Santa Cruz designer Lil Jax is selling its distinctive "spirit vests" for the youngest on your gift list.
City Life

Keeping It Local: When it comes to apparel, ‘buying local’ is in the eye of the wearer

Lookout’s “Keeping It Local” gift guide rolls along as Wallace Baine threads his way through Santa Cruz clothing options. And stay tuned for another installment from Lily Belli on Friday.

T-shirts, beanies, hoodies, jackets, ballcaps, scarves, socks, sweaters — such is the stuff of the contemporary world. And chances are pretty good you’ll either give and/or receive one or more such goodies this holiday season.

But buying local on the apparel front is a bit more complicated than in other realms. On the most basic level, you can buy local by simply buying local, spending your gift dollars at locally owned boutiques and retailers, of which Santa Cruz County is like an apple tree at harvest time.

There’s plenty to pick from. If that’s your strategy, then go for it. Local shopkeepers need your business, and many of them have spent years figuring out exactly what the local community prefers in chic, affordable clothing.

But most of what’s available in local shops is designed and/or manufactured elsewhere. Again, maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe a dollar spent at a locally owned boutique is just as good as a dollar directed at a local creator.

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When it comes to apparel, what qualifies as “local” is a nuanced question. It’s easy enough, say, to find a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Santa Cruz.” And by far the most iconic and popular of such logo-wear are the “red dot” and “screaming hand” logos that blanket the whole county in a dizzying variety of styles and colors.

Those are, of course, the brand identity of NHS, Inc., the nearly 50-year-old skateboard company based right here in Santa Cruz. The famous iconography itself is the work of the great graphic artist Jim Phillips, about as rootstock Santa Cruz as you can find. And you can’t walk 10 feet in many commercial areas of Santa Cruz County without finding an NHS-licensed retailer.

A strawberry logo on a T-shirt representing Watsonville
Santa Cruz isn’t the only local city representing on T-shirts these days. This classic Watsonville strawberry look comes by way of Monterey Bay Murals.

Go all-in on NHS wear for your holiday list? I’m all for it. Every Californian should own one red-dot item, or several. Let’s cover every continent with them. But if you want to throw a curveball, there are options. The Santa Cruz Shirt Outlet on Swift Street, for example, has plenty of other Santa Cruz-centric designs to choose from.

And Santa Cruz doesn’t get to have all the fun. Watsonville partisans have for several years now been rocking the sweet “The Ville” strawberry shirts and hoodies, marketed by Monterey Bay Murals. There’s also an online entity known as the Watsonville Outlet that sells everything from face masks to sweats with various Watsonville designs.

If you really want to go deep-cut with local place names, consider a cool local high school item for those who are (or are parents of) alums. Most county high schools have apparel available on their websites, and often retailers will carry high school stuff. We spotted plenty of sweet Soquel High Knights swag at the CVS in Capitola.

So, you might think collecting place-name logos might not be in the spirit of buying local when it comes to apparel. There are other designers working to get their goods into the Santa Cruz mainstream.

Among them is Shalom Clothing — or, technically, “shä-lōm” — a Santa Cruz-based company that markets a wide variety of items marked with designs that promote peace, world cultures, and Jewish mysticism, founded and managed by designer Jacob Seedman.

If you have little ones on your list, the Santa Cruz-based company Lil Jax sells handmade, upcycled goods for the under-12 set (and some cool grown-up stuff, too). It all started when local designer Asha Tobing began making stuff for her son Jaxon. This stuff is only for those moms, dads and favorite aunts who can handle the idea of their loved one being the coolest kid on the block.

The wraparound sari-style designs of Santa Cruz designer Sonia Le were featured in October's "Pivot" fashion show.

Santa Cruz designer Sonia Le is the designer behind Cosmo Chic, at which she sells swank sari wrap skirts and other elegant pieces. And for anyone on your gift list who has a head, there are always hats, namely the beautiful millinery of local artist Noah Gould whose bespoke hats are made at his Aptos home. But you can browse his work at his tiny retail operation in a kiosk in a parking lot near the newly opened 11th Hour coffeehouse.

The work of I.B. Bayo is among Santa Cruz's finest offerings in the realm of locally designed and manufactured clothing.

But the reigning monarch of Santa Cruz designers could be African-born, Santa Cruz-based textile maker and clothing designer I.B. Bayo, whose bespoke dresses and jackets and suits are nothing short of bedazzling. Bayo has been a mainstay in the annual fashion show “Pivot: The Art of Fashion,” which celebrates the creativity of those in Santa Cruz County who design “wearable art.”

Generally, the work of local designers are difficult to find in local retail shops, for various reasons. That means you have to work a little harder to find apparel that really fits the definition of Santa Cruz original. Dive into the vast world of Santa Cruz County’s fine artists to find who is putting their work on shirts, or bringing their eye and expertise to designing clothing. You’ll find the hunt to be every bit as fun as finding the treasure.