who are your favorite African designers?
Alphadi. I have seen his work in some magazines and saw some pictures of his collection for fashion week in Paris. Also, I love Oumou Sy because she does really bold stuff and that is my favorite. I am a couture woman and I feel she is all couture. Also, I love a local designer and artist whose name is Selam. In all of her work you see African culture embedded in them. Her colors are incredible and all her designs are elegant and fashion-forward

LADYBRILLE.com: What African country would you like to visit and why?
Maybe Zanzibar [Off the West Coast of Tanzania] because I have a friend that I love and knows a lot about beautiful places and he claims that is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Where do you suggest? I have never been to Africa but I always wanted to go since I am so in love with the culture and I think its people are the most beautiful I ever seen!

LADYBRILLE.com: Nigeria [laughs] but be sure to let me know so I can take you to the Eastern part, it’s so peaceful and the landscape there is breathtaking! [laughs], South Africa, Botswana and Ghana are all great places also. Thank you so much Irene. In 2008, we have to do better to keep in touch, we should do lunch soon!
YES!! I miss you! YOU ROCK!

You can reach Irene at: [email protected]
~Article by Uduak Oduok

Ladybrille Magazine

Founded in 2007, Ladybrille® Magazine is a California based pioneer digital publication demystifying the image of Africans in the west through contemporary African fashion and celebrating the brilliant woman in business and leadership, with an emphasis on the African woman in the diaspora. Our coverage includes stories on capital, access to markets, expertise, hiring and retention, sales, marketing, and promotions.

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1 Comment

  1. L~Shandi says:

    This is cool ladybrille…the interview reads like you guys were chillin! Thanks for introducing Irene to us :).

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