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Through ‘Chicana grunge,’ Sew Loka captures the spirit of Barrio Logan

Claudia Biezunski-Rodriguez of Sew Loka, a Barrio Logan-based clothing brand and sewing studio.
(Vito Di Stefano)

Designer Claudia Biezunski-Rodriguez is so inspired by her Barrio Logan neighborhood, she organizes outdoor art exhibitions to bring business back to the community

Coronavirus has not been kind to visual artists, particularly those who are up-and-coming and rely on visibility and word-of-mouth to make a living.

Claudia Biezunski-Rodriguez is one of those artists. Since the pandemic, the Barrio Logan clothing designer has had to change the way she does business — moving away from tailoring and custom pieces and focusing on shirts, denim jackets and other ready-to-wear items.

She’s also been helping her community deal with the pandemic by putting on outdoor art exhibitions. The latest is Art Crossing, which she’s organized with Groundfloor Murals and debuts this weekend along Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan. The exhibition showcases paintings, sculptures and other works from neighborhood artists and is meant to be “part walking gallery and part outdoor art installation.” The show, which will be on view through the end of February, begins at the end of Chicano Park and goes to 26th Street.

Biezunski-Rodriguez moved to Barrio Logan from San Fernando in 2010 and launched her brand, Sew Loka. The artist, 35, tells us about her passion for sewing and why she continues to help and feel passion for her adopted hometown.

Q: How would you describe Sew Loka?
A: Sew Loka is both a clothing brand and a sewing studio; it is also a creative space where I can peacefully close my eyes and create design visions inside of my head. All of the clothing I create and rework is designed for comfort above everything else, and that is why I have self-labeled my aesthetic as Chicana Grunge. Grunge is not just a genre of music from the 1990s, it’s also a style and a way of life for me. Vintage reworked tees, distressed denim jeans, oversized flannels and used Doc Martens are all a part of the modern grunge aesthetic, and they can all be easily paired with any of the Sew Loka clothing items that I create.

Sew Loka's "Chicana grunge" aesthetic includes denim jackets, distressed T-shirts and flannels.
Sew Loka’s “Chicana grunge” aesthetic includes denim jackets, distressed T-shirts and flannels.
(Vito di Stefano)

Q: What made you decide to pursue Sew Loka full time?
A: I moved to San Diego with the intention of making sewing my life. I had just spent the first half of my twenties working for a large corporation and it left me feeling purposeless, so I knew that I could not go back to punching a clock. Sewing was the only thing that I did really well, and I knew that I could use this skill to become successful in my new life. Growing up, I always remember seeing my dad being very entrepreneurial and even selling pumpkins door-to-door one year for Halloween. I knew that I could be like him and open a business and run it full time, but I made the newbie mistake of thinking it would be easy; it has not been easy. It has been an uphill battle since day one.

Q: How has the pandemic affected your business?
A: During the first few months of lockdown, I stopped working on tailoring and custom sewing projects altogether, and I immediately began making free face masks for the community. I did not charge anything for the masks, because I viewed them as a basic human need and I did not want to profit off of my community during a public health crisis. I wanted to prove to the people around me that I will always be an asset to them, even during the darkest of times.

But when masks became fully stocked in the U.S. and they were available for purchase in every gas station, I quickly realized that I needed to do something different in order to keep my business pushing forward. I knew that I could not rely on my old business model of tailoring and custom sewing for too much longer; the demand for my skills had literally vanished overnight. But that is when I told my husband, ‘Screw it, let’s make our own designs and sell them; no more custom anything.’ Thankfully the community has really and truly embraced our brand and supported our shop throughout this very critical transition.

Q: What are some of your most popular items?
A: Currently, our reworked vintage denim jackets and flannels do really well for us. I add patches, phrases and imagery to the back of all these jackets and flannels, and people have really responded well to my messaging and Chicana-inspired designs.

Sew Loka items are created and sewn by Claudia Biezunski-Rodriguez.
(Vito di Stefano)

Q: What do you hope people learn or take from the messages on your clothes?
A: Some of the phrases that I incorporate into my designs are ‘Brown AF,’ ‘Brown Queen,’ ‘Morena,’ ‘Chicana’ and ‘Sad Girl.’ When I decide to embroider the phrase ‘Brown Queen’ on the front of a sweater, I know (and my customer knows) that, in certain settings, the phrase ‘Brown Queen’ could be considered controversial and has the potential to make other people feel uncomfortable. But I am OK with that; I have been made to feel uncomfortable my whole life, and I refuse to hold back my feelings and censor my creativity. I was always super scared of being labeled ‘sad’ or ‘shy’ or ‘lonely,’ but now I proudly wear these scarlet letters as a badge of honor across my chest.

Q: Do you sew everything yourself or do you have a staff?
A: Right now, I sew and cut everything by myself, and honestly, that is how I want it to be forever. I know that is not the greatest business plan, but I don’t care. The act of sewing gives me purpose and that is invaluable to me. I want to be known as a creator that isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and that is why I will continue to sew every item I design. I do have a small staff that helps me with my online shop, website and social media, but other than that, it’s just me and my husband that work here in the studio.

Q: How has your Barrio Logan neighborhood inspired your designs?
A: To live in Barrio Logan is to be inspired. Every time I walk the block down Logan Avenue, I see something new and colorful and weird, and it keeps the right side of my brain flowing throughout the day. Living and creating in such close proximity to historic Chicano Park, fills me with an intense creative energy that I have never felt anywhere else in my life; it truly feels like magic here.

Q: You pride yourself in being sustainable, can you explain what you’re doing?
A: When we create new clothing, we always use all of the materials that we have around us first; like donated vintage fabrics, distressed leather scraps, and recycled materials from previous projects. I am tired of people viewing clothing and fabric as disposable; it is a huge problem that has a terrible effect on our environment.

Sew Loka's "Sad Girl" flannels are a popular item.
(Vito di Stefano)

Q: What inspired you to put on Art Crossing?
A: Artists and art shows have always been a huge part of this community, but the pandemic has made it nearly impossible to host any kind of normal, indoor art gallery show. That is why we teamed up with up-and-coming local muralists, Ground Floor Murals to create this new safe, socially distanced, self-guided art walk tour of Logan Avenue.

Q: Why is it important to showcase Barrio Logan artists now, during a pandemic?
A: Many artists have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic and they need our support now more than ever. We cannot take our local artists for granted, but instead we must nurture them and encourage them to keep creating. The art created today will undoubtedly shape the future of tomorrow; I truly believe that and I will always be here to support the local art scene in whatever way possible. They are my brothers and sisters and I love them.

Art Crossing runs through Feb. 28 along Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan. Find Sew Loka fashions at sewloka.com.


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