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 Elsie, a sales clerk and the shops Jill-of-all-trades, who has manned 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
Michael Mattis previously wrote for Ivy Style on Arthur Schlesinger and bon vivantism. He lives in San Francisco and works in media. Photographer J. von Spangenberg snapped these photos exclusively for Ivy Style; his complete Cable Car roll can be found here.