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Lifestyle Retailers Go Americana

April 2010

By Dina Pugh, San Francisco

Community activists in neighborhoods throughout San Francisco, particularly the Mission District, have boycotted chain stores in reaction to gentrification since the dot-com boom. Most recently, American Apparel was shot down when they proposed to move into the Mission, with neighborhood groups (these are the consumers) favoring small, local businesses. The fuzzy political leanings of San Francisco have made way for a new crop of cozy little "lifestyle stores" that are independently operated by artists, designers and entrepreneurs who make their curatorial vision evident.

General Store is run by Mason and Serena, an architect and artist, whose Sunset District shop caters to a new population of design-oriented surfers who would rather live by the ocean than in the gritty Mission. Their wares are eclectic but carefully selected for their utilitarian (and aesthetic) purposes in the cold, foggy beach community. Items like a mid-century sofa, framed pieces by local artists, comfy vintage sweaters, books on building your own wooden house and succulent plants in their outdoor greenhouse all add up to a retail store that doubles as a how-to-guide for living pretty much like Serena and Mason! The couple's dreamy beach bungalow in the Sunset, featured in Apartment Therapy, is the envy of every city dweller that fantasizes about a more laid-back urban existence.

General Store has become known for its great mix of local handmade, vintage, and well-designed mass produced items that are all impeccably crafted. Their success lies in that there is only one of each object, on display like an art gallery. This careful presentation - in combination with the high standard of design and quality - makes me want everything in the store!

The outdoorsy feel of General Store is translated into a more urban vocabulary at the newly opened Unionmade menswear store in a neighborhood that borders the Castro and the Mission - two neighborhoods known for its fashionable men! The interior here is rugged, woodsy, Western Americana - a decor that seems to be extrememly popular in new SF retailers and food/drink establishments. The store is filled with an assortment of button-down shirts in great colors, soft tees, fine denim, and washed leather bags and shoes.

I found myself loving being in this men's shop because at every turn, I was finding more for myself than I would have thought. Surprisingly, they had a whole J.Crew section that I found particularly appealing as I hunt for the perfect oversized plaid shirt. An interesting reversal in the mass luxury trend, J.Crew has so successfully rebranded itself as a niche, artsy label that it is now being carried at concept stores like Unionmade that tout themselves as purveyors of well-crafted, specialty items. Recently, I have been taking note of how J.Crew has started featuring artists in its catalogs and local designers in-store. Their collaborations with "tried-and-true" designers like Clarks and Levi's® are worn by the worker-chic trendsetting men such as artist Jay Nelson who I profiled in last year's Style CultureBlog. This dual strategy seems to be working for the brand as evidenced by J.Crew popping up everywhere from Unionmade to my dinner table conversation about where my male friends will shop for their next suit.

I've recently been stunned at the excitement around men's fashion that my guy friends have been clueing me into. Apparently there is a whole blog community - A Continuous Lean and Denimology being some of the more influential blogs - that is making aesthetically-minded men more choosy in their fashion choices. One friend even told me about "denim nerds" who covet jeans with certain kinds of seams and other fine details. J. Crew has already caught onto this burgeoning trend, newly collaborating with the cult Japanese denim manufacturer, Warehouse, on a premium line that will fetch $300 a pair (on-site alteration will even be offered in their NYC location!)

Viracocha is a community-operated retail space and performance venue that recently opened in the Mission. The owner Jonathan says, "Think of the store as a garage sale with everything I've collected for 20 years." The interior is paneled in reclaimed wood - another huge trend in new SF retail spaces. My favorite part of my experience in Viracocha was that there was a man playing an old piano in the corner. While the romantic music made me want to stay longer, the unfocused assortment of second-hand finds felt a little too much like a flea market and not enough like a curated space. I usually go into a shopping experience in a certain mode and on this particular day, I was hoping to be guided a bit more. There is a delicate balance between providing the element of surprise and not having the customer dig and sort through less desirable items.

The popular rustic American interior design is not just limited to boutiques or second-hand stores, but has a strong presence in new coffee shops and restaurants throughout SF as well. Four Barrel Coffee is one of the newer cafés that spent a huge amount of time and money pre-opening to renovate the massive cantilevered space into a feat of industrial metal, thick wooden planks and natural light, all blending together. A local furniture designer created the tables out of old railroad ties, providing a cohesion of new and salvaged materials. The obligatory animal horns hang on the wall while fresh lillies fill the bathroom...not to mention the delicious coffee made in their in-house roaster! The locally-made appeal is prevalent in all things San Francisco, but Four Barrel provides you with a full sensory experience that Starbucks could never replace, even with their newly acquired Clover coffee prepared by-the-cup.

I recently visited the under-construction Sightglass Coffee that promises to top the architectural scale and detail of Four Barrel, also hosting their own roaster. The café already has an outdoor street scene just from selling out of their cut-out entrance pre-opening.

After being blown away at the magnitude of the construction project, what caught my eye was the iPad that Sightglass uses at the point of sale. The Square card reader and corresponding app allow the device to process credit cards with the touch of a screen, sending the receipt directly to the customer's email. This instantly sold me on getting an iPad with the Square terminal for my art gallery...but only if I can also get one of those handmade wooden swivel stands that Sightglass has on theirs! It was made specifically for the Square launch event but I'm sure they will come out in droves shortly as business owners like myself drool over them.

Fashion & Style
San Francisco

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