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Anything Goes

Summer Tompkins
Fashion Designer: Summer Tompkins, co-founder of Summer and the Hat Man hattery and a new clothing line. The Summer Tompkins spring, '98 line is due in stores nationwide in January.

San Francisco may not be a fashion mecca, but nobody seems to care

By Ami Chen Mills

I used to live a few blocks from Gianni Versace--the recently sensationally deceased Italian designer--on Ocean Drive in South Beach, Miami, the French Riviera of the United States. I was a waitress and young writer, and my boyfriend at the time worked at the tres chic News Cafe, where, according to news reports, Versace purchased his last cup of coffee and 13 glossy magazines before meeting his doom at the front gate of his mansion, just steps down the street.

South Beach was as close to high fashion as I've come. Models jetted in from New York, strolled the streets in leather miniskirts, posed on gleaming Harley-Davidsons for shoots and inhaled nonfat lattes and fruit salad at the News Cafe.

Huge trailers parked every three blocks, generators humming, dispensed lanky women and buff men in everything from Sears-style catalogue wear to shocking diaphanous evening gowns. The winter air was warm and sultry, the nightclubs were packed, and heroin use and public displays of bisexuality were on the upswing. At the time, Mickey Rourke was slouching around with his girlfriend, planning a new club, and Lauren Bacall breezed up and down Ocean in airy linen pants. As a waitress, I hovered over the tables of Gloria Estefan, Willem Dafoe, Joan Cusack, Kathy Ireland and hundreds of photographers, directors, agents, financiers and drug dealers.

It was all very subtropical and exciting. And I don't know if I've ever been more unhappy in my life. When my boyfriend told me one night about a woman at a nightclub who showed up wearing a shirt with two round holes from which her breasts protruded artfully--and how cool he thought that was--I responded by suggesting he buy a pair of pants with a nice, round hole in the crotch and have his own go at South Beach fashion, a la outrage.

Much of my reaction to South Beach stemmed from youthful insecurity. I'm not really a prude. I appreciate fashion as an art form, as creative expression.

Fashion should be fun, yet there was something about the feeling of South Beach--a see-and-be-seen atmosphere, an intense focus on externality and sexual show encouraged by the raging heat--that was disturbing and draining. Everyone was very hip, but nobody seemed very nice. Even Mickey Rourke said, after abandoning his club plans there, that South Beach had robbed him of his soul.

I am relieved today to live in a city with little sense of fashion. Let me rephrase that--a city which encompasses and embraces fashion, but is not ruled by fashion. New York critics and Miami agents may view San Francisco as a fashion backwater, a non-scene, a bore. I say, Hallelujah! At least we're happy. And the fashion we do produce can never take itself too seriously, at least not here. Independently minded San Franciscans simply will not allow it. Which is not to say that San Francisco has no fashion, but that fashion here is fun and not fanatic.


At Bimbo's and Eleven, you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a beautiful person. Not that you'd want to.

Plus, real people photographed at two S.F. parties; what the tourists are wearing in S.F.; anatomy of a fashion magazine cover; and where to find locally designed fashion in the city.


San Francisco Style

"This whole area is more about inner stuff than outer stuff," says Summer Tompkins, co-founder of Summer and the Hat Man hattery and a new clothing line in her own name. The Summer Tompkins spring '98 line is due in stores nationwide in January.

As the daughter of Esprit founder Doug Tompkins and a former Esprit employee, Tompkins has made the fashion rounds, from >Paris to New York to L.A. Seated in her Third Street design studio, Tompkins' own style reflects the simplicity and wearability of her designs. She's sporting flats with tailored black cotton pants, a simple, form-fitting sweater and small, classy earrings. The rest of the staff here is fashionable (wedge shoes aplenty), yet there is scant pretension in this sunny, casual office with views through lofty windows of the Bay Bridge span and Oakland hills. Most people putter about in jeans and T-shirts.

Tompkins says she has no desire to compete with New York or L.A., fashionwise. "I think this area is very secure, very competent. It's not hip to be flashing your money around. People live here for reasons other than fashion, and most people don't want to scream and shout and say, 'Look at me!'

"To me, outrageous fashion represents insecurity."

While New York may boast innovative extremes of style, Tompkins notes that in terms of what Americans actually wear, San Francisco­based fashion firms do fine. "You have the Gap here, Levi's, Esprit. The Gap is doing great if you're looking at the big picture. There are all these people in New York trying to chase something wild, and they bomb. To be honest, fashion actually doesn't change much."

Downstairs in her company's production area, Tompkins leads me past boxes overflowing with precious little purses lined in remarkably real-looking fur (it's not, of course) and introduces me to the skeleton of her spring line: simple, feminine suits and dresses of the lightest, easiest fabrics--georgette, rayon crepe, matte jersey. There are flirtatious wraparound dresses, shoulder-baring halters, soft, sexy pants, shirts of subtle plaid in bright, Esprit-like colors--all understated and ultimately pragmatic. "I believe in practical, realistic fashion," Tompkins says, unapologetic. New York can do what it wants.

Function and Fun

Local designers and vendors as a group maintain the same defiant stance about San Francisco's fashion scene or lack thereof. "We're free from a right-wrong stigma about fashion. San Francisco is about function, comfort and fun," says David Dawson, co-owner of Asphalt Streetwear, an outlet for local designers on Hayes Street. Dawson and his partner, Shelly Gottschamer, also produce dAs Clothing, and Dawson serves as informal chair of ISM, San Francisco's Independent Style Merchants, a group, according to its somewhat randomly produced mini-newsletter, The Fashion Bee, of "apparel design companies that have banded together for truth, justice and the American way." These include Asphalt and the Gallo Design Studio, whose owner, Paul Gallo, creates clothing for men and women and cross-dressers; Labyrinth on Haight Street; Manifesto off Hayes; Sui Generis; and Swingline, among others.

The Fashion Bee provides ample evidence that San Francisco designers don't take themselves too seriously, with horoscopes, word games, a short section on "Stupid Things"--including lap dogs, aliens and green hair--and free "I (heart) Xena" stickers. The Bee gives off an impression of SF fashion designers as a bunch of hyper-creative high school kids, drama students maybe, who meet in garages from time to time to fool around. But local designers are both hard-working and serious about their craft.

The clothes at Asphalt, which carries most of the ISM designers, range from tough, utilitarian, unisexual pants by Sui Generis to Paul Gallo's '60s and '70s-referential ethnic prints, as well as sexy satin pants for men with Gallo's trademark have-em-both zippers, which run up between the legs, from front button to rear waist.

The use of hemp, organic and other eco-friendly cloth is big in this city, but as Dawson points out, designers here run the gamut from "pure granola to pure petroleum." Nylon jackets and pants hang from racks up and down Hayes Valley.

Dawson and others are hesitant to describe any overarching trends in San Francisco fashion: "If you want me to make sweeping generalizations, I'm not going to go there," Dawson says, then adds: "But a New Yorker might."

Some sweeping generalizations: The feel of locally designed clothing is unfeminine at the moment. No frills, no lace, no round holes for breasts, for example. Boxy cuts, durable, easy fabrics, "plastic" fabrics (think waterproof), within a mishmash of decades from the '40s through the '70s.

There seems to be room in this city for any kind of innovation, for any kind of designer to emerge. Al Abayan of the store and clothing company One by Two on Hayes is gaining national recognition through his American farm­ inspired line and the use of nylon-laminated '60s batik fabrics (remember those thin Indian bedspreads hippies used to hang on walls? That stuff).

At Manifesto, designers Sarah Franko and Suzanne Castillo play with 1940s and '50s themes using soft, skin-caressing fabrics. "Comfort is a really big issue for us," says Franko, chatting as she cuts fabric at the massive sewing table in the middle of the Manifesto shop.

"I think the fashion scene here is more about comfort than in New York. New York is more high and tight. We're a little out of sync with the trends. I mean, we're not fashion forward. I think that fashion here reflects the whole East Coast­West Coast dichotomy--relaxed versus uptight."

The relative lack of trend, establishment and high finance for fashion in this city is freeing for designers, and also limits their success. "At least in New York there is the expectation that people will attempt to be cosmopolitan. San Francisco doesn't have that clear an agenda," Dawson says.

Designers in this small pond design very personal clothes, clothes their friends would wear (not Naomi Campbell). And designers here, unlike those in New York, can almost gain a foothold in the scene just by showing up. However, because San Franciscans generally refuse to become slaves to fashion, it's difficult for any one designer to "capture the market," or make it big here--although a few designers like Susan Robinson of Penelope Starr, Jennifer Jensen at Labyrinth and Abayan at One by Two are flirting with international fame.

Endless Summer of Love

What do you do with a population which insists on retaining its 1960s freedoms, wears jeans to operas, dines at Stars, reads poetry in bars and hikes at Point Reyes? A population hellbent on revering all lifestyles--from those of the sexually deviant to those in high society, to both combined?

"We have more of a tradition here of ensuring that there is no right posture to strike," Dawson observes. "In New York, people are commitedly urban. In San Francisco, we're urban, but we'll also be out on a mountain bike on Saturday. Then we have this burden of being the site of the summer of love. So there's a small market for just about anything here. But it's problematic for designers because in New York, at least people are educated about art and fashion. I mean, it matters--if not always for the right reasons. But in San Francisco, you have more confusion about what art is for. You have people here to whom no one has ever indicated that fashion is important."

At the S/he boutique on Hayes, co-owner Jeffrey Allen says San Franciscans "are a little bit slower in grasping a trend. I have skirts that were all the rage in New York, but no one would buy them here. You have to get people to put the things on and work it and get it, you know, 'Go, girl!' before they buy. ... We also have people coming in asking specifically for local designers, which is nice."

Low Fashion

I, for one, am not going to weep over our city's lack of high fashion sense. To me, our kind of fashion--call it low fashion--is both creative and accepting. Fashion with fun, but without finicky finesse, holier-than-thou attitude or exclusionary posturing.

In San Francisco, I can wear an outfit that is fashionable, slutty, conservative or just plain dumpy, and attend the same clubs and restaurants and events as anybody else, without arch sidelong glances. Nobody really gives a shit, but they'll appreciate a beautiful thing--there's a Buddhist beauty to that.

At the recent Bimbo's fashion show for the North Beach Jazz Festival, audience members sauntered unself-consciously in Tevas and jeans, as well as the hippest nylon gear, '50s jackets, plaid pants, satin halters and Swing-era styles. One woman at the show wore a simple embroidered Indian cotton shirt with a flowing, flowered skirt and Birkenstocks--stuff people wore in the '60s and never stopped wearing here.

My artist friend Jacob (looking splendid in his chocolate pigskin jacket) and I shared a cocktail table with a middle-aged couple who looked like they hailed from Dallas, but introduced themselves as North Beach locals and Bimbo's regulars.

On stage, thin, young, bored-looking models strolled coolly past in Caltrans­reminiscent plastic jackets, tight, shiny pants, wraparound dresses and one very interesting gray faux-fur miniskirt. "Sort of the 'serious retro' cave-girl look," Jacob--a naturalized and happy San Franciscan--quipped.

At Bimbo's, San Franciscans pretended to be fashionable for an evening, and some pretend harder and more often than others, but the wonderful thing about the city's fashion sense is that even if you don't play the game, you aren't relegated to the sidelines.

When the fashion show at Bimbo's was over, the funk-rock band What It Is began cranking a dance tune with a bass-intensive beat. Lead singer Jerry Kennedy encouraged the crowd to dance. "It don't matter what you got on--no fashion clothes or all that. Just get down here and get in the spotlight."

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From the August 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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