Meet the Maker: Esperanza Workshop
by Ari Takata-Vasquez
Jennifer Burkett is the founder and maker behind Esperanza Workshop. She’s popping-up at Viscera for the month of November in our rotating pop-up shop. She got her start making waxed linen bags, and is now branching out into made-to-measure dresses. Come by the shop and see her mini store-in-a-store.
What’s the ‘Esperanza workshop’ story? How did it get started?
It’s about biking. It got started by biking, a lot and commuting, and I wanting a bag that would suit those uses. The only things I could find were timbuk2 and things I couldn’t go to a work meeting with. So I went to my friend Mark, who makes bags, and we made fun sketches but he said he didn’t have time to make it, so invited me to his sewing studio to make my own. Now we share a studio and it’s all about the joy of making something. It’s about satisfying my particular wants and being able to do it myself. I’ve been doing this almost three years now for the whole process and I’ve had a website for a year and a half.
How did you come up with the custom dress idea?
I started making some dresses earlier in the year and I was branching out. I wanted to learn some new technical skills. When I really got the idea was a few months ago I had a realization that the most time I was happy in my business is when people got into the process and I got to share that with them. I wanted to something that I could share with them. The dress thing I don’t want to be about me as a designer or brand. It’s about the person who buys the dress so they have something they’re really happy with and that they can learn about how it happens and I want to share that with them.
Tell us a little about yourself,where are you from, what’s your professional background and what brought you to Oakland?
I’m originally from Pennsylvania and have been in the bay for almost 7 years so now I say I’m from here. My professional background was in real estate investment banking and underwriting. I lived in London and was there for the financial crisis and decided I should take a little more charge of my career path. So I got a job at Fair Trade doing analytic work and developing sustainable design chains. That felt more inline with what I was excited about. I managed the factory audit program at fair trade while I started Esperanza workshop.
What was London like?
It was my second job out of college and it was awesome. I’m trying to think how to describe that experience. It’s a really inspiring place in terms of art and culture and you can travel so many other places. I used all my European vacation time, plus! I got to see so many different places. A great connection to Oakland, my closest girlfriends now, here in Oakland, I met in London.
Digital or analog?
Analog. I replaced my clock in my bedroom with an old school clock and it’s been wonderful.
Who’s your favorite creative?
I’m really excited to Marina Abramovic speak next week. I know she’s doing some crazy stuff, I admire that she’s a performance artist and she doesn’t have genre and does whatever speaks to her. I identify with that.
Best/worst part of starting your own brand?
It’s been a huge motivator of being creative. Because it’s public so that means I have to put something out, a finished product. The worst thing is having to do social media. Thinking about sales channels and things that actually make a brand into a business. It doesn’t click with me.
What the most valuable lesson that you would pass on to others wanting to start their own brand?
I would say to start do as much as you can on your own in the actual prototyping and get feedback—and be really open to feedback. You just put something out there that’s a part of you, it’s something you made. For me that means something I’ve made with my hands and for other people that might be different. Do as much you can yourself and then let it go.
Coffee or tea?
If you could only pick one, what piece from your collection could you not live without?
The Dorothy tote bag. It’s the one I wear everyday. Absolutely. I’ve been carrying one for two years now.
Ideal destination spot?
Right now I’ve been thinking a lot about Morocco and I think with the fabrics and everything. It would be really exciting. It seems very tactile
What are you most excited about next?
That’s a good question, I’m hoping people bring me some fabrics to make something special that they can wear a lot. The personalization is big.
How did you come up with the name?
I was at a dinner with a friend and he used to work for ad agencies and do competitive analysis of things like Twizzlers versus Redvines. I was having a hard time coming up with a name, like throwing around ideas of bees, flax, linen. He asked me, “what songs or musicians are inspiring you right now?”. I went to a show that Esperanza Spalding and told him how great it was. Then he said that's it, its a good word, and it means ‘hope’. I didn’t want to use it, because I thought someday if I had a daughter I would name her Esperanza. So he responded by saying, “It’s clearly a name that’s resonating with you. You don’t have to use it but think about it.” Of course here we are. Esperanza Spalding a really cool contemporary jazz musician. I’d totally make her a dress.
What do you love most about Oakland?
You just never know what you’re going to come across. There are so many different kinds of people. It’s not always easy to live here, but it’s always inspiring in someway. There’s always something new you learn or something hidden comes out and there’s really good food from all around the world.
Tell me about your studio.
It’s small and someone once described it as a game of tetris. There are so many machines and my studio mate, Mark, likes making selves and drawers so all the space is taken and well used. it’s more a reflection of Mark than me. It has a big window so it has a lot of really nice light. It’s a building with lots of other artist and there’s a residency program so there are a lot of people doing different thing. There’s a writers studio in an elevator. My studio is called “Real time and Space”, it’s right around the corner from the Oakland Museum. It used to be a print shop so it has lots of history.