by Stephanie Block

She has a good name, the kind that sounds exotic—like a place to meet in Buenos Aires or a type of dance. Meet me later at Cari Borja and we’ll do the Cariborja! Of course, to be official, we have to tack those last few letters on at the end (PhD), and a handful in the front (Mrs.)—and there you have this unique designer’s full name, with all its seams and stitching.

Cari Borja: who else would be one of only three designers from the U.S. featured in last year’s International Fashion Week? Who else would choose Cuba as the site for her Summer ‘05 fashion shoot? Who else would kick off San Francisco Fashion Week ’06with a runway show on opening night? Who else would start off studying Jamaican art in Kingston for her dissertation and end up getting married in Venice and teaching herself how to sew?

Cari has no fears. Her life is as bold and vibrant as her couture creations, the shapes of both equally signature, with raw and intuitive lines of flight. But for all the education and accolades, the runway shows and press—and this is the good news—you can still grab Cari’s handmade, one-of-a-kind creations for $30 to $1,200.

The good doctor calls herself a clothes maker rather than a designer, a surgeon who brings fabrics to life with steady hands. You can still see the scars—exposed seams are one clue that you are looking at a Borja original, as are the “lettuce-edged” stitching and bias cuts that make her skirts, jackets, gowns, and coats move like rippling water over the body.

You won’t believe it, but every piece is handmade in her home. Cari does it all! There is no manufacturing to speak of, not even any zippers or buttons—and no whispers of sweatshop youngsters in Guatemala. Cari has one assistant, a part-time intern, and a babysitter. And that’s it.

It takes Cari a full hour to make a simple cowl neck sweater. A factory assembly line would take fifteen minutes at the most. It costs her around $60 to make an item by hand, versus the $25 it would cost to have it made in New York, or the $3.50 it would cost in China or Portugal. By the time you put on your asymmetric bolero vest, only two people have touched it before you, all in Cari’s home studio. What an intimate experience.

Call Cari a control freak, but she likes the hands-on approach. She likes to dictate her creative process—so don’t cry to her, ballerina from Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet company, whose twentieth anniversary costumes she created. By staying closely involved in the production of her designs, Cari knows that her pieces are all made under good conditions and that the people involved are paid well (except the intern, of course).

For Cari, making and creating are intertwined, and design is just one part of the process. She never knows how each piece will turn out—each is slightly different. Patterns? Designs? She does them on the fly (or the spool). The act of creation informs her design process, and vice versa. If she doesn’t sound classically trained, that’s because she’s not—she learned everything on her own!

Unbelievably, these hearty skirts and romantic jackets flatter any figure. Because Cari, trained anthropologist that she is, knows that most women are not six feet tall and ninety-eight pounds. (Although Cari herself is super svelte, even after childbirth!) Her creations support and celebrate all shapes and sizes. Godet inserts into her gowns allow them to change and adapt to your shape, and elastic-encased waists ensure that no bellies bulge over. Which means you can consume all the lettuce-edged seams and donut U-cut ruffles you can get your hands on.

Not only are the clothes flattering, they are comfortable, because the way Cari sees it, comfort is glamour’s stepladder.

“My most glamorous self is elegant but comfortable, without being overly dressed,” Cari explains. “Like pairing one of my gowns, which travel well, with funky cowboy boots and a denim jacket, which is what I did at Cannes. For me, that was a true red-carpet outfit. If you’re dressed in a way that makes you feel good about yourself, that’s all that matters. In Venice, I’d wear my gowns out to the cafés to have a drink.”

Every one of Cari’s garments tells a story, and if you’re lucky enough to get invited to her sample and trunk sales (she takes cash and checks), you’ll be able to snatch up those same delicately frilled, wide-leg pants you saw on her website as part of the recent Cuba fashion shoot, one of many pieces waiting to find the right person.

If all this sounds regal to you—handmade works of art in your wardrobe, figure-flattering shapes and cuts, and marvelous fabrics and colors—then you won’t be surprised to learn about her Baby Royal collection for tots, which Cari refers to as daughter Royal’s education fund. And with Borja’s comfortable and stylish maternity collection, pregnant moms don’t have to wait nine months to look fabulous either. You’ll find Cari at every rite of passage, where every good anthropologist should be.

Never one to stop learning, Cari is trying her hand at silk screening. You’ll see tank tops and hoodies with rosettes on them, designed by regal baby Royal herself. (I guess there is one under-aged worker at the Borja compound…)

Speaking of her daughter, Royal is eyeing us forlornly from the other side of the screen door as I sit with Cari in her backyard on a warm Oakland afternoon. Daddy’s okay, but the allure of a stranger and Mom out back is too strong. I hear a whimper and then a wail as her pert face crumples. I was sure a child with her own clothing line must have lots of clout around here, but Cari keeps talking, her portfolio, which includes a clipping from the International Herald Tribune, on her lap.

Maybe it’s the lazy sunshine, or maybe Cari’s put something from Jamaica in my lemonade, but with visions of twirling, trumpeting, bell-shaped skirts and ruffled jackets in my head, I know that what is probably more important than getting the scoop on Cari Borja is getting my hands on a criss-cross ruffle skirt with zig-zag edging, an asymmetrical hemmed tuxedo coat, and a terra cotta layered tulle skirt.

Nice to meet you, Cari Borja—now where’s the dressing room?

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Cari Borja Online

Find Cari’s latest collections, events, and store locations, and schedule private shopping appointments at her studio.