San Francisco luxury clothier Wilkes Bashford has died after battling prostate cancer for nearly a year. He was 82.
Originally a men’s store, Wilkes Bashford opened his eponymous store in 1966 under the Sutter-Stockton garage and was the first in San Francisco to promote an aesthetic he called “bold conservative,” carrying Brioni, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Versace and other designer brands, a contrast to the counterculture, hippie clothing of the day. He added womenswear in 1978 and later moved nearby to 375 Sutter Street.
“I first met Wilkes in the late 1960s, while I was working for Ralph Lauren, and Wilkes had decided to open a Ralph Lauren shop at his old Sutter Street location,” says industry icon and consultant Joe Barrato. “From that moment on Wilkes became a trusted friend and mentor. Visionary merchant and style icon, Wilkes became one of the most influential retailers in America. His store always offered a combination of classic and avant-garde style, always blending the two to create a surpassing ease of compatibility.”
He was also known for staging glitzy fashion shows in the 1970s and ’80s, and also engaging in philanthropic work for Partners Ending Domestic Abuse and PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support), among other causes. He was an ardent fan of dachshunds, which he kept as pets. His latest, Duchie, was a constant companion at work, sitting in his office every day.
“Wilkes and I go far back: when we first met, I was a buyer for Filene’s Boston and he was the men’s market rep for AMC,” says Phil Miller, former chairman and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue. “Of course he went on to create his own history as a unique retailer with immense taste, curiosity, and vision. He was always able to sense fashion’s future and launched many design careers in the process. Even when we built our own Saks men’s store in San Francisco, he remained a great champion and colleague. He was a colorful guy, a visionary, a gentleman and a very good friend.”
After the downturn in the economy in 2008, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009. His company was acquired by the Mitchells Family of Stores, which invested millions in a remodel of the seven-story store. This allowed Bashford to remain president of the store, and until recently, he was still there six days a week, waiting on customers.
“We all have lost a fabulous friend and business colleague,” says chairman of Mitchells Family of Stores Jack Mitchell in an email from Italy early this morning. “Wilkes was a genuine icon and legend and leader in our industry. He pioneered during his business career the men’s designer business in the San Francisco Bay area. During his last years he was a loyal ambassador working often 6 days a week and supported our family… in his store. He was a bright man. It was a pleasure and honor to work with him for the last years of his journey. All his friends here in Italy are also saddened …we all have warm fond personal and professional memories surrounding him. We all will miss him… A lot!”
“When we first launched MR magazine in the early ’90s, I was in San Francisco and stopped in to see Wilkes without an appointment,” says MR magazine editor-in-chief Karen Alberg Grossman. “I would have been delighted with five minutes of his time; instead, he spent a good two hours with me, telling me his story, showing me around each spectacular floor of beautiful clothing and sharing his passion for luxury menswear. He was a wealth of information, a real class act!”
“The highlight of my career was sitting between Wilkes Bashford and Murray Pearlstein (Louis Boston) at a lunch years ago,” says Bob Beauchamp, former fashion director, GQ and Esquire. “They were such old friends and shared so much information so passionately, it was a pleasure just to sit and listen. I also remember having lunch with him at his usual restaurant near the store: he’d sit at a window table, always the same one, always the same lunch, the same waiter. The only surprise (to me) was when the owner came over after lunch and sat down to play a half hour of dollar poker.”
“Menswear in America owes so very much to this brave pioneer, his extraordinary vision and aspirational taste was a game changer for the entire country,” says Alexander Julian. “He presciently blended the best of the World with the best of American style and fostered the future. I owe my entire career to him; he was my “founding father”. He was my first believer. His opening order put me in business. He was THE BEST.”
“Working for Wilkes was my first job: I was 18 and Wilkes had bought a little menswear store called Town & Country that he ultimately turned into one of the most dynamic men’s stores in the country,” says Wally Palmer. “He was my mentor. I think his talent was twofold: always being on the forefront of fashion, and always finding the right people–young guys with both talent and enthusiasm. He was a very intelligent man, with a sharp and sometimes wicked sense of humor. But he was also a tough taskmaster and a very demanding boss, which is how I learned discipline.”
“He was such a strong force in my life that I am having trouble grasping that he’s gone,” adds Palmer. “But bottom line, he lived a good and prosperous life and had tremendous impact on the city of San Francisco, and on the entire menswear world.”
Arrangements have not yet been announced. Check back for updates.