Well-Suited: The Man Behind Willie Brown's Style

Willie Brown stood on the Embarcadero in early February, his new namesake, the Willie L. Brown Jr. Bridge, as backdrop. He wore a gray suit and a black tie, a white handkerchief peeking out of his left breast pocket.

Before he was ever immortalized in steel and concrete, Brown's tailored Brioni suits and Borsalino fedoras seemed a physical manifestation of his political panache and style. Style, the man told CBS News in 2008, was the secret to his success. His Italian suits and broad-brimmed hats conveyed a seriousness of purpose and a self-possession absent from the current age of the hoodie-sporting techie.

I first encountered Brown in a less political venue: Wilkes Bashford. The store, and the man behind it, has for decades been one of the arbiters of taste for San Francisco society, outfitter of politicians and power-brokers.

In 1999 or 2000, I was working security at the clothing store's Sutter Street location. Brown's habit was to stop by every couple of weeks.

The mayor's black Town Car would appear and the smiling Brown emerge. Like any good politician, he stopped to talk to the doorman — a potential voter — before disappearing upstairs. The store's founder, Bashford, is a longtime friend and a kind of style adviser to Brown.

Since its founding in 1966, Wilkes Bashford has become one of the highest-end clothiers on the West Coast. When I worked there, the store evoked some pastel image of early 1960's San Francisco inhabited by Hitchcock characters in well-tailored suits. It was uninterested in passing fashions, and as the clothes rack of the city's society, it was impossible not to feel the, well, bling.

The seven-story retailer, a spitting distance from the Stockton Street Tunnel, was a world unto itself. Like most department stores, it managed to create a fantasy, a fantasy with bars on every floor and pretty much anything else you asked for. The only floor not filled with salespeople and shoes or clothing housed a noisy army of seamstresses, fitting, resizing, and doing all the attendant alterations the store required. Its top floor housed the mostly unseen Bashford and his offices.

When days were not punctuated with visits from Brown or San Francisco native Danny Glover, the staff — mostly gay men, the other scions of taste — made the place what it was. They lived off of their personality traits as much as on their knowledge of clothing.

The group of impeccably dressed men working the main floor set the tone of the place, stylistically and temperamentally — a tone that played up to the self-importance of the rich while undermining it with the superior and pushy knowledge of a salesman. (The second floor was the only one dedicated solely to woman.) The salesmen, operators all, ran the place and made it feel more like a slightly neurotic and exclusive club rather than a clothing store. The salesmen treated each other with the wary respect of competitors and the customers as old friends.

I got the security gig after applying for another job as a third-floor salesman, which I had no business applying for.

My duties consisted of standing by the door for most of the day, following anyone who looked out of place. I never did much more. The store itself, its sheer expensiveness, acted as deterrent enough.

Around closing time, a car came for Bashford. He'd hand me the leash to his brown long-haired dachshund, Freddie, then step into the backseat of the idling car. There he'd wait as I walked the dog around the block until it had done its business.

Working mostly behind the scenes, Bashford has been a quiet force in San Francisco since 1966, selling clothing that holds up against the tides of fashion.

Much of that time he has been linked to dressing the rich and powerful, Brown among them. They met in 1967 when Brown came into the store and bought a Brioni sports coat. “We just kinda hit it off,” Bashford says of Brown. “He exhibited an in-depth interest in clothes.”

When it comes to dressing the wealthy and influential, Bashford says there is a fine line you must walk. A high-powered attorney looking for a suit, for example, would be a pretty straightforward affair.

“I'd probably put him in a striped suit, probably a navy chalk striped suit. I'd probably go toward a white shirt. I'd make sure it was very well tailored,” says Bashford. In court, these clothes would amplify the man's appearance of success. “Through the image of success we would assume that he was giving off certain levels of authority — and authority in many circumstances is power.”

But a politician is a trickier pig to skin.

“That's an area you have to really be careful,” he says of outfitting someone in a public position, noting a certain female attorney general who must dress more conservatively than she might want to.

But a suit's ability to convey power is about more than putting on a costume.

“You'd want to make it look like this is you, this is a very natural way for you to dress,” he says. “You have to be sure, number one, that you are comfortable in it. As we say, 'you carry it off.'”

Brown embodies these traits. “The reason he is so unique in his field and in his life is because he is comfortable in those clothes… he's gonna wear what he wants,” says Bashford. “There is a difference between being who you are… and believing in who you need to be, and flaunting something. Willie doesn't flaunt. Willie is that person.”

A greatcoat, heavy and broad-collared, was my first, reluctant personal foray into the finer clothes on offer at my new job. My mother, thinking I would love it, gave it to me as a present. Despite the costume-piece look, I wore it.

I was uncomfortably wearing the thing one day when the mayor walked in. He looked over at me, buried in thick knit cloth, and said, “Nice coat.” It made up for my embarrassment, at least for a little while.

When I was eventually drafted to play a bit part in a fashion show at Francis Ford Coppola's Napa winery, Brown was on hand again.

It was a Roaring '20s-themed show. I was recruited to play a newsboy, a big floppy knit hat on my head while I silently wagged a rolled-up newspaper at the passing models. Among the politicians in the audience sat Brown, his smiling face looking on.

The make-believe of a fashion show — and the game of self-invention we play when we dress — stood face-to-face with the theater of politics. What did Brown, the self-styled “ayatollah of assembly,” the dapper mayor, think, watching the models strutting? Did he recognize himself as an actor playing a part? Did he recognize the difference between the models who “carried it off,” embodying the image they conveyed, versus the newsboy outfit I wore, every bit a costume? If he did, the broad smile on his face revealed none of it. But then, that's always been part of his outfit, too.

I visited the store recently after a long hiatus: It wasn't as I remembered. Bankruptcy in 2009 had forced its sale, and while Bashford still helps run the place, it's been remodeled and has some very professionally attired doormen. On the day I dropped in, only the shoe salesman was the same. We shook hands. He said he remembered me, but I think he was just being polite.

As for Brown and his suits, well, they are still around, and he is still every bit a political player, but whether or not his style and Bashford's will continue to shape the future of fashion and politics and the theater of dress can't be known. Old power-brokers share the stage now with a younger generation whose absurdly named, massively influential companies are printed on the T-shirts or hoodies they wear in public life.

Bridges aside, Brown's influence — in the pages of the Chronicle and as a political operator — is still a force in San Francisco.

And if Bashford's philosophy on playing the long game is any guide, then both men will continue to hold sway over San Francisco. “We always try to not chase the short-term fashion trends,” he says. “You become able to separate the seasonal fashion from a longer-term direction.”

I was never able to connect with Brown, then or now, beyond a few pleasantries. But I did see him eating lunch downtown a few weeks after finally winning his bridge. He was sitting across from Bashford. They were both, naturally, in suits.

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