The Cable Guys

Looking back on this 2009 post by old friend Michael Mattis, which touches on the timeless themes of trad clothes and “no hard sell” because the stuff sells itself.

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If some places never change, it’s because they never need to. They have reached a pitch, if not of perfection, then at least of perceived value, just as they are.

San Francisco’s Cable Car Clothiers is one such establishment. Sure it’s  changed hands and locations more than once since it was first opened as Robert Kirk Ltd. in 1939, and its clientele has certainly evolved; the story has even added a website. But the shop’s philosophy has remained as steadfast as the iconic cable cars from which it gets its name and which trundle along nearby. “Good service, sticking with the tried and true,” says c0-owner Elsie, the shop’s Jill-of-all-trades, who has held her post for more than 25 years. “People who come to Cable Car know exactly what they want and know they can only get it here.”

“Traditional, masculine, British,” adds Kenneth Pittman of the shop, who says his job description is “to make you look and feel like a million bucks.”

In addition to Cable Car’s specialty line of Southwick made-to-measure and bespoke suits, the shop also carries traditional sport coats, trousers, hosiery and neckwear — including a large selection of ascots. But it’s in the details where Cable Car’s wares really stand out. Its selection of men’s accessories is nonpareil, and includes custom blazer buttons and cuff links, sock garters, mountains of pocket squares, velvet slippers, silver-topped walking sticks, and gold embroidered blazer crests, all displayed in an atmosphere that reminds one of the inside of a men’s club crossed with one of the more dignified, established banks of yesteryear. (In fact, the space was once a dignified, establishment bank.)

But Cable Car’s biggest draw these days, particularly among its younger customers, is its huge selection of gentlemen’s headgear. From alpine fedoras to the kind of bottle-green, tasseled velvet smoking caps of the sort Oscar Wilde might have worn, the shop’s selection appeals to some of the most interesting shoppers anywhere.

Symbolic of how times have changed, the typical, younger Cable Car hat customer is female, the daughter of a well heeled Bay Area family looking for a high-quality version of the kind of cheap and trendy hat sold in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, according to Adonis Henriquez, Cable Car’s 26-year-old head hatter. Hot items? Driving caps mostly, but also, surprisingly, bowlers, especially among the girls.

“Elvis Costello really knows how to wear a hat,” says Henriquez about his celebrity customers. “He definitely knows what he wants and wears a hat with his own sense of style. He’ll shape and crush it just the way he wants it. He’ll put it on backwards if he thinks it looks better that way. He doesn’t wear his hats; his hats wear him.”

Henriquez knows a thing or two about hats; the Bronx native’s family has been in the lids business for 35 years. “Cable Car is the destination location for in-town and out-of-town celebrities,” he adds. “If they need a hat, they come here.”  Some of Cable Car’s other well known clients include Carlos Santana, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Starship fame, former San Francisco mayor and California state assembly speaker Willie Brown (who, Pittman says, buys pocket squares “by the pound.”), New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and outspoken University of California at San Francisco Chancellor, J. Michael Bishop. The late San Francisco Chronicle columnist and master of all things San Francisco, Herb Caen, was also a frequent customer.

For the gentleman of a certain stripe, walking into Cable Car is like walking into the private dressing room of a stately home. While the ex-bank’s staid but elegant Beaux Arts scrollwork offers the appropriate feeling of grandeur, the slightly tumbledown arrangement of the shop’s time-worn oak shelves immediately puts a man at ease. Cable Car is a shop that feels nicely lived in.

Adding to this well dressed but relaxed atmosphere is the attitude of Cable Car’s sales team. “There’s no quota here and no hard sell,” smiles Pittman. “We’re very traditional that way. Our stuff sells itself.” — MICHAEL MATTIS

10 Comments on "The Cable Guys"

  1. Roger Sack | May 8, 2017 at 2:20 pm |

    At Cable Car Clothiers it’s always 1958, with 2030 prices !!

  2. He got it bass ackwards. It’s never good for the hat (or any other item of clothing) to “wear you”. The whole purpose of dressing is defeated. Also yes to the above – far too expensive at CC.

  3. In the Real World, very few products “sell themselves”, except for bubble gum and Chinese take-out. If a customer needs no help in making a decision as to the product, there is no need to hire a salesperson. Just hang a clipboard on the (locked) front door with order forms and envelopes, and provide a mail chute to drop the envelopes in.

  4. @John, you’re absolutely right. And funny enough, “the clothes sell themselves” is just a marketing line to sell these clothes to us.

  5. Obviously, John and Mark have never been to Cable Car Clothiers. The clothes do, in fact, sell themselves. Worth a trip to San Francisco, just to visit this oasis of good taste and fine quality. If they charged admission, it would be worth it.

  6. I have 70,000+ hours experience in the art of selling (and excellent, well-tailored clothing was the Uniform Of The Day). If — as almost never happens — a product truly “sells itself”, there is no need to hire salespeople for that product. I who know something about both clothing and sales still want to talk to a salesperson when buying anything costing more than pocket change. Most salesmen know more about their product than I know about their product. Talk to me.

  7. John,
    I thought salespeople were there to tell us how good a too-small or too-large jacket looks on us when the shop doesn’t have our size.

  8. Every man, every woman, makes the same emotional purchase decision commonly enough to show a pattern from two blocks away. Ever meet an MB owner who claimed his automobile-carriage had “superior” handling, yet his vehicle could be outrun by a sixteen year old beardless whelp on a midsize Kawasaki motorcycle? The MB owner has a right to buy, and justify, his MB for any stated reason he may chose.

  9. The following link is to a photo of the second floor of the 200 Bush Street location. It was one of the few remaining men’s stores that stocked extra longs in anything other than blazers. I had the good fortune to purchase a Harris tweed sport coat and a couple of suits on sale during visits to San Francisco that are still worn regularly. It was great fund to poke around that location and find merchandise that was probably a quarter of a century old. My one visit to the new location was indeed disappointing – now little stocked with almost all special order. Thankfully, O’Connell’s is still around.

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