San Francisco Chronicles: An ex-Vogue Editor Bids Adieu to Manhattan for Flat Shoes and New Adventures

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By Emily Holt

After reporting on the international fashion circuit for years, a former Vogue editor returns home to the Bay Area to face a style conundrum.

“Oh, you’re wearing shoes,” said my friend, a former New Yorker, when she came to pick me up for a girls’ dinner. Indeed I was. But I knew what she meant. I was wearing Shoes, with a capital “S.” Statement Shoes by Dries van Noten with platform soles and chunky heels in gold leather and python. In Manhattan, Shoes on a weeknight are a given—Saint Laurent, Tabitha Simmons, Sophia Webster, Céline, Manolo Blahnik. In San Francisco, things are a bit different. I’d moved here less than a month earlier having left my job in fashion in New York City to return to the Bay Area, where I’m from. I had told myself and everyone else I wanted a change of pace, but here I was, still wearing Shoes. And a Creatures of the Wind skirt. And a Comme des Garçons sweatshirt. I couldn’t help it. These were my clothes.

Everyone warned me that San Francisco has no style. As a hometown girl, I defended the city and refused to believe it. And I still don’t think they’re wholly correct. After all, it’s not as if women are plodding around in sand-colored Birkenstocks. But they aren’t wearing those Givenchy Birkenstocks either, which by now are a staple in my New York friends’ weekend wardrobes. It’s a funny middle ground here. There’s a lot of Lululemon, 24/7, on Fillmore Street, and I’ve met both male and female Zuckerberg-types who, though they weren’t wearing hoodies at the time, copped to owning them. There’s also a peculiar fascination with the puffer vest, a garment I’ve never understood (if it’s that cold, why not just wear a jacket and not look like a lumberjack?), but which appears an essential of the San Francisco closet. At the same time, I’ve met women who can pronounce Mary Katranzou and when invited to a dinner party show up in Lanvin. The difference is that they save these labels for special occasions. In New York, I’ve worn Marni to pick up almond milk at Trader Joe’s.

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Photography Amy Harrity
Hair and Makeup Alicia Campbell

Mostly, women stick to a uniform. Because summer in San Francisco is notoriously foggy with highs around 65 degrees, it’s typically a pair of flare jeans, a comfy shoe (the wedge sneakers are still happening here), and a thick, chunky sweater by Isabel Marant. (Northern California loves Isabel Marant. It’s the bobo-perfect balance for this town.) Sweatshirts with luxury provenance work too. I recently spotted the chic owner of a hot downtown restaurant working the room in a black lace Lanvin pullover, and my lunch date the other day was wearing a beautiful Nina Ricci cardigan. None of it was the newest season, as you’d see in New York, but that doesn’t matter as much here. Fewer people are scrutinizing the latest collections that closely; it’s not their livelihood like it was (and is) mine.

Which is not to say they’re not interested. Especially now that so many women have the money to participate in capital “F” Fashion. But many of the everyday looks I’ve seen seem to be of the incognito uber-luxe variety. For instance, at a recent dinner, a tech exec bundled herself in a giant, taupe wrap by Brunello Cucinelli, an Italian collection of the highest quality, with a price tag to match. I was only able to identify it because I asked. (Everyone in New York asks.) None of my friends back East wear the line, mainly because they can’t afford it, but even if they could, they would want something more identifiable and connected to the season. Here, it’s often about stealth chic, and for a few very good reasons. Major glitz and over-the-top, impractical silhouettes don’t jibe with the landscape of mountains, bay, and rolling hills, or with the personality of the city (be it grounded or New Age, take your pick). Also, if you’re trying to fundraise for your app/social media platform/biotech company/Flubber machine, it’s important to look like you need the money. Showing up to a potential investor meeting in a suede Proenza Schouler dress—standard protocol for any New York City woman working in fashion—won’t cut it.

Does this mean I’ll be rushing out to buy some Brunello Cucinelli wraps and giving up my Shoes? No. I’m not relinquishing my identity, nor, as a newly established fashion freelancer, do I have the funds to support such extravagant purchases. But I’m also not resistant to change, to “leaning in” to the California lifestyle, if you will. So rather than wear a powder-puff SportMax mule with my cropped, flared, maroon-and-black zebra print Dries van Noten pants, I’ll opt for my unadorned, black slippers by Ancient Greek Sandals. Of course, now my sister (a fellow San Franciscan who does not work in fashion) calls the look “ancient fisherman.” Sometimes you just can’t win.