San Francisco’s iconic Haight-Ashbury may still be a mecca for Sixties counterculture nostalgia seekers, but these days it’s mostly a hub of busy vintage clothing stores and indie fashion boutiques.
Called the Haight, its legacy comes from a time (roughly 1966 to 1969) when musicians, artists, Vietnam War protesters and others challenging the status quo laid claim to the neighborhood that leads into Golden Gate Park. Idealistic flower children saw the Haight’s abandoned Victorians and nine-block commercial drag as the perfect canvas for street theater, free clinics, free food and impromptu “happenings,” like the afternoon Beatle George Harrison showed up to play guitar in the park.
The Haight’s hippie-led renaissance was short-lived, however. By 1969, its figureheads and followers had dispersed, and group houses and storefronts were boarded up. “The neighborhood’s main attraction had gone back to being cheap rent,” wrote early Rolling Stone writer Charles Perry in his book, A History of the Haight.
Over the years, the Haight’s fortunes have improved. There’s been gentrification—the restored Victorians sell for upward of $1.5 million—and an array of independent merchants has unleashed its creativity in the early–20th century storefronts along Haight Street.
But for most merchants, aside from some head shops and souvenir vendors, the hippie era is long gone.
“The Haight is known for having a unique take on fashion, a little edgy. People don’t come here for tie-dye,” says Cat Luedtke, general manager of Wasteland, which sells a mix of castoffs from designers such as Marc Jacobs and Pucci, as well as wardrobe staples like a white-eyelet belted tunic from Soda Blu or graphic-print T-shirts by Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction or Outlaw.
Mixing with the steady stream of tourists in search of the Haight’s hippie past are three local crowds: young fashionistas on shopping missions, skateboarders and those who line up on weekends for spicy chops and eggs at the Pork Store.
On a recent Saturday it was elbow-to-elbow at Dollhouse Bettie, where proprietor Michelle Eric sells locally designed foundations and vintage styles from the Twenties to Sixties, purchased as unused stock. Recently spotted on the racks was a Thirties-style pink kimono taffeta bed jacket with lace trim by San Franciscan designer Mary Green.
Down the block, young women were two rows thick at The Piedmont, eyeing a wall display of $4 colorful plastic earrings and an assortment of other Mod accessories. The store also caters to drag queens and anyone needing glad rags—such as boas, leggings, wigs or costumes, or lingerie in lamé, tulle, sparkles and fishnet—all mostly sewn in San Francisco.
Next door at Ambiance, fashion fever also was mounting in the long, narrow shop filled with contemporary women’s fashions, from a mix of labels such as Trina Turk, Weston Wear and Zazou.
Likewise, the door kept opening at La Rosa Vintage. “We’ve been selling a lot of 1960s dresses,” says manager Oran Scott, pointing to a peach chiffon shift as a popular silhouette. The store also is known for its new Hawaiian shirts in vintage prints by the historic Japanese label Sun Surf.
“Haight Street has such a history and the foot traffic is wonderful because of all the tourists looking for something from the past,” says Sandra Durbin, store manager of Ruby, a consignment shop showcasing local apparel and jewelry designers. Some of the store’s most popular sellers include layered garments that appear as though they’ve been taken apart and sewn back together, with seams on the outside and panels of recycled and dyed silk, like those by Miranda Caroligne. “This is part of the new wave in the Bay Area. Very green,” Durbin says, referring to the current wave of social consciousness that’s pervasive in the region. Seems like some things haven’t changed.