San Francisco striving to weave together style, manufacturing to rival global fashion capitals

The editors in New York know her. The designers in Paris fear her. The Obamas wear her clothes.

Julienne Weston has conquered the fashion world. But rather than cash in on her cachet and take up residence on Madison Avenue, she has done it all from San Francisco. It was here where she grew Weston Wear from a fashion startup to a global brand, carried by fine boutiques worldwide while still being manufactured in the same town where it is designed.

Weston is a rarity. She’s watched the San Francisco garment industry shrink from more than 10,000 workers when Weston began in the 1980s to a fifth of that — or less — today.

Keeping it local has been a challenge, but, “I can make it work,” she says.

You could say the world needs more Julienne Westons — and to that, city leaders would reply, “We’re working on it.”

San Francisco has a burgeoning crop of designers who are learning the trade here, and Fashion SF is trying to keep them from fleeing to fashion capitals such as Los Angeles or New York.

Started by Mayor Ed Lee in late 2011, Fashion SF’s goal might seem ambitious, but it’s not out of reach: make Fog City a fashion mecca on par with the Milans and Tokyos of the world, while positioning San Francisco as a clothing innovation capital in the same way it’s known for silicon gadgets and computer code.

For one, the atmosphere in San Francisco is in many ways ideal for a designer.

“We have a zeitgeist here that nurtures creativity,” said Diane Green, who chairs the fashion department at City College of San Francisco. “It’s not as cutthroat as it is in New York. … People here exchange ideas.”

San Francisco also provides a ready-made, ready-to-order market.

“There’s been an incredible growth in interest in fashion,” said Simon Ungless, head of the School of Fashion at the Academy of Art University. Television shows such as “America’s Next Top Model” have demystified the world of haute couture, and the growing army of young adults with technology-sector cash to burn are interested in spending it on clothes — and not just any clothes, Ungless says.

“They’re hungry for fashion and want to get on board,” he said.

Yet it remains open to debate just how The City can keep the designers and “creative energy” in San Francisco when the glittering runways of Milan or London beckon.

For one, the manufacturing sector’s decline has hurt designers.

Although apparel accounts for 40 percent of all San Francisco manufacturing jobs, “There are only a small number of places to get pleating, sewing, cutting, bobbin, ruching and all other services completed in San Francisco,” Weston says. “There just aren’t many options for production.”

Outfitters who do well are the ones who can produce a small run of 100 to 500 items and sell them at a high-premium price point; think Taylor Stitch’s $180 dress shirts or Betabrand’s $88 corduroy pants, according to Janet Lees of SFMade, a nonprofit that works to boost The City’s manufacturing sector. But limitations on fabrics and expensive production costs take a toll.

This is where Lee’s Fashion SF might best be put to use: The initiative is spending $75,000 to commission a survey intended to find out exactly what local garment factories can make, and connect them to designers.  

Opinion is also split on exactly how to best bring San Francisco clothes to the rest of the world — in other words, whether it’s best to invite the world to our fashion runway or to export San Francisco to the world stage.

Some with Fashion SF and SFMade want The City to pour resources into a homegrown fashion week to rival runways in New York. Ungless said that’s a mistake.

“Really, they should stop,” he said. Instead, they should focus on bringing San Francisco designs directly to the right buyers and right editors — which means putting on an SFMade show in New York.

In any event, anyone doubting that fashion can be done from the 415 need only look to Weston — or to Gap, or to bygone brands such as Esprit de Corps — to realize “it can be done from here,” Ungless says.

San Francisco garment-making industry hanging by a thread

Victor Suarez wants to build a better derby jacket, and he wants to build it in San Francisco. He certainly can — but for $120 per jacket in materials alone.

Add $60 for labor, and, “It’s impossible to manufacture in San Francisco at an affordable price,” said Suarez, proprietor of DerbySF’s eponymous jackets. Part Carhartt work shell and part motorcycle jacket, the derbies are a rediscovered urban working-class classic that the San Francisco native designed here and sells from his Upper Haight store, but has made overseas.

He could unveil an all-American version, but instead of $150 off the rack “it’d take people saving up two to three paychecks [to purchase it],” Suarez said. “I can’t do that.”

This model works for some manufacturers of the “casual urban wear” for which San Francisco is becoming known, according to Janet Lees, a senior director with SFMade, a nonprofit that advocates for The City’s manufacturers.

For high-end items, prices charged for even a small run of 100 to 500 items offset the cost of production. But higher-volume, lower-price manufacturers find themselves on the margins of profit and ultimately squeezed out of town.

There are only 3,200 manufacturing jobs of all kinds in San Francisco today, according to an estimate from the mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Garment and apparel jobs comprise an unknown number thought to be close to 40 percent.

Garment-making has only declined over time, as real estate prices discourage warehouse and production uses in favor of housing or technology. And changing demographics mean there are less workers; in 1996, 90 percent of garment workers were Asian-American, yet their descendants have shown reluctance to perform the same work, said Diane Green, chairwoman of the City College of San Francisco fashion department.

The City is working to incentivize local manufacturing, and SFMade is working to connect underemployed garment factories with designers seeking to enhance their brand by producing locally. But there are still serious obstacles in fabric availability and production space. Suarez tells a story of being offered a certain type of cloth — but only if he bought 10,000 yards of it. Not every clothier needs the help. At Al’s Attire in North Beach, proprietor Al Ribaya custom-makes boots and clothes on-site. But others, like Suarez, have to make a choice: mark up or ship out.

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