“We’re in the busy season,” said vintage clothing expert and shopkeeper Cicely Ann Hansen. Discovering the Haight as a teenager in the ‘60s, she returned 50 years later to a very different neighborhood to open the dedicated vintage showplace, Decades of Fashion.
“When I came back, I had to learn the business is seasonal and that there are strong themes in this town: It’s either ‘20s or ‘70s,” she explained while her shop bustled with post-Outside Lands and pre-Burning Man customers browsing the aisles of embroidered kimonos, Mexican camisas and gabardine western wear.
Hansen’s collection, now housed in a historic building and old bank, has dressed actors from The Speakeasy and Marisa Tomei, entertainers like Barbra Streisand and musicians from Carlos Santana to members of Florence and the Machine. A flurry of recent activity at the location has included an interview with the BBC, a Greek shoe commercial, a Netflix project and various album cover shoots, and yet, Hansen’s worried about what’s next: The neighborhood’s extensive sewer, street and sidewalk repair project begins in September and is scheduled to last for two years, putting small businesses at risk of losing street and foot traffic (just ask the merchants of West Portal and Laurel Village about their season of summer construction). But jackhammers are not the only trouble in one of San Francisco’s top tourist destinations…
“We’ve gone from zero vacancy to 15 empty storefronts,” said Hansen which she attributes to vagrancy. “If you are a battered woman or a runaway, my heart goes out to you. But if you choose to be a derelict who throws wine bottles at my building…” she said, then trailed off, clearly upset by her most recent encounter with a repeated nuisance.
“On the Haight, there is miscommunication about what defines homelessness,” she said of the tensions between park-dwellers, their pit bulls and small businesses. And then there is the extreme challenge of parking.
“I asked London [Breed] if the old McDonald’s could become a parking lot for now,” said Hansen, referring to the building site at the corner of Stanyan, though the answer from the Mayor’s office is still pending.
“Unfortunately, I’ve watched the street deteriorate,” said Hansen. “People feel entitled to live here but you have to contribute to The City.”
Hansen has been active in community matters since the Haight’s heyday, as well as more recently, as in an effort to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love with a concert but The City thwarted the committee’s plans. She’s not crazy about the official rubber-stamping of 420 either. She’d rather see effort invested in a Rock Walk of Fame that would appeal to tourists.
“I think The City should wrap their head around what’s already here,” she said. “It will bring people back.”
Hansen’s memory of past decades is one of a more style conscious, beautiful city.
“I was lucky enough to have a diva grandmother who would bring us to San Francisco as a big treat,” she recalled. “We’d wear hats, gloves, petticoats, overcoats, the whole bit. We’d go to Union Square and because I loved old movies, loved to dress up and and came from a fashion model mother and fashion model grandmother, my whole take on the world was to be stylish,” she said.
“I was from Los Altos,” she said of the then semi-rural enclave where her peers at Homestead High School mocked her vintage style. “I wore ‘20s and ‘40s and a chubby fox fur coat. I’d never heard of hippies.” A teenage model, when she got a gig at the KYA Battle of The Bands, dressed in her retro best, she caught the notice of DJ Tony Bigg who who turned her on to the Haight Ashbury scene.
“He took me and my agent to the Haight and I saw all these people in vintage clothing and thought my kindred spirits live here,” she said. Leaving home at 17, “I became a jewelry designer, making clothing, decorating windows, painting windows, doing some modeling — that’s how I survived in the Haight,” she said.
“We didn’t have women’s rights or gay rights yet but we were against the Vietnam War and we had the civil rights cause,” she said. “Peter Coyote came into our flat and would ask if we could put 50 kids lying on their sides in the hallway overnight,” she remembered, referring to the activist/actor and former member of the radical community group, the Diggers.
“We said yes. You didn’t think about getting ripped-off or whether people would be violent. You could walk late at night barefoot, with platinum blonde hair like I had then and not have to worry,” she said. It was a world away from what she’d known in Los Altos, which she’d run away from for a reason. “Home wasn’t a good place for me,” she said.
Eventually getting jobs as a buyer for businesses like North Beach Leather, Hansen would go on to leave San Francisco and raise kids in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where she ran a feed store and also did a stint as a cattle-driving rodeo performer.
“I became a decent rider,” she said, though her love of vintage finery never waned.
“I worked for an auction house in Monterey and we’d strip mine these big beautiful mansions,” she said. “In the ‘80s, there was a interest in vintage clothes — not so much in furs — and in these big mansions in Carmel, you’d find them,” she said. She stowed it all in a barn that belonged to her family.
Hansen said she was “a bored housewife” living in the East Bay when she started to sell her collection from her garage and became acquainted with the local community of sellers through trade shows like Vintage Expo and associations like the Art Deco Society. She met some of the Haight Street vintage dealers; the owner of La Rosa encouraged her to open a storefront across the street from his, a block and a bit away from its current location. By then, Haight Street had become a vintage destination for licensed resellers and more dealers were good for business.
But Hansen certainly didn’t expect a raid in February 2016 on her historic fur collection by the State Department of Fish and Wildlife after more than 10 years as a merchant.
“It was a set-up,” she said, suspecting a disgruntled employee. “But I can tell by the buttons, the style, the linings, I know what’s a ‘40s fur coat. I know what’s a ‘60s fur coat. And I understood the law from the vintage shows that anything before 1973 was ok.” Turned out that it wasn’t after the laws on resale furs changed in January of 2016.
“Because I know how they treat animals that are used for fur, I would never consider carrying new fur and I think the ban on new fur is justified,” she said. “But for them to send 12 armed pistols drawn? I asked the DA if he remembered the saying never take a gun to a knife fight? How about never taking a gun to a quilting bee?”
Hansen pleaded no contest in December 2017 to two counts of illegal possession for sale of an endangered species and was sentenced to three years of probation.
Hansen works six days a week 12 hours a day to resolve matters, starting as early as 5:30 a.m. on the days she commutes from her home in Petaluma, where she lives following her displacement from her apartment in The City. She reserves one day a week to spend with her granddaughter, and the rest of the time she’s at the shop, overseeing the international sales that will ensure Decades of Fashion remains vital during Haight Street’s impending makeover.
“Last weekend, a gal bought one of my ‘20s dresses and I thought, well that’s that,” said Hansen from a pink velvet bench in the dressing room area of her shop. “Then she asked, ‘By the way, I have a hat museum in China, do you have any interesting hats? and she said, I’ll take that, that, that, that and that.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.