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San Francisco's Most Iconic Clothier Turns 50

Wilkes Bashford celebrates a half-century of “bold conservatism.”


Wilkes Bashford. 

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“My college roommate for one year was a chap from Singapore. At the end of the year, his father came to visit—a very elegant man—and gave me this ebony cane with ivory eyes. I haven’t had to use it yet, but I may be getting there.”

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“I’ve had dachshunds for 48 years—this one is Duchess, Duchie for short. She always comes to work with me. Willie Brown had these gold dachshund cuff links made for me years ago.”

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“I’m well known for wearing eyeglasses with blue lenses; it’s an affectation that I started about 25 years ago after admiring the look on Anne Slater. Now it’s my trademark. I have several pairs, but these are vintage Italian frames from the ‘60s.”

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“I have a very hard-to-find edition of one of Jean-Michel Frank’s wonderful decorating books—one of the first he produced. I bought it from an antique store quite a long time ago. I always page through it.”

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“My parents gave me this Royal portable typewriter when I graduated from high school in 1951. I take it out every once in a while, at certain times when I get in the mood. There’s only one place left in San Francisco that still sells the ribbon for it.”

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“In 1983, I opened the Ralph Lauren store at Crocker Galleria. We did a major fashion show, the biggest we’d ever had, produced by the Tony Award–winning director Michael Bennett. We were one of the very first stores to carry Ralph Lauren in California.”

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“I’m a big aficionado of Oscar Wilde; my brother is one of the leading authorities on Wilde in the country. I found this photograph of Wilde, taken in London around 1890, at an antique store up in Mendocino, of all places. How the hell it got to Mendocino, I’ll never know.”

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“I’ve been meeting up with Willie Brown—and it used to be Herb Caen too—at Le Central for 40 years, ever since it opened. We each have a cup and dice with our name printed on it, and we roll to see who pays for lunch. I usually come out pretty good.”

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"These tailor’s scissors are from the 1920s. The handle part is solid brass, and they’re very heavy. They would have belonged to a master tailor—you have to have skill to manipulate them.”

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“The illustrator Michael Schwab did this poster for us sometime in the store’s first five years. He did quite a bit of work for us back in the early days; of course, now he’s an icon.”

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“I bought this 1920s ivory cigarette box at an antique shop in Paris in the ‘80s. I’m not a smoker, but people often had them sitting around on cocktail tables back then.”

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“This gold pen was handmade by an artisan named Trabucco, 30 years ago. He used to have a shop on Monte Napoleone in Milan. I love pens, and this one is so small and elegant. I’m hoping that someone can tell me where I can get a filler for it.”

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In 1966, a dapper, raven-haired Wilkes Bashford, 33, opened an eponymous 2,000-square-foot store on Sutter Street with the slogan “Menswear for the Bold Conservative.” The descriptor might get you laughed out of town today, but back then it struck a chord. “In the early days, men were very uptight about style,” Bashford remembers. “Men wouldn’t even admit that they were interested in clothes.” Despite the task of courting a reluctant clientele, Bashford staked out a grand sartorial vision for San Francisco—he would later be among the first to introduce California to labels like Brioni, Armani, and Ralph Lauren. “But in the beginning,” he recalls, “I just hoped that we’d last through the first year.”

This fall, the haberdashery, which was sold in 2009 to East Coast retailer Mitchells, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. From the swinging ’60s to the slimmed-down aughts, Wilkes has remained the go-to store for a certain sort of well-clad man (none of whom you’d call particularly conservative), from “Da Mayor” to “the Birdman,” skateboarder Tony Hawk. “We’ve always been traditional, but with a kicker—a little flair,” Bashford says. The iconic clothier and man about town still wears a tie to work every day (“I try to keep it fresh,” he quips), though he recently began allowing himself corduroys and cashmere sweaters on weekends. From his Noe Valley home, Bashford shared his most storied antique-store finds and items of clothing from the past half century—some of which still make an appearance on the streets of San Francisco. “As long as it’s not totally out of style,” the 83-year-old declares, “I’ll reach as far back in my wardrobe as I want to go.” 

Originally published in the November issue of
San Francisco

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