Friday, February 24, 2012

Trad-Ivy Friday: San Francisco’s Cable Car Clothiers

The moment I walked in, a resolute olfactory waft took me back to Singletons Men’s Shop circa 1968…the little Trad goods haberdashery in my hometown of Florence, South Carolina. Within two feet of my entry, a comforting aromatic déjà vu hit me. And what made it so powerful was that I hadn’t smelled it in thirty years. But it was unmistakable. The place smelled just like Singletons. Clyde Singleton, creator of the joint in my home town, opened his doors in 1927. Charlie Pivnick created Cable Car Clothiers , declaring it open for business in 1946. And in both cases, it was very good.
But me at least, denotes movement and impermanence and so my characterization in the case of Cable Car is slightly incorrect. The smells didn’t need to move towards you. They were deeply permanent. Odoriferously patinated I’d say…just like the hyper-air conditioned Singletons of my youth when I’d go there with my dad on a July Saturday when he needed to pick up something he’d bought a week earlier. Bay Rum, wool, oxford cloth, leather, fifty year old fixtures and displays and cabinets and cases…glass topped or fronted…anything but fragile. Add sturdy to the broth and I’d say I’ve given my best effort to describe the key ingredients that constitute the aromatic legacy of such stalwart institutions as Cable Car Clothiers.
Alan Flusser had these things to say about Cable Car Clothiers in his 1996 book Style and the Man“Much like its namesake, this is the type of store that gives San Francisco an irresistible allure. Step through its doors and you step back in time—way back. Cable Car Clothiers is an anamoly in an age where museums or old photo albums are often the only medium able to connect one with his roots.” Further from Flusser…“Charles (Pivnick) is the Sir Lancelot of the herringbone grail.” That’s Charlie and his grandson above. And here’s a link to their story.
So I took advantage of one of my limited little windows of free time amidst my recent San Francisco meeting and walked over to Cable Car Clothiers. I’d seen their mailings a few times and had been to their website but I had to see first-hand, this Trad-Prep-Anglo outpost for myself…in situ. In addition to its tenure, its spoke in the wheel of an essentially extinct Old San Francisco…there’s gravitas. A tight little paucity of words to convey something ain’t part of my ability but I’m gonna give it a try. Cable Car Clothiers is (was) “J. Press West” – but different. Its clutteredness says hallmarked sterling and cucumber sandwiches, effortlessly offered where J. Press’ dishevelment is an equally uncontrived badge of electroplate and a Kraft cheese saddled Triscuit. The American Trad offerings abound but a key differentiator for Cable Car has been their commitment to British Goods. And yes, the previous sartorial genus-species categories deserve to be capitalized.
When I think of what old San Francisco might have been, I speculate that Herb Caen could have easily been a customer of Cable Car Clothiers. I mean where else would one want to go for the goods necessary to achieve this level of pinned particularity?
Same with Lucius Beebe but only for the panoply of accoutrement to complement his bespoken Henry Poole togs.
And one of my best buddies in the world knows exactly where to get some of the most authentic three button Ivy-Trad swathings. Here’s Toad replete in Cable Car-ness. Context is here.
BarnabyConrad, Jr. for sure, coulda kitted out courtesy of Cable Car Clothiers, for his evenings as Lord of El Matador, his North Beach whiskey hole. And Herb Caen was on many an evening, Conrad's wingman at the bar. Conrad said this about his El MatadorIt was an extraordinary time. Imagine, Noel Coward in my little rotten saloon."
Conrad would be a natural for Cable Car Clothiers. San Francisco native…prepped at Taft in Connecticut and then captained the freshman boxing team at Chapel Hill. Flirted with the painting curriculum at the University of New Mexico for a bit and then went back East to Yale and finished up. And Conrad was a fairly serious bullfighter…having faced hooved opponents in Spain, Mexico and Peru.
Conrad and Cable Car Clothiers have both been the proverbial real deal. Conrad…the antithesis of new moneyed WASP poseurs who buy more horse than they have skill to mount, then end up getting thrown and busting their asses while trying to ride with whatever Hunt they've bought their way into. Cable Car Clothiers…the antithesis of the slave-labor, sweatshop artisanal-heritage-authentic, spray-on-tan patination of the current gaggle of Trad-Ivy knock off artistes. You don’t “spray-on” the stones necessary to go toe to hoof with a freakin’ bull. The requisite stones aren’t adjective heavy like my stories and they damned sure aren’t fused and glued in a sweatshop. Cable Car Clothier Calibre Cavalry twill, hooked center-vented-lapped seamed balls. That’s what Conrad had on beneath his girlie looking matador pants in the photo above.
Oh, and the music that you hear when winnowing through the hallowed crannies of Cable Car Clothiers? It isn’t loud enough to dance to. And it’s coming from a radio. I saw it. It looked old enough to have tubes. Knobs on the face of it—not buttons to press or switches to flip. Knobs…you know, the things you turn to find a station. Probably a Public Radio station because it was playing really decent stuff that was just a bit too elegant and durable for commercial viability.
I’m in such need of clothes that my list of potential Cable Car Clothiers purchases was endless. I kid, I kid. Shut up. But I’d decided before I rounded the corner and entered the place that I’d like to have a token…a talisman from Trad-Ivy West. And much to my surprise, everything and I mean everything, in the store, was thirty percent off. You see, Cable Car Clothiers is decamping. Yep…walking away from the patinated vessel whose legacy befits the melange of Anglo British and Trad-Wasp American goods purveyed therein. They're downsizing…moving to smaller quarters. I hope that the reason for the move isn’t related to the declining appetite for…really decent stuff that was just a bit too elegant and durable for commercial viability.
I’d love to be more hopeful about such things but I can’t. I don’t have any attachment to Cable Car Clothiers per se. I mean really, I’d never been there before but now I can say that I saw the old-ish place at least once. Certainly I have a mawkish load of treacle for all of these once great places that are disappearing; sometimes abruptly evaporating or occasionally, in the case of Cable Car Clothiers, opting for Hospice as a step-down before calling it quits.
My hope is that they’ll flourish in their piccolo version of the original sanctum. But you can’t replicate decades of layers deep everythingness overnight. Sure, you could call in Ralph’s “visual team” or some of the slapdash, twee talent found via the “tumblr inspiration boards” … you know, one of those self-anointed “stylists”. My worry is that you’d get one of two things as a result. Either the dissonance that’s so painfully obvious in the new (relatively new) J. Press store on Madison Avenue. Dissonance manifest in what’s still a fairly decent pile of J. Press legacy merchandise that looks like it somehow ended up getting delivered to the wrong store. Merchandise sitting uncomfortably on the edge of a terribly sterile and brand-new chrome examining table, tentatively, in a paper gown, nervously awaiting the customer doctor. Awaiting the doctor while being attended by a jittery salesperson nurse. An attendant who feels just as out of place and tentative. Perhaps having needed to retire thirty years ago. Oh, and the other thing you'd get--music. Loud enough to dance to. Once the tubes warmed up.
So here’s to Cable Car Clothiers. To olfactory remembrances. And Patina. And music--not loud enough to dance to.

Onward. In my Cable Car Clothiers striped button down. I needed one.



Turling said...

Honestly, I think this might be one of the best posts you've written (and, you've written some doozies). I'm going to link to this one, if you don't mind.

fred johnson said...

Last time I was in SF during the 80"s I forgot to stop in, to my everlasting regret. My fondest wish would be to me Charles and just say "hello"

Beckie said...

Yes, you needed that! Wish I could see you in it - in person. Missing you down south.

gentleman mac said...

Love it! I inherited a 70s era car coat in camel with leather buttons from my father-in-law. Not a whiff of the over-the-top 70s BS, just classic timelessness. Awesome pics.

ADG said... my guest. And thanks.

Fred...better hurry.

Beck...I just dropped a letter in the mail to Jeb.

gentleman mac...what a nice legacy/connection you have via your father-in-law. and his coat.

gentleman mac said...

I guess I should have said it was from Cable Car Clothiers.

Nolan said...

Charging more (sometimes substantially more) for goods that can be found at other nice shops for "normal" prices is not a good business model. I'm not talking Ebay or Amazon. The basic worsted Southwick suit is $1300 at CCC, but it's $895 at my local shops and two for $1600 at the Brothers Brooks.

With that said, it appears to be a fine shop with a rich history. Almost like a Ben Silver or Paul Stuart.

Claire M. Johnson said...

For many people, the Chronicle died when Herb Caen stopped writing his column. On the satorial front, for women in S.F., the death knell was the closure of I. Magnin's. Not that there is a shortage of fine stores to outfit you to the nines, but none have the prestige and history of Magnin's. My cousin bought her wedding dress there, and we bridesmaids were also outfitted. The bridal salon was like stepping back into 1952. I half expected someone to hand me a pair of white gloves, and where did I put my hat? I bought my own wedding dress there, but I was something of a rebel and didn't do the white dress thang. I bought a backless, red Liz Claiborne number when Liz Claiborne wasn't designing for COSTCO. I don't know if Macy's kept the marble bathrooms when they took over the space. I haven't had the heart to look.

Main Line Sportsman said...

Any place that carries Filson is awright by me...

Anonymous said...

I loved Herb Caen. We all used to fight for his column in the morning. My high school history teachers were mentioned one time (Mr. Grant and Mr. Sherman taught Civil War history).
We still get the Chronicle, but it takes about five minutes to read.

NaturalShoulder said...

I appreciate your write up on CCC. I have never been to SF, but looked forward to visiting CCC. It sounds like the new location will not provide the same experience.

Gail, northern California said...

What a flood of memories this post brought back. I worked in the Financial District on California Street in the early 1960's. On my lunch hours I would sometimes walk as far as I could in half an hour before turning back just to window shop. This was in the days where a dress and high heels were mandatory so I'm sure I didn't get very far but it was enough. I enjoyed every minute.

San Francisco snippets: An incredible florist named Podesta-Baldacchi (a fairyland at Christmas), Gumps, a fantastic Italian restaurant that was Paoli's, the Iron Horse on Maiden Lane...sigh...twas a lovely time, a lovely age.

I remember I was in the crosswalk one day. As I looked up, I saw this beautiful Rolls Royce stopped for pedestrians. The occupant smiled and I smiled back.

Thanks, Max.

LPC said...

I always appreciate it so much when you point out that that old class, and that old set of values, wasn't just about the surface. I can put up with the merchandising if people remember the other stuff. Thank you.

NCJack said...

The two or three times I've stopped in there, I almost didn't notice the suits or "odd jackets"...the hats, umbrellas, walking sticks, shaving gear, et al just astounded me. You just don't see the accessories and auxilary in that quantity (and quality) in other places.

ADG said...

Nolan…I noticed the same thing but had a slightly different conclusion. And I noticed this only when it came to the Southwick stuff. All the other goods seemed to be priced appropriately. But here’s my slightly different take:

1. You have them at about a “$400.00 Excess” and I have them at about a “$185.00 Premium”.

2. Southwick in one store ain’t always identically Southwick in another. What I saw in CCC was a higher standard of Southwick with piece goods and details that warrant an upcharge.

3. The $1,300.00 Southwick rigs I saw were lapped seams, hooked center vented models in premium twills and these treatments always load another Benjamin or two on the wagon.

4. And finally, everything I saw included a vest which again, demands another Benjamin.

I’m not defending CCC per se but I didn’t sense much mercenary gouging therein.

Claire M. Johnson…I’m gonna do two more San Fran posts and I’ll mention Magnin’s. And unfortunately, I missed all of the columnists of Caen’s ilk. Frazier in Boston, Caen in San Fran et al. Alas, I’ve gotten to know them via books of their columns.

Main Line Sportsman…Filson yes. And on another note. I just don’t have much time to read blogs these days but somehow I ended up over at Summer is a Verb, re-reading an old Allie Von Summersverb post that mentioned me. And it was about women’s underwear. I laughed out loud when I saw the comment you left regarding the story. You said, nothing more-nothing less than… “You had me at panties”.

Anon loved Herb Caen…I don’t get any “paper” papers anymore. Sad.


GailNorCal…Great story. And I PROMISE to write about Charlotte before 2013.

LPC…Prunella, you know where I stand on this. If it was JUST about the clothes, I wouldn’t have a blog. The “other stuff” is what makes it all worthy of any comment at all.

NCJackie….I’ll spoil my next San Fran instalment with a snippet for you. I was standing in front of Tadich’s, THE, if there’s anything left of it, embodiment of old San Francisco. An older fella with a UNC—Chapel Hill hat on was standing beside me waiting like me, on his lunch partner to show. Lovely guy, lilting Southern accent…had been in San Fran for thirty years. He owned a beach house at one time, about three blocks from my parents’ place at Ocean Drive. He knew The Pad, Fat Harold’s, The Spanish Galleon. Oh, and he mentioned the second rate Beach Music/Shag joints in NC and Va Beach areas. Small world.

And yes, the CCC “gear” surpasses most of the Jermyn Street purveyors in London.

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

Nice but overrated.

DMT said...

And don't forget that Collins wrote a fantastic book on the martini.