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The Chicana Designer Turning the Old Into New

Sew Loka's Claudia Rodríguez-Biezunski is stitching up past wounds and quilting a greener wardrobe in Barrio Logan
Sew Loka shopfront with embroidered designs in the Barrio Logan
Sew Loka Barrio Logan San Diego Streetwear

Scraps of fabric cover a garage floor. To a hardworking father, they’re trash. To his anxious 11-year-old, however, the snips of denim scattered throughout the impromptu clothing factory are something else. She may have found treasures, her calling, or both.

Throughout her childhood, Claudia Rodríguez-Biezunski was surrounded by textiles, patterns, fabrics, and a family of creative Mexican immigrants—so it’s no surprise that she grew up in love with Chicana fashion and now works as a clothing designer running Sew Loka, a sewing studio and shop in Barrio Logan.

When her dad’s denim factory shut down in the late ’90s, the family’s San Fernando home became his workplace. Rodríguez- Biezunski, then a child looking for ways to stay busy and fight off anxiety, started collecting the cast-offs from her father’s mass-produced creations to make clothes for her dolls.

Rodríguez-Biezunski’s mother, who went to school for pattern-making and sewing, created many of the designer’s childhood outfits. Sewing was a cost-effective way of keeping all six siblings fully clothed.

Claudia Rodríguez-Biezunski, owner of Sew Loka, sewing a denim jacket in her shop

It was she who helped Rodríguez-Biezunski learn how to use a sewing machine and make her own patterns.

“Once I had the pattern … I really liked it. It gave me a purpose,” she says of her first moments behind the machine.

Inspired by her family’s design skills, sewing quickly became a huge part of her life, one she often hid from kids at school, who called her names like “freak” and “grandma.”

“I remember I was really embarrassed,” Rodríguez- Biezunski says. “At the time I was thinking, I can’t really tell my friends, but I’m really proud of it. It was embarrassing to be like, ‘Hey guys, I play with Barbies, but I only make their clothes.’”

As she grew older, her creations became more elaborate. She often repurposed thrifted finds like t-shirts from Goodwill to channel her DIY, punk-rock style. For her, a sewing machine is akin to a blender or toaster: an essential that should be found inside everyone’s home.

At 25, Rodríguez-Biezunski said goodbye to the valley and hello to San Diego. In 2013, she opened Sew Loka in a black-and-white building with bubblegum-pink trim. There, she transforms donations, secondhand fabrics, and other pre-loved items into one-of-a-kind garments and accessories. She also leads sewing workshops.

“I love mismatching different prints and fabrics,” the 38-year-old says. “Sew Loka is very influenced by a lot of color.”

Nothing gets thrown out at Sew Loka. Whether it’s a scrap of fabric or an old shirt, everything is utilized or repurposed. Stains, holes, and other damage are bleached, tie-dyed, or patched up.

Those who purchase the shop’s custom recycled flannels—a best-seller—can pick the color, the size, and a phrase (including words like “Morena,” “Chicana,” and “Chingona”) to adorn their shirt. Other items feature patchwork, embroidery, and images of the Virgin Mary—an ode to her religious, Mexican-American upbringing.

“We’re trying to tell a story,” Rodríguez-Biezunski shares. “We have a lot of different things that we have converted into something really cool that can last in your closet for a really long time.”

As an artist who uses reclaimed material, her hope is to be 100 percent sustainable by 2024. She also aims to keep the art of sewing alive—even if it means getting called loca.

By Roxana Becerril

Roxana Becerril is a Mexican-American writer living in San Diego. When she's not traveling or checking out the newest restaurant in the city, she covers art, culture, lifestyle and Latino topics.

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