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Men in Uniform
Sara Deseran | Photo: Chad Riley | February 22, 2013
There is a sameness to the way San Francisco guys are dressing these days—to which editor-at-large Sara Deseran says, “Hallelujah!”
Sitting in a Shaker-inspired arm chair, Todd Barket has his legs crossed just so—casually but elegantly, confident in their exposure of a manly bit of calf hair. Dust-dappled sunlight streams through the open door of his men’s boutique, Unionmade, illuminating a pair of bare ankles encased in classic, navy, low-top Chuck Taylors (which his shop has just begun to sell alongside the popular and pricey Alden tassel moccasins—the same ones that my grandfather once sported).
Add a pair of Atticus Finch– like frames, a café au lait–colored, rib-knit Woolrich cardigan, plus the ubiquitous groomed facial hair and perfectly cuffed, 1947 501 jeans, and Barket’s whole look says “midcentury casual Friday.” Of course, when I ask him about what he’s wearing, he demurs like a good perfectionist: “Oh God, I’m a mess!” Ignore this humblebrag.
Since opening Unionmade in 2009 on the cusp of the Castro, Barket and his co-owner and significant other, Carl Chiara, have pivoted from their top-ranking creative positions at the Gap and Levi’s respectively to become the unofficial poster boys of the booming Americana fashion cult of San Francisco. The rest of the bearded and pomaded guys around town wearing cardigans, Oliver Peoples frames, and vintage cuffed jeans are, inadvertently, their pupils. This tribe of man—neither grungy and flanneled, nor skinny-jeaned and ironic, nor preppy-clean and bow-tied—has been ascendant for a couple years now. You see its members all over town, easily identifiable by their $163 Wolverine boots and their cotton Henley layered beneath a $245 plaid Hamilton button-down.
They’re the guys who look like they might have just emerged from a duck blind, but whose vocabulary includes bespoke and selvedge. They have a propensity for indigo and for clothing made in Japan (because Japan does classic American better than America does) or produced by domestic companies with tags that say “Since 1883.” They have no qualms about revealing to their girlfriend that a fourth-generation British seamstress hand-stitched their underwear.
Yes, I said “girlfriend.” “It’s all straight men who shop here,” says Barket, a gay man who is clearly a bit bewildered by how this happened. “In the olden days, if you were straight, you couldn’t really be interested in fashion. I think the guys who come in here used to be into street style when they were younger. They’re like skateboarders who have grown up.”
Women have clearly taken to men who sport this look. The very funny blog Your LL Bean Boyfriend, which features just-a-touch-rugged male catalog models gazing dreamily into the camera, sums up the fantasy: “He will build you a table and then have sex with you on it. Doesn’t get much hotter than that.”
Since Unionmade debuted, a rash of other men’s boutiques with similar leanings have followed. Today, there’s a plethora of well-curated men’s clothing stores, from the tiny Standard & Strange in Oakland, to the younger, more ironic Welcome Stranger in Hayes Valley, with its selection of vintage Penny skateboards, to the New York–born Freeman’s Sporting Club—home to both a barber shop and a boutique, for a head-to-toe experience. Add to that The Brooklyn Circus, Taylor Stitch, Onassis, Department Seventeen, Maas & Stacks, Revolver, Voyager, and, most recently, Aether, the first boutique of the Hayes Valley shipping container Proxy projects. Not only are women being left in the dust by the suddenly stylish straight guys of San Francisco—but, like me, they’re having to come to terms with the fact that our men are actually becoming…fashionable.
After about an hour of chatting with Barket, I find myself welling up with fashion shame. In comparison to the guys who long for Unionmade’s beautifully assembled muted neutrals, natural fibers, and classic cuts made by someone in Middle America or Scotland or France who apprenticed for generations before being allowed to hold a pair of scissors—I’m feeling guilt-riddenly cheap. What was I thinking when I left the house wearing a teal H&M shift and a Zara coat with quilted faux-leather sleeves? Yes, my boots, which I bought at a Hayes Valley boutique, were taken from the hide of a real cow, but the rest of my attire undoubtedly came from a Foxconn kind of factory in Asia, complete with a suicide net. “I think guys in San Francisco dress better than girls in San Francisco,” says Barket, whose gaze may or may not be traveling the length of me. He thinks a bit more before deducing, “But then, there’s a lot less that can go wrong.”