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Men in Uniform

Sara Deseran | February 22, 2013 | Story Fashion

Sitting in a Shaker-inspired arm chair, Todd Barket has his legs crossed just so—casually but elegantly, confident in their exposure of a manly bit of calf hair. Dust-dappled sunlight streams through the open door of his men’s boutique, Unionmade, illuminating a pair of bare ankles encased in classic, navy, low-top Chuck Taylors (which his shop has just begun to sell alongside the popular and pricey Alden tassel moccasins—the same ones that my grandfather once sported).

Add a pair of Atticus Finch– like frames, a café au lait–colored, rib-knit Woolrich cardigan, plus the ubiquitous groomed facial hair and perfectly cuffed, 1947 501 jeans, and Barket’s whole look says “midcentury casual Friday.” Of course, when I ask him about what he’s wearing, he demurs like a good perfectionist: “Oh God, I’m a mess!” Ignore this humblebrag.

Since opening Unionmade in 2009 on the cusp of the Castro, Barket and his co-owner and significant other, Carl Chiara, have pivoted from their top-ranking creative positions at the Gap and Levi’s respectively to become the unofficial poster boys of the booming Americana fashion cult of San Francisco. The rest of the bearded and pomaded guys around town wearing cardigans, Oliver Peoples frames, and vintage cuffed jeans are, inadvertently, their pupils. This tribe of man—neither grungy and flanneled, nor skinny-jeaned and ironic, nor preppy-clean and bow-tied—has been ascendant for a couple years now. You see its members all over town, easily identifiable by their $163 Wolverine boots and their cotton Henley layered beneath a $245 plaid Hamilton button-down.

They’re the guys who look like they might have just emerged from a duck blind, but whose vocabulary includes bespoke and selvedge. They have a propensity for indigo and for clothing made in Japan (because Japan does classic American better than America does) or produced by domestic companies with tags that say “Since 1883.” They have no qualms about revealing to their girlfriend that a fourth-generation British seamstress hand-stitched their underwear.

Yes, I said “girlfriend.” “It’s all straight men who shop here,” says Barket, a gay man who is clearly a bit bewildered by how this happened. “In the olden days, if you were straight, you couldn’t really be interested in fashion. I think the guys who come in here used to be into street style when they were younger. They’re like skateboarders who have grown up.”

Women have clearly taken to men who sport this look. The very funny blog Your LL Bean Boyfriend, which features just-a-touch-rugged male catalog models gazing dreamily into the camera, sums up the fantasy: “He will build you a table and then have sex with you on it. Doesn’t get much hotter than that.”

Since Unionmade debuted, a rash of other men’s boutiques with similar leanings have followed. Today, there’s a plethora of well-curated men’s clothing stores, from the tiny Standard & Strange in Oakland, to the younger, more ironic Welcome Stranger in Hayes Valley, with its selection of vintage Penny skateboards, to the New York–born Freeman’s Sporting Club—home to both a barber shop and a boutique, for a head-to-toe experience. Add to that The Brooklyn Circus, Taylor Stitch, Onassis, Department Seventeen, Maas & Stacks, Revolver, Voyager, and, most recently, Aether, the first boutique of the Hayes Valley shipping container Proxy projects. Not only are women being left in the dust by the suddenly stylish straight guys of San Francisco—but, like me, they’re having to come to terms with the fact that our men are actually becoming…fashionable.

After about an hour of chatting with Barket, I find myself welling up with fashion shame. In comparison to the guys who long for Unionmade’s beautifully assembled muted neutrals, natural fibers, and classic cuts made by someone in Middle America or Scotland or France who apprenticed for generations before being allowed to hold a pair of scissors—I’m feeling guilt-riddenly cheap. What was I thinking when I left the house wearing a teal H&M shift and a Zara coat with quilted faux-leather sleeves? Yes, my boots, which I bought at a Hayes Valley boutique, were taken from the hide of a real cow, but the rest of my attire undoubtedly came from a Foxconn kind of factory in Asia, complete with a suicide net. “I think guys in San Francisco dress better than girls in San Francisco,” says Barket, whose gaze may or may not be traveling the length of me. He thinks a bit more before deducing, “But then, there’s a lot less that can go wrong.”

At the heart of this universal truth is something I know from reading The Female Brain. Everything about women is simply…complicated. “I think Unionmade has definitely been influential in this uniform for guys,” says Jenny Chung, the owner of two very stylish coed boutiques, Acrimony and Acre/SF. “But it’s a look that’s actually really easy to adopt. You can make small changes—facial hair versus no facial hair—but you’re still wearing the same Gitman Vintage shirt. Women push themselves more to be stylishly different. There’s no such thing as a women’s uniform.”

We’re also much more trend-driven and fickle. This season alone, women are being faced with racks of the latest spring fashions—including sandal boots, monochromatic suits, flatforms (a flat platform shoe, for the uninformed), wide-leg culottes, and pants with thick vertical stripes. And this is just the beginning. Considering this tsunami of potentially disastrous what-to-wear predicaments, I ask Chung—who believes, charitably, that women here need to be guided on how to dress—what she’d love to see San Francisco women clinging to in the storm of choices. “My favorite is the Scandinavian style,” she says. “It’s kind of an aggressive shape, and very directional.” So, women have to look aggressively, directionally Swedish, but all men have to do is slap on a button-down?

OK, so I’ll admit to feeling pangs of envy. But I’m big enough to recognize that the rise of the stylish San Francisco guy is something to celebrate. Unlike their peers in New York or L.A., San Francisco men have had to emerge from some pretty deep, dark pigeonholes. Between Steve Jobs’s black mock turtleneck and mom jeans (may they rest in peace) and the repeat offense of Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie and flip-flops, the tech world has done untold damage. Meanwhile, the Mission hipster still haunts us, and—worse yet—a certain steampunk kind of hippie who continues to show up at the Edwardian Ball and burner parties in a top hat and a vest without a shirt underneath. The national media has, of course, taken notice: Most memorably, there was the 2010 Fashion & Style article in the New York Times that called the Bay Area “the land that style forgot.” In 2011, GQ’s “Worst-Dressed Cities in America” hit list put San Francisco at 20th out of 40, pleading, “Would it kill you, San Francisco, to give the fleece a rest and put on a blazer for a night?”

Which is where Freeman’s Sporting Club, which arrived in the Mission in 2011, comes in. Riki Bryan is the former West Coast director of this men’s store and barber shop, which was launched in Manhattan in 2005 by Taavo Somer—the man the New York Times called the “godfather of urban woodsmen, high priest of heritage chic.” Bryan says that men here (even tech guys) now find their way to FSC for their first suit. “They’ll tell me that they’ve got a startup and they’re doing a presentation, and they need to look cool, but not like they’re trying too hard,” says Bryan (who, it should be noted, has a beard and is wearing a cardigan and Oliver Peoples glasses).

The idea that one cannot be trying too hard or dressing too up is at the core of San Francisco’s fashion ethos (if you insist that we actually have one), especially when applied to men. With this classic look, however, casual can be fully embraced. It’s not about who designed your varsity jacket—it’s about how and where it was made. Bryan, whose next charge is to help open FSC’s future location in Tokyo, speaks to the “buy less, buy better” theory that’s proselytized at this new generation of stores. “It’s the same thing with the locavore movement, even cocktails—guys here like to intellectualize all of this,” he says. “They will pay $300 for a pair of jeans if they can talk about how the cotton is a particularly unhearty strain that can only be grown in this one region of Japan, then it’s slow spun on shuttle looms, then hand-dipped 22 times over a two-week period in a vegetable based indigo dye by an old lady named Katsuko,” he (semi) jokes. Ryan Curtin, the manager at Unionmade, who used to work at the store’s Los Angeles location, concurs: “The culture here supports it. Everyone has a cause here, unlike in L.A., where everyone’s fine without one.”

As somone who predominantly writes about food, what I’m eating is often more on my mind than what I’m wearing. I’ve long said that food is fashion in San Francisco. But it just might be that with this new movement, the reverse is true. For men at least, fashion is fast becoming something to aspire to, just like mixing the ultimate old-fashioned or baking that perfect French country loaf. It’s no coincidence that the beloved Tartine baker Chad Robertson actually modeled for a campaign that’s on display in the Unionmade store. A good-looking guy who has the urban-woodchopper look down pat, Robertson works with his hands to painstakingly make something from scratch with organic ingredients—a true artisan in every sense of the word. And when he’s not doing that, he’s surfing the rough waves of Ocean Beach. It’s a life of which most of these fashionable, evolved San Francisco men can only dream.

Jonathan Kirby, the vice president of global men’s design at Levi Strauss & Co.—whose focus this year is on the 140th anniversary of the 501 jean— believes that the strong maker movement here, combined with our propensity for nostalgia, is one more reason that the gentleman-carpenter look has taken such hold. “The city has really enabled people to obsess about how well things are made, whether it be food or clothing. I think men in particular are quite obsessed with the story and the origin.”

Kirby may have just moved to San Francisco, but he recognizes that to find this man to whom Levi’s is catering, you have to know where to look— “from the Woodshop in the Sunset to Heath Ceramics in the Mission,” he notes succinctly. Watering holes specializing in cocktails with rhubarb bitters or Third Wave coffee drinks are pretty much a guarantee, too.

Which is why the Réveille Coffee truck in Jackson Square—with its surrounding architecture firms and proximity to Levi’s corporate headquarters (not to mention San Francisco magazine’s office)—provides excellent opportunities for witnessing this fashion movement in the flesh. For a writer doing fieldwork, there are enough well-dressed men to allow cherrypicking. Thus, I accost a promising couple waiting in line. The guy is scruffy, yet conspicuously assembled. It turns out that Britton Caillouette, 28, is a director who actually makes films for Levi’s and has even done something for Phillip Lim. (He laughs when he hears that I’m trying to make the case for men’s fashion here and tells me that, while filming, Lim kept calling our city Sans Sexcisco because of its lack of sex appeal.)

As for Caillouette’s personal fashion muses? Not surprisingly, they’re all fictional or dead. “I’m always inspired by the historical photos of dockworkers, Steve McQueen, Dirty Harry—there used to be style here,” he says, running his hand through his blond bedhead. When we get down to Caillouette’s attire, it’s clear that he doesn’t have to think twice to rattle off what he’s wearing: Red Wing boots, Alternative Apparel green T-shirt, Mat Brown belt with hand-dyed indigo thread, Pendleton shirt, hunting jacket, and 1947 Levi’s 501 jeans, which, of course, are cuffed just so.

This compels me to bring up the importance of proper cuffing, which, according to Kirby, is done as a one-inch two-fold. Caillouette’s wife chimes in, concerned about a friend who needs a cuffing intervention. “He thinks he’s cuffing his jeans. But he’s not cuffing them—he’s rolling them up!” she exclaims. “You’ve got to tell him,” she implores her husband. Sure, it may seem like no big deal. But in this perfectly casual fashion movement, what may seem like an insignificant detail to some might just be what separates the boys from the men.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of San Francisco

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