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When it comes to fashion, San Francisco is an interesting paradox. Bay Area designers and consumers are notoriously innovative, politically conscious, and stylishly playful. Many who grow up or study here go on to make waves on a national or international scale. And yet this city still is not considered a global style center in the way that New York, Paris, or Milan are. In recent years, even L.A. seems to be getting more attention as a legitimate fashion capital than San Francisco.
With spring (and spring fashion lines) afoot, we decided to profile some of our favorite local designers — those who, regardless of their popularity outside city limits, have decided to stay put or move here to contribute to the San Francisco fashion design dialogue. We predict it won't be long before the fashion establishment is singing their praises — and wearing their designs. On Lawrence Cuevas and Marivel Mendoza, from left to right: 1) Denim double pocket shirt, avocado tee and twill shorts by Turk+Taylor; 2) Leather jacket and sheer top by Mi, leather hotpants by Shaye, jewelry by Muscovie Design; 3) Raindrop dress by Sara Shepherd, kit leather button shoes by Al's Attire, jewelry by Muscovie Design; 4) Leather jacket and jeans by Mi, dot tee by Turk+Taylor, white tie by Indie Industries, wing-tip shoes by Al's Attire; 5) White tee by Mi, corset skirt by Shaye, jewelry by Joy O, polka-dot hat by Al's Attire. (All Photos by Jeffery Cross. Photo illustration by Mirissa Neff. Styling by Lauren Cohen, Laura Peach, and Juliette Tang. Hair and makeup by Shamika Baker)
With delicate features, a smattering of transparent freckles and dark blonde hair that hangs in messy curls to her elbows, Shaye McKenney could be a model. But her approach to fashion is more altruism than narcissism. After returning from an extended sojourn that took her to India, tribal Amazon, and on many nomadic adventures in between, the Oakland native and daughter of a designer opened La Library on Guerrero Street— a borrow-or-buy boutique whose purpose is to make stylish clothing available to all.
"The sense of ownership we have is not sustainable," says McKenney, whose business model was inspired by the designer handbag rental concept seen in Sex and the City. Which is why she doesn't just sell outright the airy white dresses, embroidered linen jumpsuits, and leather hot pants she makes from her mother's fabric remnants. It's passion for social change — as well as for a good pattern and great fit — that drives her. The whole point is being able to share. "We should not have to sacrifice glamour and art because of money and a bad economy."
OLD-FASHIONED, FASHION FORWARD
Tucked away in a former North Beach butcher shop among towers of vintage hatboxes and fabric bolts stacked to the ceiling, custom clothier Al Ribaya is king of the cutting board. His old world tailor shop Al's Attire makes every imaginable piece of clothing to order, paying more attention to detail than profit. "It's a difficult thing to make money at," he admits. "People don't know what it takes to build something one stitch at a time."
The other distinguishing factor about Ribaya's shop is that he outfits people from head to toe. Using the same effort, energy, and remarkable focus, he makes everything from shoes crafted with soles of repurposed tire treads or turn-of-the-century buttons to suits, shirts, pants, jackets, skirts, and dresses. He even makes hats from suit fabric remnants. Every garment is custom labeled with the wearer's name (alongside Al's, of course). But despite all this retro hard work (and handiwork), Ribaya's styles are remarkably fresh and modern. On Lawrence, clockwise from top: 1) Striped hat by Al's Attire; 2) Double-pocket zippered denim shirt by Turk+Taylor; 3) Chambray golf jacket by Al's Attire; 4) Dark denim jeans by Mi, 5) Silver wing-tip shoes by Al's Attire; 6) Seersucker shorts by Turk+Taylor, 7) Brown leather jacket by Mi; 8) Avocado tee by Turk+Taylor. Underwear and socks by American Apparel.
What if one piece of clothing could be worn seven different ways? What would happen if you took a jacket and turned it upside-down? Or backward? These are the questions that the innovative, boundary-breaking creative minds at Harputs Collective have been asking. Their answer— called the swacket —hangs beside an oversized mirror in the airy industrial Harputs Own shop. The collective members are waiting for curious customers to come and play with the architectural sweater/jacket outerwear—putting it on backward, changing the swooping collar into a hood, then flipping it upside-down and adding a belt, until the most flattering fit is found.
The studio was started in September, a serendipitous confluence of a few thoughtful designers, a retiring tailor who stocked the store with fabrics and machinery, and an established high-end retailer with such a sense of play he will dye garments from New York lines when they are past season just to see if they will sell better in indigo than white. Our favorite part? A garment that fits well and can be worn several ways is less likely to go out of style — and therefore inspires us to consume less. (Our least favorite? They declined to participate in our fashion shoot. But we love 'em anyway.)
Mi Concept's visionary pieces are offered as a bespoke capsule collection for people who appreciate fashion-forward, cutting-edge design — and who aren't afraid to look like time travelers from some distant utopian future.
Before designing any piece of clothing, Dean Hutchinson, creative director of the Mi Concept, asks himself, "How do I stimulate conversation?" The purpose, Hutchinson, says, is to challenge people to think beyond fashion. It must be working: ever since Mi Concept emerged at 808 Sutter last December, conversation and buzz have followed.
Peek inside the unmarked store and you'll find an eerie modernist sarcophagus illuminated by fluorescent tubes, where dauntingly expensive-looking clothes cling to hangers as if worn by invisible ghosts. Together the space and the clothing create a synthesis of progressive, modern design.
Hutchinson eschews classic forms in favor of postmodernist distortion, working with asymmetrical lines and deconstructed shapes, often incorporating multiple silhouettes in a single garment to create an effect that evades easy labeling in any genre. "The other day someone said it was like a marriage between Rick Owens and Jil Sander," Hutchinson said. "That was sort of flattering. But I don't think about fashion like that. I have an initial idea, and then it just takes on it's own life. It's art." On Mari, clockwise from top: 1) Bias-cut raindrop dress by Sara Shepherd; 2) Rouched front dress with pockets by Jules Elin; 3) Bell sleeve wrap jacket by Jules Elin; 4) Corset skirt with teal detail by Shaye; 5) Kit leather button boots by Al's Attire; 6) Brown leather hotpants by Shaye; 7) Black leather jacket with sleeve zippers by Mi; 8) Polka dot hat by Al's Attire; 9) Zipper-front dress by Turk+Taylor. Underwear and socks by American Apparel.
Jules Elin's designs for women are simple and casual, without sacrificing style. The ideal wearer seems to be someone who is practical and comfortable but can appreciate the occasional coquettish detail — like a bell sleeve or a floral lining — on an otherwise unembellished piece.
While Elin is conscious of seasonal trends, there is nothing overtly "fashion-y" about her classic silhouettes: a swing coat is spruced up with extra-large buttons, a zippered jacket is adorned with a ruffled Peter Pan collar, and both are stylish without coming across as self-consciously en vogue. Elin's pieces are made with organic cotton and get bonus points for not having to be dry-cleaned. On being called an eco-designer, Elin reflects, "I never really thought of it as being progress; I thought it was the right thing to do."
When it comes to the designs themselves, San Francisco is always an inspiration. "There's a lot of movement and architecture to the pieces," she says. "But they're also really sweet in a way that matches the demographic of this city." And it's Bay Area weather that determines the length of Elin's sleeves: always long enough to be worn over the hands when it's cold. San Franciscans are responding positively in turn, and even the dire economy hasn't slowed the growth of her brand. "It's just made me realize I can always work harder."
When examining Turk+Taylor's well-edited collections of sustainable, nouveau-preppy clothes, the aesthetic appears so cohesive you could never tell that they nearly always result from a disagreement between the designers, Andrew Soernsen and Mark Lee Morris. "We fight all the time," Soernsen proclaims. "We end up yelling." During our interview, Soernsen and Morris often contradicted one another while answering the same questions — even the straightforward ones. "But somehow," says Morris, "it all comes together."
Soernsen and Morris don't have fashion degrees. "We can't sew. We aren't pattern-makers." The two designers run their business out of Soernsen's apartment in NoPa, where boxes of samples are stacked on the floor, racks of clothes clutter every room, and eco-friendly fabrics perilously overflow from shelves and surfaces. Somehow, amid the jumble, they've managed to create beautiful collections of casual daywear year after year.
This year was the brand's fifth, but neither Soernsen nor Morris has quit their day-jobs. "I don't know how we have time to do this," Soernsen admits. "We're so unorganized." The self-deprecating posturing belies the fact that they've grown into an influential label synonymous with San Francisco style. A perfect example? Pop into the SFMOMA store, and you'll notice the museum tees are all by Turk+Taylor.
Sara Shepherd is, at heart, a contradiction: edgy London meets cuddly San Francisco. Originally from England, Shepherd moved to San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art University and stayed on to teach at the academy and create a fashion line out of her SOMA studio.
Shepherd's Victorian menswear-inspired clothing evokes images of urban dandies and Byronic heroes, but her work is consciously feminine and innately modern. With tailoring that emphasizes shape over ornament, Shepherd draws her inspiration from classic British icons, whether fictional, like Alice in Wonderland, or real, like Elizabeth I. Despite the distant historical comparisons, her vision remains practical and wearable for San Francisco women who "know their own mind, who feel strong and confident in what they wear and who they are." Like Elin, she's also careful to consider San Francisco weather when designing. "There needs to be the opportunity to layer the clothes. There's always, always a layer to them." More local design! See our Pixel Vision  blog for 50 more of SF's hot designers and an exclusive guide to reconstructing a boring button-down into something better, with designer Miranda Caroligne.
WHERE TO BUY
1314 Grant, SF; 415-693-9900. www.alsattire.com 
1525 Fillmore, SF; 415-923-9300. www.harputsown.com 
Indie Industries and Joy O.
Available at Studio 3579, 3579 17th St., SF; 415-626-2533
Available at Ladita, 827 Cortland, SF; 415-648-4397
Available at Collage Gallery, 1345 18th St., SF; 415-282-4401
808 Sutter, SF; 415-567-8080. www.themiconcept.com 
Available at M.A.C. 387 Grove, SF; 415-863-3011
La Library, 380 Guerrero, SF; 415-558-9841
Available at ABfits 1519 Grant, SF; 415-982-5726