San Francisco born-and-raised Victor Suarez had a vision: To bring back the Derby, the made-in-San Francisco bomber-style jacket of choice among working class kids in neighborhoods from the Bayview and the Mission to the Sunset, the Richmond and the Excelsior he called home.
“I wish I had listened more when he was telling me the stories of how he acquired it,” said Jeannine Suarez, owner of the Derby name and retail store, following her husband’s passing in May of 2019. He was 42 years old.
“So many people have shared their stories with me, that their grandfather or father wore one,” she said. “They’re so happy and it brings them so much joy to purchase one.” Along with their four sons, ages 3-13, her husband’s living legacy is his resuscitation and elevation of an iconic San Francisco brand.
“It seemed like everyone wore one in my school…” Tony Robles wrote in his piece titled “Derby Jacket.” “Kids from other schools wore them too. It was an identifier of sorts. It identified you as being from San Francisco.” Robles never had a Derby jacket as a kid (he explains why in the story), though since moving East, he’s acquired two.
Originally launched in the ‘60s and phased out by the end of the ’80s, as a San Francisco export, Derby goes hand in hand with Levi’s and Ben Davis as San Francisco workwear with a certain cachet — if you know, you know.
“…kids of every color wore them. It was as if the jacket were a multicultural badge and you became a member of a San Francisco, or Frisco bloodline when that jacket hit your skin: Black, Chinese, Filipino, Irish, Italian, Samoan or a combination thereof, all in a nondescript, rather plain looking jacket.”
And Suarez knew his customer. Ten years ago, the Iraq war veteran staked all of his money on a small run of prototype jackets that sold out by word of mouth and online immediately. In short order he was able to establish a manufacturing process and open a storefront on Haight Street.
Edith Mariscal, the Derby shop’s retail manager, has been on the scene since the beginning.
“I’ve been part of the family, my best friend is related to Jeannine, so I’ve always been around,” she said. “When Vic passed away I started coming more and more, and now we’re here,” she said, running Derby without its founder, launching new styles and limited releases during the pandemic and remaining hopeful for the return of tourism to Haight Street while locals still come looking for a piece of their past.
“The jacket is a point of connection,” said Mariscal. “From what I knew of Vic, he loved San Francisco and he was a really smart man,” she said. “The jacket was part of his culture. He had the means to bring it back not only for his family but for his city. But it was his actions that told me what he was thinking most of the time: He was very kind to the people he loved. And even those who he didn’t love that much, he’d still find a way to help out, here and there.”
Mariscal understands the depth of the jacket’s relationship to the people who cross the threshold of the store every day.
“They come in with stories,” she said. “You have to be ready to leave what you have going on and be here with them and listen.” No matter how often she hears each person’s unique version of what the Derby means to them, she takes away the common threads.
“Asians, whites, Mexicans, Latinos, Blacks — the beautiful part is they all have different stories but there are similarities,” she said. “I mean, they’re all telling me they’re from different cultures, representing different neighborhoods, but that their grandpa and dad had one and then their girlfriend had one too. They all have so much in common. That’s what I love about it. And they all love the black jacket. Honestly, black is the one everyone wants.”
The new Derby is of higher quality than in its final days when it was sold at workwear stores, and chains like Sears and JCPenney, though it still has the signature squiggly lined-lining. The current editions also attract discerning customers from around the world.
“Tourists come in and are like, ‘What is this?’” said Mariscal. “When they hear the story and learn of its connection to San Francisco, “They’ll say, ‘I’ll take one,” no questions asked.
“We ship internationally,” said Suarez, “And there are huge followings in Japan, Australia and Germany.”
Each month a new color or special edition jacket is introduced to the collection, like the recent brown and orange edition —a tribute to cable car and Muni drivers — a collaboration with artist Jeremy Fish.
“People come from Tracy, San Jose and Modesto and camp out as early as five in the morning,” said Suarez of the monthly Saturday events which have stoked further interest in the lore of Derby. Though quantities are limited and generally sell through, “Each color jacket brings a different vibe,” said Mariscal. During the pandemic, events on the corner of Haight and Ashbury have served another purpose.
“People are looking for a sense of community, something to come out to, and the jacket releases function as a way to bring people together,” said Sage Mace, a member of the store’s sales staff. She’s pretty much unfazed by the jacket’s tough-guy image, though once in a while, there’s some trouble with all that male energy rolling through the door.
“Some customers can be really brash and aggressive — even if it’s clear there’s like a 30-year age gap, which is so bizarre,” said Mace. “It’s misogyny. We’re dealing with what most women in service positions have to deal with,” she said, and is supported by Mariscal, Suarez and the men on their team when she needs to take a stand, as when a customer recently went on a racist rant.
“That’s why we have this sign,” said Mariscal, pointing to the simple but classic plaque that reads: We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.
“There are a lot of gentlemen who come in here, they’re very respectful, and the men who work with us in the back and behind the scenes are all great,” said Mariscal. “We want to have a good time here and most people are pretty cool.”
Mace and Mariscal met in a sewing class at City College, which leads to the question of whether there are plans to once again maintain a local sewing factory.
”Back in the day, there was a factory here. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it would be hard because of the demand,” said Mariscal. “If it was made in America, and that’s the goal, it would be better for everyone.”
As it is, Derby guarantees its jackets and will correct any imperfections on the premises.
“You want people to get the jacket they’re coming here for,” said Mariscal who is originally from Jalisco, Mexico, yet her passion and knowledge of Derby matches that of some locals. She had her own Derby as a young person and she’s since heard the stories of “My first Derby” from nearly every San Franciscan she meets at the shop.
“It starts with the parents. That’s why the kids jackets are a big deal,” she said, motioning toward the small sizes.
“I would always like my children to take over and expand the business,” said Suarez, who works remotely from Granite Bay where the family moved, shortly before her husband’s death. “Victor wanted to make sure the boys were always involved and that the business grew as big as possible with family involved.”
“It would be beautiful to be big, you want it to be successful, but you still want that other thing,” said Mariscal, that thing that Robles wrote of in “Derby Jacket.”
“I take the blue Derby jacket off the rack. Hey, don’t I know you? it seems to ask as I hold it up to the fluorescent light,” he writes. “I look into the mirror. A voice says, that jacket is you, man. I strike a few poses. The years pass by in my reflection. It is more than a jacket. I stick my hands into its pockets. There is a hold.”
“The way locals feel goes deeper than I can understand,” said Mariscal. “I’m an immigrant, though our family has been here for a while — this used to be Mexican territory,” she said acknowledging the facts.
“But I hear about the Derby and the lowriders and I connect. They carried the feeling — over a jacket — with them wherever they went.”
Mariscal pauses to reflect.
“It’s not just history, it’s feelings. We’re talking about a jacket — it’s crazy but it’s true.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” SF Lives discussion series begins June 13, with Anna Lisa Escobedo, live-streamed from Bird & Beckett Books at 10 a.m. More information at http://denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.