Gentlemen's Agreement

Yes, Virginia, there really is a Wilkes Bashford, and some think his San Francisco store understands the word "gentleman" better than any place on earth.

People in the know are pretty much divided between those who think San Francisco's Wilkes Bashford is the greatest clothing store west of Fifth Avenue, and those who simply say it's the best, period. Who are we to take sides?

At this luxe style mecca, haute menswear is accorded pride of place, boasting four floors of special, often exclusive collections from such names as Luciano Barbera, Loro Piana, Ermenegildo Zegna, Oxxford Clothes, Brioni, and Kiton. The whole of the second floor of the store is devoted to a discreet collection of womenswear, ranging from the more fanciful designs of Christian Lacroix to the classic elegance of Valentino. Accessories, sportswear, shoes, and jewelry are equally covetable.

The driving force behind the shimmering success of the store is the man himself—yes, there is a Wilkes Bashford. This dynamo serves not only as president, CEO, and director of the company but as hands-on head of the buying team, co-designer of many of the exclusive fashions, and spearheader of three satellite shops and a new 10,000-square-foot store in the Stanford Shopping Center. In his spare time he sponsors society events, and he's a friend and confidant to San Francisco's elite, including hizzoner Willie Brown, with whom Bashford regularly dines.

The gentleman himself—and Bashford is indeed a gentleman—has a sense of understated authority about him. His appearance and demeanor would suggest, perhaps, a very natty university professor: urbane, erudite, witty. You are likely to find him outfitted in a double-breasted blazer with some impressive literary tome tucked under his arm. When we saw him last, he was simultaneously reading biographies of Edward Albee, Janet Flanner, and Osbert Sitwell. (Brains seem to run in the family: His brother is an English professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook .)

Bashford's influence on his home turf over the past few decades has been significant. "When I came to San Francisco in 1959," he explains, "it was a very well-dressed city, but in a decidedly conservative way. Stores selling traditional menswear, like Brooks Brothers, were the norm. So when I decided to open a shop in 1966, we carried double-breasted blazers, pleated trousers, and wider ties, and that was enough to make us unique and fashionable. Our motto was 'Menswear for the Bold Conservative.' That remains our niche—especially classic clothes with a contemporary flair. Soon we started to champion the new young designers, which at that time were people like Ralph Lauren, Alexander Julian, Perry Ellis, and Calvin Klein. It was somewhat radical for those days. Before that, men's specialty stores stocked the traditional brands and simply didn't carry men's designer clothes."

It was, in fact, revolutionary, and Bashford was one of a small handful of retailers to give this young breed a credible forum. "My approach," he elaborates, "had to be conservative because we wanted to sell the clothes to a discriminating clientele—but I wanted to be unique too. We addressed ourselves to the man who wanted to dress with propriety but with individuality as well."

When it comes to new designers or ferreting out a prime manufacturer, Bashford has an eye for winners. His own wardrobe is given to worsteds and distinctive ties.

Having a sense of style that confidently transcends the fashion of the moment is rare, but Bashford has what English tailors call "rock of eye"—the ability to immediately see and understand tasteful proportions. This is one reason why he works with so many of his manufacturers to produce exclusive patterns. For example, Bashford recently conspired with Oxxford Clothes to design a suit pattern just for his store. "Everyone is aware that Oxxford is one of the world's great tailored clothing manufacturers, but I wanted a cut that would be best for my customers," he explains. "After working with Oxxford for eighteen months we came up with a model that's very sophisticated, beautifully shaped, with the right details. It's perfect for us."

If Bashford's customers are a grateful bunch, it may be because he has always stuck to a clear vision of how they ought to dress. "I think it's one place where the specialty store can do things better than the department store," Bashford offers. "We can subtly guide a customer, while the department store has to show the latest things from season to season, working with broad brushstrokes. You don't really get consistent guidance, or continuity of taste, or depth of understanding from a department store." His instincts were confirmed the week after the Oxxford suits first came out: George Hamilton, known for his high standards, stopped by and immediately bought one in sand-colored dupioni silk, with three open-patch pockets and side vents.

Bashford's main store on Sutter Street will always be a mainstay for men and women in search of elegant fabrics and designs, but now there are also three "WilkesSport" satellite shops—Mendocino, St. Helena, and Mill Valley—that carry the sportswear lines.

Perhaps his most exciting recent foray is a 10,000-square-foot store, opening in February 2001 in the tony new section of the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto. The store will be fully stocked—half menswear and half women's—with both sportswear and tailored clothing. Stanford is, of course, the epicenter of Silicon Valley, populated by the folks who brought us all casual work attire. Its residents tend to get rich at an earlier age. Bashford decided he wanted to be closer to this high-tech crowd. "You have to understand that these people aren't just living in a sort of lab anymore," he says. "They're in a global business environment and have assumed an international outlook. These men and women travel around the world and meet all sorts of people to sell their ideas and products. They're looking outward, not inward anymore. As the high-tech industry has matured, it's had to become more sensitive to social obligations and etiquette, which includes the right dress—so I'm not afraid of going into the heart of Silicon Valley to sell tailored clothing and sophisticated sportswear. Many younger people have only lived in casual clothes—khakis and polos and running shoes—but I find they've got the money to spend on finer things, and they're excited by better clothing. Good clothes have a sensuality and a sex appeal about them."

The approach Bashford will be taking at Stanford is what might be called "luxe casual," a hybrid of softly tailored suits and unconstructed sports jackets mixed with sportswear, accessories, outerwear, and knits. "I see this way of dressing as another opportunity because it's harder to do. There's more guidance necessary," he says. "We intend to assemble the best casual collection around and show it as it should be worn."

Another reason Bashford is not afraid of Silicon Valley is that he has an international reputation for superb service. His staff is known for knowledge, taste, and friendly guidance. This is one more way Bashford has been a pioneer in the New Retailing—communicating with his customers in a more relaxed but also more informative manner. It's an approach that, like the complimentary drinks bar in stores, has spread East.

"There's nothing particularly Californian about our product, but our service is pure northern California," Bashford says. "The environment here has always been in the forefront of liberal ideas in communications. We took that approach to selling clothing. It's more elegant, but without the formality. Our customers appreciate it—we have some who have been with us for more than twenty-five years."

One of Bashford's long-term customers is the high-profile, elegantly groomed mayor himself, Willie Brown. "The mayor and I have been friends for many years," Bashford says. "We have lunch together every week. Recently, I'm very proud to say, we made his clothes for his second inaugural. We worked with Brioni to make him a dark-gray cashmere frock coat, contrasting waistcoat, and evening trousers. He has great personal élan, and looked absolutely superb. That outfit, and the way he wore it, personify the height of style for me."

Wilkes Bashford, 375 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94108; 415-986-4380; fax 415-956-3772.
Web site: www.wilkesbashford.com.
Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed on Sundays.