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Group dynamic

Elizabeth Varnell | December 28, 2007 | Story

Matt Dick
Design director, Tsurukichi clothing boutique
Messy-haired and laid-back, with hands perpetually tinted blue from the indigo fabric he loves, Matt Dick is a creative visionary, constantly exchanging ideas with his friends—at home, at work, over sushi, even during a garage sale he hosted. He's also a talented artisan whose new venture—a clothing shop called Tsurukichi, which has the lofty goal of saving an entire dying art form—reflects his passion for all things Japanese. “We joke that if someone were to unzip Matt's skin, there would be a Japanese guy inside,” Julie Elliott says.

Dick first made a name for himself at Tamotsu Yagi Design (TYD), mostly doing branding work for Japanese fashion companies. (Yagi was the graphic brains behind the Esprit brand during its heyday in the 1980s.) Yagi's taste was exquisite and exacting, Dick recalls: prized Jean Prouvé furniture in the office, a ban on mugs with logos, lessons on how to hang towels in the bathroom. Dick came away feeling slightly spoiled—“Everything was second best to what Tamotsu had”—but also inspired to find design solutions that provided similar aesthetic thrills, on a shoestring if necessary. “When you don't have a large budget, it forces you to be more creative,” says Dick, who went on to become the creative director at the launch of Harput's Market, a clothing boutique, and at International Orange (IO), where he remains.

Says IO's Amy Darland, “Matt has the ability to take mundane objects and pile them in a way that makes them more interesting as a whole, or he adds space between them and it makes you look at the objects differently. That's his gift.” Adds Federico de Vera, owner of the10 bicoastal de Vera boutiques, known for their highly curated style, “Matt has an aesthetic that one would find more in New York or Paris. For me, he's one of the few designers in San Francisco who actually get it—whose vision is fresh, not commercial, and uncompromised.”

But Dick's first love is textiles. After graduating from California College of the Arts, he apprenticed at Nakajima dye compound in Hanyu City, Japan, learning techniques that date back 1,600 years. He opened Tsurukichi on the fringes of Nob Hill to make garments from fabric dyed at Nakajima, so the compound can thrive beyond the lifespan of its current sensei, 77-year-old Yasuo Nakajima. Ultimately, Dick wants to give it a global presence.

His designs—everything from aprons and T-shirts to jackets and custom pieces—are cut and handmade onsite (customers include Margrit Mondavi and Eleanor Coppola). He also overdyes clothing his customers bring him, such as faded jeans. Dick's grand plan includes a dye compound in Napa Valley and an expanded wholesale business, but he won't abandon his sewing machine. “I'm just happy to be designing clothes again.”

864 Post St., S.F., 415-292-5550

Dick became friends first with Yagi; they traveled to Japan together while both worked at Tamotsu Yagi Design. He met Darland when she needed someone brilliant to design International Orange's spa space, where he first spotted Elliott curating a picture-perfect display of her amber apothecary jars on the spa's shelves. Dick's boutique shares a wall with Parfumerie In Fiore, Elliott's balm shop. In honor of Dick's passion for indigo, Elliott forgoes her signature black to dress in shades of blue, and Yagi carries a logo-free, light blue Balen­ciaga lariat bag.

Amy Darland
Cofounder, International Orange spa and yoga lounge
You could say spas are in Amy Darland's blood. She was raised in Marin, and family vacations meant visits to spas and hot springs—“some fancy, some funky,” she recalls. Her mother even practiced baby massage on Darland long before it became the sensitive-mom thing to do. So it was a no-brainer for her to open a spa, and she herself became a massage therapist in preparation.

In 2001, when most Bay Area spas were either borderline psychedelic or lavishly grandiose, Darland and her business partners (cofounders Kary Chendo and Melissa Ferst) decided to start a yoga spa modeled after the Slow Food movement. “The less-is-more philosophy is very San Francisco, but no one had done it in a day spa here yet,” Darland says. “Ours was meant to strip away the chaos, the data, the stuff of a metropolitan life, and encourage taking more time for your body and yourself.” The whole concept seemed like a perfect canvas for Dick's clean and inventive aesthetic, and he joined the team as creative director while still working at TYD. The look was designed to resemble an art gallery—a quiet, contemplative haven where the mind was free to wander—and both Dick and Darland found inspiration in Donald Judd's sculptures in Marfa, Texas, and the mazelike design of Comme des Garçons' New York boutique. They chose all-white for the walls and a backdrop of natural materials: furniture crafted from reclaimed wood, farmers market flowers, and organic snacks. “We wanted simple things,” Darland says. “Things that felt essential.”

Dick's design is what attracted Elliott when she was searching for a local vendor to stock In Fiore body products, and she and Darland quickly became collaborators and friends. The three still double over with laughter about an early incident at the spa that sparked a curatorial intervention. IO had run out of white, recyclable cups for cucumber-infused water, which patrons drink after yoga class, so a couple of staff members went to Walgreens to buy replacements. They couldn't find anything in plain white, so they chose Dixie cups decorated with teddy bears. Dick banned them instantly.

But Darland doesn't let him win all the design battles. They still remember the discussion about what kind of furniture to include in the spa. “Originally,” Dick recalls, “I designed the benches in the spa lounge without any cushions. I thought the guests' robes would provide enough padding. But the girls [Darland and Ferst] said, ‘Matt, it's not an internment camp, we need cushions.'” They got them.

2044 Fillmore St., 2nd Fl., S.F., 888-894-8811,

A massage therapist with branding know-how, Darland was working with partners to start the area's first truly design-conscious spa and yoga studio when she met Dick at a party. They spoke of design on a deck looking out at a lagoon and Mt. Tam, and she hired him on the spot. Elliott was hunting for the right place to sell her balms and oils when she met Darland; later, they traveled to New York to pitch to fashion editors. The foursome, including Yagi, now collect at the spa, conceptualizing ideas, test-driving treatments, and checking out the spa's art exhibitions.

Julie Elliott
Founder, In Fiore and Parfumerie In Fiore
A business magazine might anoint Julie Elliott one of the beauty industry's most successful artisan entrepreneurs. Her eight-year-old line of handcrafted organic body oils, balms, and solid perfumes are available in 38 shops and spas, including Fred Segal Studio in Santa Monica and Barneys New York in Japan. Elliott's shop and products draw national attention (Lucky, InStyle, W, Vogue); her artistic eye for display and her signature amber apothecary jars attract fans; and she can't keep her skin care line in stock at her perfumery or at IO; the same goes for her latest favorite: IO's Bathe, a jar of sea salts accented with orange blossoms, vetiver root, and white lotus. Dick calls her “our discerning risk-taker.” Nearly every evening, when she and Dick open the door between their adjoining shops to chat with staff about upcoming designs and inspiration, Elliott offers commonsensical advice. “It's contagious how we're all building brands from the ground up,” she warns, “but it's not enough to just be creative. You have to get the thing off the ground.”

Yet Elliott's business acumen masks the uncompromising nature of her passion. Her raison d'être is to put beauty products that double as healing wonders into people's hands. Full of humor and always mindful of her friends' well-being, she compares herself to an Italian mother who can't help cooking for friends. A creative discussion ends with her prescribing an herbal remedy. “I look out for everyone and I've got their backs. What can I say? They're my family. No one can tell me what's wrong with them without getting a product in response,” she says.

Elliott admires European apothecaries and is influenced by the rich history of bathing and anointment in many cultures. “Amy and Matt and other friends come to my house to take baths,” she says. “We jokingly call it the Bath House.” But balms and fragrances are her true calling. She and her apprentice make every In Fiore potion. Elliott recently completed a masters program in energy medicine and radionics, and she's studying how to infuse homeopathic and gem remedies into her line. Despite being a self-named “reluctant homeopath,” she is often prompted by friends like Dick, who constantly ask her for health advice.

With an artist and jewelry designer, Elliott is also collaborating on a line of pendants and ring amulets containing fabric saturated in her essential oils and perfumes—a concept based on vessels worn as protection from spirits in the 11th and 12th centuries. She has many more such ideas than anyone can count. “Matt says comfort kills creativity,” Elliott says. “Having financial limitations works in your favor, because you have to work harder to get things done.” Suddenly, she mentions another project she's been thinking about. “I've always wanted to reinvent smelling salts. I haven't figured it out yet, but someday....”

868 Post St., S.F., 415-928-5661,

Elliott loved International Orange when it opened; now she collaborates with Darland on a body-care line for the spa and oversees its retail shop. She met Dick at the spa and Yagi at an IO art exhibition Elliott curated. She travels with Darland and Dick to Darland's family's organic farm in New Mexico to harvest herbs and flowers used in spa products. Currently, she and Yagi are collaborating on a new line of balms, and she and Dick convene daily for “crabby hour” (often topped off by a glass of Japanese Orion beer)—their boutiques are neighbors.

Ritsuko Yagi
Cofounder, Chariots on Fire boutique and design shop
Ritsuko Yagi has an eye for artifacts that's taken her one step farther than even her father, Tamotsu Yagi, the famed graphic designer, known for his vast collections of natural specimens. Along with her business partner, Oriana Reich, Yagi has compiled a collection of home design objects and vintage jet jewelry (made of dense black coal during the Victorian era), and she has exquisite taste for the best new bauble designs and the prized wares of those who traffic in ephemera. “I'm a finder and gatherer,” says Yagi, who was raised in San Francisco and has the poise of a dancer (she trained seriously at the San Francisco Ballet School into her teens). “I'm constantly selecting, editing, displaying.” Says Elliott, “Ritz takes her time and likes to contemplate things. Her work is always thoughtful and beautiful.”

Indeed, what's striking about Chariots on Fire, Yagi's new retail shop in the front section of Tamotsu Yagi Design, is the display. In addition to hard-to-find books and zakka (Japanese for chic household ephemera), she carries exclusive jewelry by London-based Scott Wilson (who collaborates with fashion designer Hussein Chalayan), Natalia Brilli (known for her wrapped leather pendants shaped into beetles, peapods, and other unexpected objects), and Jacqueline Cullen (whose modern designs include rings of Whitby jet with flecks of 24-karat gold). Also on hand is Yagi's carefully compiled collection of vintage jewels set in intricate designs carved from Victorian jet and vulcanite, a hard rubber made to resemble precious jet. The necklaces, bracelets, and rings sit atop piles of precisely cut stacks of white cardstock on Prouvé tables. “I need variety,” she admits. “I want to be rebellious, rather than carry the same things all the time.”

Her father's daughter, Yagi also continues her graphic design work. But she loves the diversion of visitors at her new space. Like her friends' boutiques, Chariots on Fire functions as a sort of design “genius bar,” where she helps customers indulge their passions one-on-one. “Just meeting the people makes having the shop great,” she says. “The characters here are different from other cities. You're not going to find someone going into a little boutique in New York to linger for an hour to chat about a necklace.” Yagi says that while eBay is useful, it doesn't provide the history of a bauble or let a prospective customer feel the weight of a charm or bracelet. “In the age of the Internet, it's all about the experience of coming into the shop.”

893a Folsom St., S.F., 415-623-9230,

Yagi has known and worked with Dick for almost a decade; when she was near graduation from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 2000, he flew to London to help her sew her final project. She and Elliott had counters at Harput's Market when Dick was creative director there. She sells jewelry and objects in her retail space that reflect an obsession for ephemera inspired by her father. Yagi is currently designing the packaging for Elliott's line of creams and healing solutions created for chefs, slated to launch at Boulette's Larder this fall.


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