Colleen Quen already was painting when the pandemic hit last year. The longtime haute couture designer had been scaling back her custom gown commissions in favor of teaching and creating Chinese watercolors in her North Beach studio. But while she and other artists adapted to a new life, the San Francisco fashion scene still faced a major problem: in-person charity soirees and the big three premieres — the symphony, ballet and opera—were all canceled.
Quen, whose butterfly- and other nature-inspired gowns graced local red carpet events for years, struck a note of concern about the current health of the local fashion industry. COVID certainly didn’t help matters, she said.
“It’s changing our lives and closing down businesses,” she said. “And of course, I didn’t have a lot of [apparel] commissions because I couldn’t see anyone.”
There have been other significant losses: beloved local prom and bridal dressmaker Jessica McClintock died this year at age 90. And Beverley Siri, a longtime wedding apparel and evening-wear designer whose pieces have been in Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and elsewhere, announced to the Examiner when we called her that she was retiring.
But the plan to do so had been in the works since before the pandemic, she said.
“I’m just getting older — I’m admitting it now,” Siri said. “My husband is older than I am, and I decided it was time for us to have some fun. This industry sounds very glamorous but it is not. It’s very time consuming, it takes some capital. You have to wear a lot of hats.”
She added that San Francisco became too expensive to run a garment business. When she began 30 years ago, she said, “It really was a garment city, but it no longer is really. No one wants to do the sewing and cutting anymore, that whole labor pool is retiring. It’s not affordable to do that and live here.”
Siri eliminated 19 positions and is now selling her remaining stock in her South San Francisco location. Even in a scaled-down mode, she saw the pandemic significantly cut into high fashion and weddings, and it affected her sales, too. The only time she saw the industry slammed like this was in the wake of the 2009 recession, but that recovered more quickly, Siri noted.
“People did have little events in their backyards, so we weren’t having no business. But this has totally affected us,” she said.
With evening-wear, bridal and prom designs in decreased demand, contractions in fashion have come during a time The City is in artistic transition. Many artists fled along with others toward cheaper rents. Others remained and painted a kaleidoscope of murals across our shuttered businesses. Still more found other modes of reinvention: dance companies, drag queens and musicians have been doing shows online and San Francisco Opera has live, drive-in performances on its calendar.
Recognizing the high cost of living, Mayor London Breed announced in March a guaranteed $1,000 monthly income for 130 artists. In the fine print, though, the pilot program currently is just six months, and eligible recipients must live in one of 13 designated zip codes, keeping with the program’s intention to help “historically marginalized communities.”
Still, the $780,000 sum represents a boost for many residents who likely can’t afford The City’s cost of living, and there’s a possibility of growing the program later.
“The arts are truly critical to our local economy and are an essential part of our long-term recovery. If we help the arts recover, the arts will help San Francisco recover,” Breed said in a statement.
But what will become of San Francisco high fashion?
Four local designers — including Quen and Siri — said it’s a time of transformation for them. Red carpet will probably live on, they said, but so will new projects with dance companies, orchestras and in visual art, on canvas and in documentaries. The department store model is waning, and so, too seems to be the need for high-end evening wear designers, at least local ones.
“It’s really about how we approach the problem,” said Yuka Uehara, a San Francisco-based luxury and evening-wear designer.
Her company, Tokyo Gamine, focused on local red carpet until 2019. But she said it’s hard in 2021 to center a business model on one built in the 1980s and ‘90s, especially in somewhere like San Francisco.
“It’s such a progressive city, it’s so different here,” she said. “I think red carpet is one side of creative expression of San Francisco, but I also think there are so many communities that are scattered in The City that represent fashion and culture.”
She focused recently on creating “Mode Brut,” a collection of 10 garments that are one-size and “gender free,” according to her website. The series — made in collaboration with local art collective Creativity Explored — is set to premiere in September at the Museum of Craft and Design. (2569 3rd St.)
Uehara said the project and others she’s worked on recently lend to a growing trend away from “mindless consumption.”
“That’s no longer our reality,” she said.
Yet designer Karen Caldwell, a former San Francisco resident, has another perspective. She believes that old times of evening-wear might come back, only with bigger parties, charity events and red carpet soirees.
“Finally I’m starting to see a glimmer of hope, with all these wonderful vaccinations coming out. I think excitement is building up, and you’re going to see a lot of joy and expression,” she said.
Her business, too, sort of became a Bay Area casualty of the pandemic, in a way. She recently moved to Santa Barbara to be closer to her sons, who were going to college there. And like Quen, Caldwell started exploring work on canvas.
“The pandemic kind of renewed me in a weird way, I stopped designing things and started painting,” she said.
She kept her home in Napa Valley though, and she plans to return there half-time as vaccines continue to roll out. Like everyone we talked to, she wouldn’t abandon her sewing studio forever.
“I’m enjoying the beach for now, but I’ll get back into the dresses,” she said, adding, “I rarely wear heels anymore. But I can’t wait to wear heels again.”