"We offer menswear for the bold conservative," says Wilkes Bashford, "although lately we're more conservative than bold." The legendary San Francisco retailer is in New York (staying, as always, at The Lowell) to launch a signature fragrance, simply called Wilkes—the name by which the immensely affable 65-year-old is universally known. He started his retail career with a University of Cincinnati work-study program, moved to San Francisco to join the White House department store, and opened his own shop 32 years ago: His new scent is the cherry on a very well-established cake.
"Today I'm much more comfortable with classic things," says Bashford, referring to the fresh, citrusy fragrance. It wasn't always so: In the seventies he sold tomato-red fringed-leather biker jackets by the French designer Claude Montana and similar fashion flash.
"That was a long time ago," says Bashford, a hint of nostalgia in his voice. But he has always liked to rebalance the store's diverse mix of high-end designer, brand-name, and private-label menswear to reflect the changing tastes and needs of his far-flung customers, 50 percent of whom live outside the Bay Area. And what they want in 1998 is, he says, "clothes to make money in." Judging by the light-brown Brioni suit (still crisp despite a day of debilitating New York heat), the pale-blue Borrelli shirt, and handsome Zegna tie he is wearing, Bashford knows whereof he speaks.
Ever since he set up shop in 1966 he's catered to the well-heeled. Mayor Willie Brown, then a California State assemblyman, was an early client. A famous clotheshorse who favors Brioni suits, Brown asked such trenchant sartorial questions that Bashford thought he was the competition, come to check him out. Another eminent dandy, the late columnist Herb Caen, soon followed, even though he disapproved of the center vents on the store's suits. ("My first conversations with Herb were about all the things that we were doing wrong," laughs Bashford.) While modeling his new store on San Francisco's most prestigious emporiums—like Brooks Brothers and Cable Car Clothiers—he avoided any whiff of stodginess by adding a fashion-forward leavening to the mix. Hence, the "bold conservative" rubric.
From the start, Bashford carried sleek, Italian-tailored, Brioni clothing, which he had fabricated to his specifications. Nowadays part of the third floor of his seven-story townhouse shop is devoted to a newly renovated Brioni boutique. Back in 1966, one of Bashford's exclusive Brioni suits cost a heady $350; an exclusive Super 180 wool Scabal-cloth model in today's boutique retails for an eye-popping $7,000.
In 1967 Wilkes Bashford became the first American retailer to carry Ermenegildo Zegna. A year after that Bashford called on a young designer in the Empire State Building and took some wide silk ties back to San Francisco, where they not only sold for a whopping $12.50 but also introduced Ralph Lauren to California.
Bashford went on to embrace Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, and other purveyors of what he calls "high-quality merchandise that's responsive to what's going on in fashion but not overly swayed by it." He didn't shy away from avant-garde designers like Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, and flirted with such bad boys as Jean-Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana.
But the fundamental tone of the store was and is set by carefully edited collections of clothing from the best Italian makers: Brioni, Kiton, Luciano Barbera, Loro Piana, and Zegna. "At this level of garment," says Bashford, "exclusivity in matters of styling and detailing has its place—and we work with the manufacturers to achieve it—but what is much more important is how the clothes are put together for our clients. That's why we place the highest possible emphasis on customer service."
It's in talking about his classic customer ("he must like clothes") that Bashford becomes most animated, his blue Midwestern eyes gleaming. "The resurgence in elegant dressing is coming from the younger generation," he says. "They're well educated, widely traveled, involved in sophisticated activities that require a sophisticated wardrobe." The sales staff is trained to assemble that wardrobe, what will work for each customer, keeping meticulous records of his purchases and preferences, sending him Polaroids of interesting new items, even going through his closet and throwing out what's not needed.
"All our sales people are essentially personal shoppers," states Bashford. "Many have been here for a decade or more, so they know the customers well. Some out-of-towners haven't set foot in the store for five years; they call, we research their file, and send them outfits on approval. The most important thing is service," he repeats. "We've always had it. It's what our customers expect."
Wilkes Bashford, 375 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94104; 415-986-4380.