Running a business as large and varied as Oaklandish — ranked 33rd on Fortune’s list of the 100 fastest-growing inner-city companies in America last year — isn’t easy. On the eve of the brand’s recent yearly warehouse sale, with a website revamp under way and spring line about to roll out, owner and founder Angela Tsay sat down to talk about Oaklandish’s circuitious journey.
“I think sometimes people think we’ve had it really easy, but it has been hard,” she explained. “We’ve really done a lot of this ourselves.”
In the last nine years, Tsay has turned what started out as a T-shirt stand at a farmers’ market into an apparel empire, beloved and recognized by an entire city. The Oakland institution now has three store locations, a warehouse in Jack London Square and two offshoot brands, Oakland Supply Co. and NSEW. Instead of mere T-shirts and sweatshirts, it now makes everything from beanies and underwear to knee socks and coffee mugs. The brand, which once had trouble persuading San Francisco stores to sell its gear, is now sold in a dozen stores all over the Bay Area and has customers worldwide.
“Oaklandish has had great success,” Tsay said. “But we did not have some grand plan. It just kind of came together.”
Today, the company has 45 employees and releases roughly 50 new designs every season. The designs are done in-house, and the apparel is manufactured locally in Oaklandish’s Jack London warehouse. Much of the clothing features the Oaklandish logo of a tree with sprawling roots or Oakland landmarks like the downtown skyline, the Bay Bridge and the Coliseum. The main message behind the clothing is Oakland pride, Tsay said, and staying true to this mission is what has helped her reach such a broad demographic.
Standing in the back room of the downtown Oakland store, she pointed to a gray sweatshirt with the Oaklandish tree on it. “Oaklandish brought people together by helping them express their love for Oakland,” she said. “You could wear that (sweatshirt), a 40-year-old butch lesbian could wear that, and the guys from Acorn Projects (a public housing project in West Oakland) with the teardrops could wear that.”
But Oaklandish is not just about preaching Oakland pride. The company is a staunch supporter of the community and gives back to it. It sponsors events and holds monthly First Friday parties at the store. Major Oakland businesses including Make Westing, Lungomare, Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side BBQ have turned to the company for T-shirt designs and logos. Oaklandish awards thousands of dollars a year to nonprofits, and its Facebook page reads like a guide to local events in the city.
During the Occupy Oakland general strike in 2011, angry protesters smashed nearly every single window in downtown Oakland. A total of 7,688 windows were broken, their shards glimmering on the sidewalks like freshly fallen snow. But one business was spared and remained untouched: Oaklandish.
Tsay has been at the helm of Oaklandish for nearly a decade, but she didn’t always run things. Her ex-husband, Jeff Hull, an artist who owns a production company in San Francisco, came up with the idea for Oaklandish in the late 1990s. He wanted to create an ongoing public art project dedicated to uniting the city.
“It was still a very beautiful place with a really strong identity and a really strong legacy, but for local people, the city felt really overlooked,” Hull said. He hosted guerrilla drive-in movies in abandoned parking lots where he would screen documentaries about Oakland. He projected slideshows of historic photos against the walls of Oakland institutions, like the Grand Lake Theatre and the Oakland Museum.
Tsay said working on Oaklandish with Hull made her fall in love with the city. For a year they ran a gallery downtown and curated events, but when their relationship started to fizzle out, so too did their business venture.
Tsay took over Oaklandish in 2006 and turned the company into an Oakland-themed T-shirt line. She decided to sell them at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market; she recalls being the only non-food vendor there.
“We had no idea what to expect,” Tsay said. She had three T-shirt designs: one with the Oaklandish logo of an oak tree with sprawling roots, one with the word “Oaklandish” written in old English, and one with a design of a shield and an acorn.
Customers loved the shirts. By the end of her first day, Tsay had made more than $1,000.