Wilkes Bashford, a legendary retailer whose San Francisco men’s store was an exemplary example of upscale retailing and superior customer service, died at his home there on Saturday night of cancer. He was 82.
His death was confirmed by Bob Mitchell, co-president of Mitchells Family of Stores, which had purchased the Wilkes Bashford business in 2009.
“I grew up idolizing Wilkes Bashford — the store and the man,” Mitchell said. “I will be forever grateful for our friendship and partnership. We was truly a legend and pioneer, but most importantly one of the kindest men I have ever known.”
Mitchell, who was in Italy for the men’s fall shows, said the news of Bashford’s passing spread quickly through the fashion community. “Two things everybody says is that he was a legend and a kind soul,” he said. “He will be missed.”
Wilkes Bashford opened his eponymous store on Union Square under the Sutter-Stockton Garage in 1966, across from its current location, as a way to serve a “bold, conservative” customer, according to the store’s Web site. He is credited with being among the first retailers to bring many top Italian brands, including Giorgio Armani, Brioni and Versace, to the U.S.
Over the years, Bashford expanded the store, eventually moving into a seven-story townhouse in 1984. He added a women’s department in 1978 and in 2001 opened a unit in Palo Alto, Calif., in a move to cater to the Silicon Valley customer. His taste level and unique eye for fashion set him apart from his competitors and established him as a leader in the industry. He was known for hosting extravagant fashion shows in the Seventies and Eighties that showcased his store’s unique blend of sartorial and contemporary fashions, and was also a natty dresser, often making Esquire’s International Best Dressed List from 1972 on.
Like many independent retailers, Bashford hit upon hard times during the Great Recession and was forced to file bankruptcy in 2009. The Mitchell family, who had grown to know Bashford well over more than two decades of sharing buying trips and attending the same industry events, swept in to save the company six years ago.
Even though he no longer owned the business, Bashford remained intimately involved, serving as the ambassador to customers and the community. Until he became too ill, he was at the store six days a week, often accompanied by his beloved dachshund.
He was also involved in philanthropic work with Partners Ending Domestic Abuse and PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support), according to his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. He was also the president of the city’s War Memorial & Performing Arts Center Board of Trustees, where he spearheaded the creation of a war memorial known as the Passage of Remembrance, the Chronicle said.
Under the Mitchells, the two Wilkes Bashford stores underwent a massive renovation that was completed in the fall of 2012. The San Francisco flagship was “gutted, rewired and re-imagined as a stunning, metaphorical seven-story townhouse,” according to the Web site. The Palo Alto store was also given a refresh.
“My memories of Wilkes go back to the Eighties, when I was running the U.S. market,” said Gildo Zegna, chief executive officer of Ermenegildo Zegna. “Wilkes, along with Murray Pearlstein and Fred Pressman, was one of the masters of men’s luxury retailing in an age when it was all about fine taste, top-quality products and intimate service. Today, in the era of omnichannel, going back to basics reprises the legacy of these legendary merchants. I will always remember the creativity and retail leadership of Wilkes.”
“It is with deep sorrow that I have learned that the esteemed Wilkes Bashford has passed away,” said Brunello Cucinelli. “He was a human being constantly in love with fashion, gracious and distinguished, whose soul had always been the source of great thoughts. I would like to express my deep condolences to all of his family.”
Bashford was born in New York City and went to school in Cincinnati before moving to San Francisco. Details on survivors and services are currently unknown.