If you’re looking for parking along Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan’s hip arts-and-eats district south of Chicano Park, there’s a good chance you’ll give up and park a block east or west. I wound up leaving my car on National Avenue recently. Taking a shortcut on foot back toward Logan for a meeting over tacos at Salud, I got sidetracked in an alley that runs between and parallel to those Avenues.
Halfway down the tidy, block-long alley between Evans Street and Sampson Street, a small wooden building peeked out from a line of back doors and dumpsters. Blacked out in coal-toned paint with hot-pink accents, it was an unexpected storefront. But what really caught my eye was a small but steady stream of people flowing in and out of the back-alley business.
Inside, I uncovered a boundaries-blurring gaggle of San Diegans. A conservatively stylish woman, wife of a cleric, was there doing business. So was a beautiful young burlesque artist whose apparent modesty I later learn belies a fiery stage persona. Also among the clientele was a guy from North Park whose reason for being there had something to do with handmade jockstraps.
This place was a story, but my stomach gurgled remembering it had been promised potato tacos. The guy waiting for me at Salud texted, “are you coming?” I had to go, but not without asking the business owner if she’d be willing to do an interview about her colorful enterprise and its unlikely assortment of customers.
I wasn’t surprised she agreed. Few small business owners decline publicity. Yet I noticed she wasn’t exactly surprised I’d showed up to invite her to tell her story.
A week later, I walk up the same wooden steps and reintroduce myself to Sew Loka’s proprietor, Claudia Rodriguez Biezunski, 35. She’s a tailor, a seamstress and costume designer to whom other tailors send customers whose requests leave them scratching their heads.
While her affability is sincere, I suspect the meekness she conveys may only be surface-deep. A couple of tells hint at what I’ll soon learn is her punk-rock past. Clue one: Catwomanesque eyeliner. It terminates in thick points near the outer edges of her eyes.
The other is audible, though just barely. Listening with ears that relish accents and dialects, I detect a note of defiance beneath Rodriguez’s classically Southern Californian-Latina up-note word endings.
“Welcome back to Sew Loka,” she says. “I’m just finishing up here.”
I’ve caught the tailor in mid-conversation with a customer. I chat with her other clients. The studio is naturally lit by an open door and a window. One of the folks who was here last time is back, now occupied with a piece of cloth, some leather and a paper pattern at an adjacent table.
The other is customer Neddy Campos, a burlesque artist who was dropping off her first-ever order at Sew Loka the other day. Today she’s picking up a gown of forest-green satin that Rodriguez has customized, making a segment removable with snaps. Campos agrees to tell me about her order after trying it on.
“I had a vision and she made it happen,” Campos says, appearing from the fitting room almost teary-eyed. “Pretty much, it’s a long gown. It has a ruffled mermaid tail. For my show on Friday, Claudia removed part of the fabric of the butt area and put on some snaps. So, as I’m dancing, I’m going to be able to remove the back part and still have my gown on. It will be a peek-a-boo for the show.”
Campos says her tailoring needs not only call for a special kind of artistry, but for someone she can trust to not judge her. “I normally just buy my outfits and try adjusting them myself; but it’s hard because I don’t know anything about sewing. That’s why I keep my outfits pretty simple.”
Campos says she’s never seen a tailor’s shop like Rodriguez’s. It’s part neighborhood hangout, part United Nations, even a little bit community center. Of course, it’s a sewing studio, too. But as I learn from her intern working at a nearby cutting table, Sew Loka is also a classroom that has hosted family members of terminally ill children.
I ask Rodriguez about those classes.
“An organization gave me the opportunity to donate four sewing lessons to a woman and her daughter,” Rodriguez says, blushing a little. “Do I have to talk about this? I don’t like doing charitable things and then bragging about it.”
I tell her she has to talk about it.
“What happened is that the family had to basically neglect the older sibling, the daughter, in order to focus on the boy who was ill. They were just trying to keep him alive,” she recalls. “In fact, the daughter had to go and stay with her grandparents for six months while all of this was happening.”
Recalls Rodriguez, “They just got to be together making something. They would come in — oh, it gives me chills — they were so sweet with each other during that time together. The girl made shorts; the mom made a skirt.”
Everything at Sew Loka unfolds in a space that’s barely 500 square feet. Although she loves her little workshop, she says it not the building that’s magical; it’s the alley.
Just four months at her current location, Rodriguez says her five-year-old business has been transformed since moving from Fifth Avenue in tonier Bankers Hill to el barrio.
She feared that operating a small business from an alley would mean losing foot traffic due to lack of visibility from passing cars and pedestrians. “Instead, being in the alley means that we are a little off the beaten path and when people do find us, they always feel like they have discovered a hidden oasis, or stumbled upon a secret creative wonderland.”
She adds, “Coming to this neighborhood was a risk. But the last four months have been so crazy — in a positive way. There’s magic in this alley.”
Her burlesque artist customer agrees. “Logan used to be one of the most scary places in San Diego,” says Campos. “Nowadays, it’s a new, up-and-coming area. It’s the chic place to be. I think her move here was the right move.... Being in the alley? Maybe that part is a bit surprising — but I love it!”
Today, picking up her mermaid gown with its newly installed, ruffled snap-off derrière, Campos says she’s finally found a tailor with whom she’ll be comfortable sharing other risqué costume ideas that have been percolating in the back of her mind.
“This gown was more complicated than I could ever do,” says Campos, whose stage name is “DeeVious.”
A week after our interview, Claudia Rodriguez texts me a video of Campos’s first performance wearing the gown. With a flourish, DeeVious snaps away the section of dress to reveal flawless backside is revealed. The audience erupts in cat calls and wolf whistles.
The alley giveth
Asked why she seemed underwhelmed when I’d asked if she’d like to be interviewed for an piece in the Reader, Rodriguez replies apologetically, “Oh, no! No, no; I am so happy and so grateful. Thank you — yes, thank you. It’s just that you are like the third or fourth media person to reach out in the last few weeks. The BBC and Facebook were just here.”
“Yes!” she replies. “And it’s kind of strange because we never had anything like this when we were in Bankers Hill over there on Fifth.”
Being in business five years and five months — only the last five at the new, alley location — the law of averages probably outweighs a “magical alley” theory she’s considered to explain Sew Loka’s newfound fame.
Still, just a few weeks after moving here, Rodriquez got an amazing phone call. Facebook was in the midst of a three-city ad campaign aiming at local retail markets. San Diego was one of its target cities. The hook for the campaign’s commercials was showcasing small businesses whose names include the words “loco” or “loca.” Apparently loka with a k was close enough.
Now Rodriguez along with her daughter Ise are featured in a national Facebook commercial. Sew Loka appears alongside a San Diego charter boat, Gato Loco, and a local Muay Thai coach named Eddie Loco.
But a dose of pragmatism if not outright cynicism almost cost her the opportunity.
“Just email me some stuff,” she recalls telling Facebook’s scouts when they called. “I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t really anything. It’s no big deal.’” But her husband Manny Biezunski eventually took one of the social media behemoth’s phone calls.
“Manny got on the phone and afterward he said to me, ‘Dude, this is fucking legit!’”
A week after that phone call, Rodriguez says the alley was blocked off at both ends by a full-on Hollywood film crew.
“They were here the Saturday before the shoot with about 15 people just to look at the store and the location,” she recalls.
Her biggest challenge on shoot day was perspiration.
“They had to keep re-doing my makeup because I was so nervous,” she recalls. “I could not stop sweating.”
The following week, BBC America called. They wanted Sew Loka to create a perfect copy of a famous and creepily childish, adult-size pink dress from the network’s nail-biter suspense series Killing Eve in time for Comi-con — a week away. The elaborate frock, originally created by one of Hollywood’s most in-demand costume designers, had to be replicated perfectly because the original was unavailable.
“We had seven days to complete the project,” she recalls. “BBC America was super-excited about the final result.”
The network had instructed Rodriguez to keep her project top secret until it was revealed to the public. “That was extremely tough, because I was so excited,” she says. “They posted two pics on the BBC America’s Instagram account of the dress after it was done.”
Such a drag... following
“We always had a lot of customers who are drag queens; that started when we were on Fifth Avenue,” Rodriguez explains. “We were right next to the famous SRO Lounge.”
SRO, as in “Standing Room Only,” at Fifth and Elm (a block from Balboa Park’s southwest corner), is a drinking destination where drag queens, cross dressers, and some transgender women convene with straight men who enjoy their company.
“We told our customers, including our drag customers we were moving to Barrio Logan. We weren’t so sure they would follow us,” she says. “But all of our drag queens have been so loyal and have followed us all the way to Barrio Logan.”
One recent order was a copious and curvaceous full “body suit” made for a drag performer.
Was the white lady afraid?
Allison Riley is from Singing Hills or “east, east El Cajon,” as she puts it. Her husband will be officiating at their nephew’s wedding next week. Riley has driven in for one reason: securing a pleasing fit for the dress that will grace her statuesque frame during the wedding.
“My dress may not be that important in the grand scheme — the bride’s and bridesmaids’ are more important — but you know, you want to look nice,” Riley says.
The ceremony will take place at the Rileys’ sprawling property in Singing Hills. The wedding the family is planning sounds idyllic and traditional. Wearing the same outfit she went into Sew Loka’s fitting room in, Riley reemerges with the dark blue dress draped over one arm wearing also a satisfied grin.
How does a lady from the horse-property set of East San Diego County end up hiring a tailor in a Barrio Logan alley who also serves drag queens and burlesque dancers?
“My friend who’s also my hairdresser loves finding clothes and dramatically altering them,” Riley explains. “But she has no sewing abilities. She has an eye for distinctive fashion — and all these ideas. She told me how Claudia is able to bring those ideas to life. She also says Claudia has been very generous with her knowledge so that my friend is slowly picking up a little bit of how to do some things on her own. I think that’s marvelous. Not everybody is that generous with their knowledge.”
I ask her if she thought it was strange coming to a tailor in an alley in Barrio Logan.
“You mean was the white lady from Singing Hills afraid?” she chuckles good naturedly. “Not at all. I think it’s great. It’s a really fun atmopshere.”
‘Kibbles and bits’
Anton Mulvaney is a former sewing student at Sew Loka. Now he’s an intern.
“I make a lot of jock straps,” he says, cocking his head slightly as he looks quizzically at a pattern he’s been working on since I arrived.
He’s a perfectionist. Mulvaney’s creations are sleek, modern, sexy, and decidedly masculine. But his underwear and jock straps are surprisingly conservative in terms of how much skin they cover, especially given the gay-male market he’s aiming toward. What’s less conservative is the prominent way his garments are constructed to present their wearers’ business.
Andrew Christian, the designer who became famous in 2008 selling underwear featuring stylized images of Barack Obama and donating a portion of those sales to help elect Obama, has nothing on Mulvaney. Whereas, Christian recently announced he’s expanding beyond his base market to design underwear specifically targeting transgender customers, Mulvaney beat Christian to the punch years ago.
“I’ve been doing work in the Continental Pageant System for a long time,” he says.
“Jim Flint created a system for really talented entertainers — and I can’t call them drag queens because a lot of them are women, trans women — they have a lot of female parts through surgeries and augmentations. But the only requirement to enter the pageants is that you have to still have all your kibbles and bits, you know, as a boy.”
Mulvaney says he’s learned from Rodriguez how to realize pageant entrants’ dream costumes.
“Each contestant has a unique vision of how they want to look on stage; and I have to help make them look stunning.”
According to Mulvaney, it’s not uncommon for Miss America, Miss Universe, and Miss USA pageant contestants to attend as audience members Continental pageants, where they study entrants’ stage techniques.
But part of his job as Sew Loka’s intern is to learn while helping Rodriguez fill her sometimes complex, sometimes mundane orders, both of which frequently come with harrowing deadlines.
“The BBC pink dress order was intense,” he says, recalling the origins of his interest in sewing.
“I always liked to sew, but I once broke my mom’s sewing machine because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I first came to Sew Loka as a student and now I’m an intern. I’ve learned so much from Claudia, and I love being here.”
Mulvaney hopes to launch his handmade underwear line to a wider market soon.
“He will do it,” Rodriguez says. “I keep telling him he needs to not be afraid of charging a little more for his work. It’s really good; it’s handmade; and it’s unique.”
Asked if the “K” in Loka is a covert reference to the K in Biezunski (her husband’s surname; he’s half Puerto Rican and half Russian-American), or if it’s a hipster thing. She reveals a more pedestrian explanation.
“No, it was just that we had no other choice if we wanted to use that name,” Rodriguez says. “’Sew Loca’ with a ‘c’ was already taken by a company up north.”
Her shop is a cramped, but neat space filled creations ranging from the sublime to the profane — everything from elaborately brocaded fairy-princess dresses to junk-augmenting jock straps and “vagina pillows,” which Rodriguez made for a local art exhibit and charity fundraiser.
Likewise, the studio bears remnants and leftovers from the community work she does.
Bree Rowand founder of the Kylie Rowand Foundation in Alpine, which brings solace and assistance to families losing children to terminal illnesses, looked everywhere for a sewing workshop with classes in San Diego to fulfill a wish of a family the organization was then serving.
“I couldn’t find anyone,” Rowand recalls. “I finally found a place I thought would be great, but they said, ‘No, we don’t do that here.’”
Then she discovered Sew Loka.
“Claudia was amazing; she agreed to four free lessons right away,” Rowand says. “All I asked her for was a gift certificate for the lessons to give to the mother and sister of a boy who had cancer. But instead of just making a gift certificate, Claudia sent a cute, decorated jar with a certificate and sewing pins and other items inside.”
That kind of shame
During her teen years in the early and mid 1990s, Rodriguez sometimes ditched school in order to hang out with other punk rockers with towering mohawks and liberty spike hairstyles.
“There was a thrift store, a huge Salvation Army in San Fernando; and that’s where we would hang out,” she laughs. “If you can imagine the scene, a bunch of strange-looking Latino punk rock kids. I would look for jeans to make into skirts. Or someone would say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a plaid skirt’ and we’d all scour the racks for her.”
She says sewing has been seen as kind of a conservative thing to do in Latin families. “The mothers and aunts and daughters would do it together,” Rodriguez says. “But I took it into the punk scene. Every night we were at shows — but we had to tell my mom, ‘Hey we’re going bowling’ because she thought it was devil-worshipping music (laughs again). We were at punk rock shows almost every night in San Fernando and Pacoima. There was a big scene at that time.”
Those days of sewing for her boyfriend’s and other friends’ punk and speed-metal bands were training for these days, she says. Whereas then she designed for singers, drummers, and guitarists, she now produces garments and costumes for comic icons, including Fall Out and Poison Ivy, plus Comicon costumes for Hollywood studios and comic book publishers.
In some ways, Rodriguez takes after her mother who taught her the sewing craft. But she also takes after her entrepreneurial father, who wisely recognized the transition to uniforms in public education and bought bolts of material to make into the regulation shirts, skirts, and pants required by a growing number of schools.
“And then he would go to the swap meets and undersell everyone, almost cornering the market at one point,” Rodriguez says.
As I near the end of her story, looking at my computer screen, something nags at me. This is all too good, too neat and perfect. What’s missing from the Sew Loka’s story? Hadn’t Claudia Rodriguez faced a challenge other than the fear of moving her business from Bankers Hill to Barrio Logan? I asked via email.
Her reply: “For the first 25 years of my life I lived with my mom, grandma, and five siblings. As a family we have experienced many hardships, but during times of crisis we could always lean heavily on each other. Our bonds are very strong.
But I always knew that I needed to experience the world apart from my family. I had dreams that exceeded the boundaries of San Fernando, but the fear of moving away crippled me. Who would I call on during times of defeat and heartbreak?
My boyfriend at the time, and now husband, came into my life and said he was moving to San Diego to pursue his dreams. He asked if I wanted to pursue mine. It would mean I would have to quit my job where I had worked for years and had benefits and a 401k.
“Telling my mom that I was moving to San Diego was one of the toughest moments of my life. She told me I was crazy (hence, “Loka”). She said I’d be back in less than six months. But my husband and I both understood, that without risk, there is no reward.
“We opened Sew Loka in early 2013. Only very recently have we started to experience any kind of real success and acknowledgement. It’s been five years of very few highs and very many lows. I cannot overstate the financial hardships we’ve experienced just trying, very literally, to keep the lights on at our studio.
“In 2016, I hit a rough patch and started sinking into debt. I was working long hours and killing my hands, but there still never seemed to be enough money left at the end of the month. I started falling behind on bills, and even allowed for my electric bill to creep just over $700.
“One morning, when I was fighting a project deadline, the lights in my studio suddenly went dim and my sewing machine shut off. My heart sank because I immediately knew what was happening. When I reached out to SDGE and pleaded to them to turn my lights back on, they said they would need the balance on my account to be paid in full before power could be restored.
“Having to tell my client that I wouldn’t have her project finished on time is probably the lowest point in my professional career. But it was also a turning point for me. After hours of crying my eyes out in a dark studio, I finally came to the realization that I was the only one to blame and I needed to make a change. I never want to feel that kind of shame and embarrassment ever again. It was a harsh lesson, but in hindsight, it has made me stronger and more aware of my weaknesses.”
“My daughter was six months old when we opened Sew Loka. She has literally been raised in a sewing studio. The first couple of years my husband was a huge help with the baby, but he eventually had to get a full-time job. That left me juggling a small business and a toddler. Thankfully Ise is a patient child, but there are still times when kids will be kids, and she will act out for my attention when I’m doing a fitting or consulting with a client. I had to figure out how to be a professional and a mom at the same time. I’m still figuring it out. The last thing I want to do is discipline my child in front of a paying customer. But I don’t want to allow my child to run all over me. It’s very tricky. Thankfully, many of my longtime clients have known Ise since she was a tiny baby and usually are more excited to see her than me.
“If you look closely at the business hours in front my studio, you will notice a section called ‘Mom Break’ between the hours of 2:30 – 3:30. I am closed during those hours so I can pick up my daughter every day from school and feed her a healthy meal away from the shop. It’s an hour that I have come to treasure, because it’s just me and Ise munching together and chatting about the happenings of our day. Then it’s right back to work.
"Sometimes I look at Ise and can tell she is super bored sitting in the studio and that she would much rather be at the playground or home. It hurts my heart because I don’t have a clear or easy answer about what to do. Most of the time she makes the best of it. She loves greeting and conversing with my clients. But when the actual physical work starts and I’m in sewing mode, I can see her getting restless. I talk with her and tell her that mommy needs to work these long hours because that is how I can afford to buy her toys. She seems to understand, but it doesn’t stop me from questioning if I’m doing the right thing by being a part time mom. Part of me believes that she will benefit from this time in her life; the other part feels like she will resent it. I guess time will tell.”