Angela Tsay: A Modern Day Pioneer Creating Civic Pride

Levi Strauss & Co.
March 29, 2015

Q&A with Angela Tsay, CEO and Creative Director, Oaklandish

This is part of an ongoing series designed to feature people who are changing the world in their Levi’s®. Our Modern Day Pioneers are impacting everything from culture to social issues to the environment, and they’re challenging the status quo in a unique way. We hope these stories will inspire and empower you to live your life to its fullest in Levi’s. Have someone we should consider? Email us! Follow the Modern Day Pioneers series here.

Full disclosure: Oaklandish, an apparel brand focused on civic pride-oriented merchandise, holds a special place in our hearts. That’s because with the closing of Sears downtown, it’s is now the only authorized retailer in Oakland for Levi’s icons and other core styles. But truth be told, we’d definitely still be fans even if that weren’t the case.

With a socially-conscious mission that focuses on delivering “local love” through quality goods made by local companies, we think Oaklandish — with CEO and creative director Angela Tsay at the helm — is doing trailblazing work that deserves to be recognized.

Recently we had the honor of catching up with Angela to learn more about Oaklandish and how this Modern Day Pioneer is charting new territory (in her Levi’s, natch).

How did you get to where you are today?

Angela TsayI started working on Oaklandish by happenstance, after taking a break from working at various start-ups in the Bay Area and Chicago. Oaklandish was started in 2000 as a public art project about Oakland history and “the roots”  we think of that as the first incarnation of Oaklandish (founded by my ex, Jeff Hull), and Oaklandish as civic pride apparel + community is the second incarnation of Oaklandish.

This current version of Oaklandish started in 2006 with our booth at the Grand Lake farmers’ market. The first Saturday we had a booth there, we sold over $1,000 of t-shirts, which seemed like a crazy amount of money back then! That was a surprise, and that’s when we realized that people had all this pent-up desire to show their Oakland pride, but few ways to show it through the clothes they wore. It started to seem possible that Oaklandish could be an apparel brand that could sustain itself financially while giving back to Oakland.

We’ve grown more than I ever could have imagined. In 2014, we were ranked the fastest-growing, inner-city retail company in the United States by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (based at Harvard Business School) and Fortune Magazine. Still, every January, I think to myself, “This is it, I’m done.” But seeing how happy Oaklandish makes people keeps me going. It motivates me to continue the work. I’m starting to believe I’m in it for long haul; I can’t imagine what else I’d do!

How are Oaklandish and NSEW Clothing impacting the Oakland community?

Oaklandish and it’s sister brand NSEW Clothing demonstrate through real action that business can be motivated by so much more than economic profit. Now more than ever, it’s important for people to remember that — you can absolutely run a successful business while treating people how you want to be treated. We’re proud to be a certified B Corp and truly believe business can be a force for good.

Why are the charitable component of the companies important to you?

Because the city name “Oakland” is part of the company, we have a special responsibility to hold ourselves to a higher standard of operation and authenticity. Just by being named Oaklandish, we represent Oakland, whether we like it or not. Our best designs are diverse depictions of Oakland. We can’t just take that inspiration and not give back to the city and community that grounds us. Any way we can deepen these connections then helps us do our job better for the future.

How will you know these ventures have been a success?

People are really vocal about how much they like Oaklandish. We have an extremely active following on social media, especially Instagram and Twitter. Posting every day, we get constant feedback about how much people appreciate the work and the designs. Customers also come into the store  every day saying how happy they are that we’re here. It seems small, but it’s very refreshing to hear. And, there are dozens of people who have had the Oaklandish tree logo tattooed on their bodies. That certainly shows commitment to our brand and what we stand for.

The Oaklandish crew

The Oaklandish crew

How does place (Oakland) factor into the growth and development of cities?

Oakland has historically been a hotbed for social movements and home to many strong ethnic communities and tribes. Here, fierce independence, combined with having a chip on the shoulder for always being in shadow of San Francisco, makes people scrappy and want to champion the underdog. I believe that mentality has inspired a lot of the growth we’re seen in Oakland in the last few years.

What’s your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur that wants to make an impact?

Honestly? Learn on some else’s dime. Don’t do it like I did. Go and find a company that’s doing something in the industry you’re interested in, with values that you believe in, and intern or get a job there. That way, you’ll be able to see how the company operates from the inside and watch how they make decisions or what mistakes they make. Alternatively, find a great mentor.

What’s your first Levi’s memory?

I grew up in Arkansas, then moved to Illinois and went to a pretty nerdy high school and college so I wasn’t really attuned to apparel brands or fashion when I was younger. It wasn’t until grad school when I had a French boyfriend who thought he was James Dean that I really started to understand the power of Levi’s as a quintessential American icon.

What are you likely to be doing in your Levi’s?

I just constantly obsess over what my next meal is going to be. Which means that Levi’s with waistbands a little above where your belly expands the most when you eat are the best.

If your Levi’s could talk, what would they say about you?

“Maybe you should get a purse.” I’m one of those people who put everything in the pockets of my jeans. My wallet goes in the back left, my phone goes in the back right, and there’s always chapstick (Burt’s Bees Pomegranate) handy in my front left. Subsequently, my pockets get worn out pretty quickly. Way before my jeans are actually worn out.

What legacy do you hope to leave on the world?

It’s my hope to pave the way for a whole new generation of socially conscious businesses, run by people who used to work at Oaklandish.