Fresh style insights, tips and commentary by Michelle Tea, Michael Braithwaite, Leo Plass, Page McBee and Carrie Leilam Love.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Tribes of San Francisco: A Rebuttal

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

A waitress, left, at Tartine; a local in the Mission District, center; and in Hayes Valley, right.

It's been three weeks since Guy Trebay published his snarky Times article ripe with backhanded compliments and empty  "observations" about the style landscape of the Bay Area. Three weeks and I can't quite get it off my mind. Maybe it's the use of the word "tribes" in the title. Maybe that word is too "Burning Man" for me. Maybe it's the fact that I find Guy Trebay's usual brand of self-congratulatory drivel a little trying. Maybe it's the fact that somehow, in the six years I've lived here, I've developed an allegiance to the Bay Area akin to the allegiance one has to an annoying younger sibling who seems ill-prepared for life, but well intentioned nonetheless. I can pick on it, but others would do well to keep their thoughts to themselves. At any rate, I didn't care for the reductionist, out of touch way in which Trebay depicted, or rather failed to depict, the Bay Area as some monolithic style mystery hole. I can't quite put my finger on what I found distasteful, but it's been nagging at me for three weeks.

MAYBE it was this obnoxious interview moment:

 “It’s that people here don’t want to show what they have in their closets,” said Mr. Lopez, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, who opened Sui Generis three years ago with a partner to offer a style alternative to a population whose last important contribution to fashion amounted to the sanded crotch jeans and white T-shirt uniform of so-called gay clones.

Wow. Tacky. And why does he sound defensively angry? Was he wronged by one of our gay clones? Additionally, where can I find a gay clone? That sounds intriguing. 

There's always something problematic about outsiders trying to put their finger on Bay Area Style (which, truly, can be an oxymoron at times), so at the heart of the Tribes article there lies a misunderstanding (well, many misunderstandings) about the diverse array of elements that contribute to regional style (which is to say, there isn't really a regional style). Trebay also frankly seems to have fallen victim to a generational gap.

In attempting to create some cohesive taxonomy of Bay Area style, he cites a Bay Area obsession with athleticism as a primary source of inspiration. I suppose? In the Castro maybe? Or perhaps with avid cyclists? Certainly not in Oakland, where I live--it's all aging punk rockers with tattoos and beer, and kids with creative  hip-hop style specific only to Oakland. I don't know of anyone whose interest in physical fitness determines their style, per se, unless they happen to be going from a yoga class to their house, which seems at this point to be a pretty universal phenomenon. Athleticism is a hobby here, it's true. People love rock climbing, cycling, yoga (obvs), swimming, hiking, you name it. We're surrounded by endless opportunities to get or be fit (I, luckily, have largely managed to ignore every opportunity for fitness in favor of cup-by-cup brewed coffee, muddled fruit cocktails, and an endless supply of mouth-watering fancy cheeses). But for the most part, physical fitness doesn't contribute to an overall style, except that people tend to be thin enough to wear Japanese and European designs. For some reason, the Tribes article thought that including an image of a kite surfer in a wet suit would provide undeniable evidence that athleticism affects style. 

The NY Times closely guards its photos (rightly so), so if you want to view the actual images used in his article, you can only do so on their site. The photo I used here is a thematic example that alludes to the one used in The Tribes of San Francisco.

As my friend Brady--a welder--pointed out, that would be like getting a picture of him in his welding goggles and  gloves. It's utilitarian, not a style choice. The water is 50 degrees. You wear a wet suit or your nutsack/left tit falls off. But I did appreciate the pointer about what sort of style one needs to kite surf. It's so rare that a fashion columnist addresses the little-known sport and its enigmatic ensembles. See? I can offer my own backhanded compliment.

The fog season might also account to the confusion about athleticism contributing so much to the style of the Bay Area--Northface jackets abound. Because it's cold and damp. But I wouldn't cite that as fashion. Just as I wouldn't cite running shoes, nor would I cite the Friday night crowd at Nopa that "can sometimes seem populated by men dressed to mow your lawn," anymore than I would cite any number of lumpy dressers I've seen in any variety of scenarios in NY.

There also seems to be an overarching theme in Trebay's article that Bay Area style is dictated by a rejection of editorial high fashion. That we all engage in some grand gesture of fashion equality with no interest in what happens in Paris, NY, or Milan, essentially, that we have no seasonal hierarchy. That's correct. But not because of "some loopy organic collective impulse." Perhaps you may have noticed, but, WE DON'T HAVE SEASONS HERE. It's rather difficult to keep up with NY's editorial "it" sandal every summer when your summers consist of 55 degree weather and two months of fog. But according to Trebay and the rag tag group of locals he interviews, we cull our style from a wide variety of sources ranging from used clothes, to designer sale stuff, to vintage. Yes. That's correct, but that isn't specific to the Bay Area. Perhaps Trebay has neglected to notice that people under 40 have been picking their fashion from some combination of vintage, designer, handmade, and thrift for the better part of this decade--it's why etsy does so well. Has Mr. Trebay ever been to Brooklyn? Has he seen any street style from Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London, and yes, even the hallowed lands of couture, Paris and Milan? The "stigma attached to used clothing" has been gone for quite sometime all around the globe among young people of all stripes and class backgrounds.

Oslo, courtesy of Street Peeper

Amsterdam, courtesy of Bruce Hamilton

London, courtesy of Style Sight

Bay Area, courtesy of Carrie Leilam Love and Kenya Miles

Additionally, with the rise of style blogs (you're on one), and fashion/culture magazines like Code and Contributor Magazine, the old guard of fashion editorial resources is, well, old. The Bay Area is young. What you see in the way of "mashing" isn't "Bay Area," it's just young. And frankly, queer. The queers "mashed" before anyone else and the Bay Area is full of all kinds of queers who have been pulling what they want from high and low fashion for ages because they could, because nobody made clothes for anyone other than straight women and men (well, gay men, too...mainly gay men of a certain gender expression). Surprising that Trebay didn't cite queer influence as a style influence, since it seems to have had a healthy and dynamic proliferation here.

Stay Gold, August, courtesy of Hannah Cairns

 Nor did he cite the scene in Oakland:

And by the way, Oakland style has in fact made it to Paris:

 Nor did he cite skater culture, which has played a major role in shaping style for queers, teen boys, and even businessmen (one of my favorite sights here is a mid-twenty something businessman in a three-piece tailored suit cruising through the financial district on a skate board, Italian leather satchel slung over the shoulder).

Market Street, courtesy of StyleCanary

Courtesy of Getty Images

At one point Trebay interviews the owner of a bakery in Napa Valley. I mean, ABC Bakery makes some good scones, but what that has to do with how we preen is baffling. I suspect he was just on vacation and phoning it in a little bit, but either way, Napa Valley is not part of a Bay Area style landscape. Is Napa even still considered "Bay Area?" It's two hours north. I can't imagine a place being more out of touch with a style scene.

You're showing your age, Mr. Trebay.

This semi-rant is not to discount the fact that even I agree with Mr. Trebay that the style palate here often leaves something (MANY somethings) to be desired and is certainly hit or miss. On a bad day, San Francisco seems to be inhabited entirely by Renaissance Fair/Burning Man rejects. 

On a good day, though, the sun sparkles through air scented with Eucalyptus, ginger blossoms, and sea salt and everyone seems to have tapped into a great reserve of creativity, aesthetic know how, and personal expression that makes living in a city fun. 

Amanda in Hayes Valley, from The SF Style

The runway isn't the be-all-end-all, nor is the easily-cracked persona of seasonal NY fashion appropriate for San Francisco--a city surrounded by so much natural glory, people and their silly clothes pale in comparison. So maybe this is the defining factor of Bay Area style: people dress with subtle fluctuations of the landscape here, which requires layering, repeat use, and an ability to roll with changes in temperature and weather from hour to hour. I might want that resort wear line for Summer 2011, but I would only be able to wear it once or twice. Why bother?

There's also the basic fact that California as a whole is steeped in a casual individualism. People often move here to "find themselves," which doesn't always work out, but lends the cultural landscape a rabid "be oneself" vibe. When I lived in LA, I briefly worked at a gallery and on my first day the owner (a Londoner) said, "Don't assume that just because someone comes in wearing ripped jeans and flip flops that they won't buy work. They might be a professional surfer or something and those guys are loaded. You can't discriminate based on clothing here."

So, readers, if you've managed to wade through this with me, I ask you to add your own two cents about what you consider to be the "style of the Bay Area," if there even is one. If there's enough response (if you want to include pictures let me know), then I'll create a whole blog on Monday the 27th with your rebuttals. I agree with Mr. Trebay that style is born of the culture that produces it, and therefore, the style of the Bay Area is unique unto itself, just like its residents.  I've listed a few things that I think affect the style landscape here, but what do you think creates it?

Do tell.


  1. I think the 'find yourself' description for the Bay adds up for me. In some cases, I think, people who have money might deliberately dress down so as not to be flashy (the story about the surfer buying art is totally realistic).

  2. Thank you! I saw the headline in NY Times and was hoping for some cool pics--should have know better. Glad you guys chimed in.

  3. ZING! NAILED IT! I'm with you. I mean, style here is more constant. Downtown SF is definitely parallel to New York (if not superior) for American business style. And the kooky individualism is what makes some people phenomenal dressers when they do it well. Otherwise, this town is like most major cities: trendsetters, people following trendsetters, people who don't give a shit and people who do their own thing. I've been to Queens. Nobody from New York needs to judge.

  4. Here Here!!! This is amazing. Also, it is shaped by the sea, the fog, and the lack of old people. Old people have the best style, here you can dress like a little old lady or a little old man and not look like one cause there's no oldie standing near you. Sad but true.