Before he became one of the more connected political figures in California – before his six terms in the Assembly, before his time at the head of the state Department of Parks and Recreation and his stint on the California Coastal Commission, before he became a wealthy consultant and lobbyist with a Delta manor – Rusty Areias, the son of a Los Banos dairy farmer, went to San Francisco to learn how to dress.
“When you come from a little town like where I grew up, you take an interest in those things if you’re going to go into politics, into public life,” Areias remembered. “I was right out of college. I had been the student body president and legislative liaison, so I followed, you know, Willie Brown and Bob Moretti and Leo McCarthy.”
When the Chico State grad saw in Herb Caen’s San Francisco Chronicle column that his political heroes bought their clothes from an elegant man named Wilkes Bashford, he said, he made a pilgrimage to the famed haberdasher.
“I was probably 24 years old and all I could afford was a Ralph Lauren hoodie,” he recalled, laughing. But Bashford’s store was unlike any he’d ever encountered – cocktails while you waited, the walls lined with perfect silk ties and suits costing many months’ salary.
“That visit was something I’ll never forget.”
This week, as San Franciscans mourn the kind, tasteful man who died Saturday in his home at 82 of cancer, they will also celebrate a Northern California institution.
Wilkes Bashford may not be a household name in the rest of the country. Some Californians may be unfamiliar with him outside San Francisco. But his Union Square store, opened in 1966 and sold after the 2008 recession to a Connecticut luxury clothier, for generations clothed everyone who was anyone in NorCal.
Wilkes Bashford was where West Coast business executives suited up for the boardroom, and where scions of old families shopped for tuxes. It was where Caen, the legendary San Francisco scribe, outfitted his legendary persona (for free, in exchange for frequent mentions in his column, a grand jury report later implied, though Caen and Bashford denied it).
It was where Mayor George Moscone sipped scotch in the dressing room while shopping. It was where Willie L. Brown Jr., mayor, Assembly speaker and inveterate dandy, got the Brioni suits for which he was famous.
Later, it was where Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison bought the corporate wear that announced their arrival in Silicon Valley, and where Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, the wife of Secretary of State George Shultz, dressed for galas.
It was where California’s veteran Democratic Party Chairman John L. Burton bought gifts for his swankier friends, though not for himself. (“I was more of a Walter Fong man,” Burton said, name-checking the now-retired – and slightly less pricey – San Francisco tailor.)
It was where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shopped and where Gov. Jerry Brown and Anne Gust Brown got the black oxfords and white lace pumps they, respectively, wore to their wedding.
“I was introduced to Wilkes by Willie Brown in 2002, right after I won my Assembly seat,” recalled former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, now a Mercury Public Affairs partner, laughing. “He looked at my suit, got up real close to it and looked at the cloth, and said, ‘My friend, you need an upgrade.’ ”
Núñez followed Brown’s advice, though he added, “I was one of those people, and there were a lot of us in government, who really only saw Wilkes when he was having a sale.”
Kevin Starr, former state librarian and professor of history at the University of Southern California, says Bashford’s store “represented a breakthrough of quality retailing in Northern California” – and an expression of cultural ambition.
It wasn’t just San Francisco. In 1966, California as a whole was a place with a myth to make, a frontier’s worth of untapped potential.
The up-and-coming were distinguishing themselves, from Pasadena to Pacific Heights to the Fabulous Forties, and Bashford gave them an aesthetic – “bold conservative,” he termed it.
But his also was a vision of Old California class, crafted piece by breathtakingly expensive piece from exquisite shoes and timeless sport coats.
It said that this was its own place with its own refinement, not some provincial outpost. San Francisco, for one, was so grateful that it bestowed on Bashford its most cherished gift: a place in its pantheon of local color.
Brown is planning a memorial service for his old bachelor friend on Jan. 29 at the city’s Grace Cathedral. Most of the comments in press accounts this week have recalled their regular Friday lunches and dice games at Le Central bistro, Bashford’s penchant for dachshunds, his signature mustache and blue-tinted glasses. I hesitate to let that be the last word.
By all accounts, the New York-born Bashford – a down-to-earth man who generously supported an array of civic causes and inspired intense loyalty in his employees – was far too deeply human to be caricatured in memory, however fondly.
“He served on more boards and commissions than you could believe,” said public affairs consultant Billy Rutland, who worked for Brown for many years. “He always remembered you. He was the gentlest man you would ever want to know, and he was so loved.”
Starr, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, called him “the quintessential Mr. Nice Guy, a true gentleman not that overly impressed with his celebrity status.”
To me, his death underscores California’s broader crossing, which wouldn’t have happened without visionaries like Bashford. Once this was a place with everything to prove; now, in style or in substance, California is probably most famous for needing no justification.
Forty years after Rusty Areias dared himself to dress for the job he wanted, who doesn’t know what a powerful Californian looks like? We’re elegant. We’re tasteful. And a lot of us are in hoodies. Designer, of course.