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San Francisco Is a Fashion Incubator. Yes, You Read That Right

Written by Julie ZigorisPublished May 15, 2023 • 5:30am
Students in the Fashion Design 4: Sustainability Studio class taught by Lynda Grose at the California College of the Arts prepare for a classwide critique of their final assignments at the San Francisco campus on May 3. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Most people don’t associate San Francisco with fashion. Capital of the slouchy tech worker, the Bay Area is known for its stereotypical uniform of a T-shirt from a cryptically named startup with a hoodie and jeans. We are the Patagonia bargain bin to New York’s couture runway. 

Yet while Paris and Milan have a corner on the art of high fashion, San Francisco has a hold on something that, in the end, may be much more important: the science and technology to rethink how clothing is made—from start to finish, from the materials that comprise it to how it ends up in your closet. The city has also developed its own style: a blend of workwear, smart casual and athleisure. 

The separation of San Francisco from fashion hubs like New York and Los Angeles—coupled with its Silicon Valley ethos—means that the rules of the traditional fashion world don’t apply, as the industry seeks to transform itself within a world of globalized e-commerce that is poisoning the planet.

“In other parts of the country, it’s like, ‘I'm going to use sustainable fabric,’” said Brooke McEver, director of production innovation at the custom denim company Unspun. “But in San Francisco, it's like, ‘Let's start over. Let's be crazy and invent a new manufacturing system, or invent a new material.’” 

Denim-inspired wall art hangs at Unspun’s headquarters. | Noah Berger for The Standard

The ability to reenvision what clothing can be has deep roots in San Francisco, where heritage brands like Levi’s, Gap and Esprit were born. But today, what sets the Bay Area apart is its ability to fuse innovation with technology. 

“Even engineers are open to trying new things,” said Molly Morse, co-founder of Mango Materials, a Palo Alto company that makes biodegradable plastic suitable for apparel. “It’s the best ecosystem to start a first-of-a-kind technology,” she said of the Bay Area. 

Mary Sue Papale, founder of the San Francisco-based shoe brand Suggies, which makes footwear with an outsole of natural rubber and rice husk, cites the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity of the city.

“Look at Levi Strauss making a pair of jeans—that happened here,” Papale said.   

Her Smart Materials 

In the decades since the near-collapse of the American textile industry, a new approach for making clothes has emerged—one that turns toward technology to address the polluting manufacturing practices associated with the rise of fast fashion. 

Berkeley-based Bolt Threads makes faux leather out of mycelium from mushrooms and silk from spiderwebs. Founder Dan Widmaier, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and chemical biology from the University of California San Francisco, founded the company in 2009.  

AI may hog much of the attention, but the Bay Area is brimming with revolutionaries in the world of clothing. VitroLabs in Milpitas grows leather from cow biopsies. Mango Materials in Palo Alto makes biodegradable plastics suitable for apparel, initially developing its technology at Stanford University and optimizing the process in Albany and at Silicon Valley Clean Water in Redwood City, where they had access to lab space and equipment. 

“The talent available in California, with the culture of innovation and the comfort with setting out into the unknown, nurtured our technology,” Morse said. 

Rubi Labs in San Leandro creates cloth from compressed carbon dioxide. The company was founded by two sisters who already had a rich background in the apparel industry—they grew up in Northern California in the family that began the Bebe fashion line, whose first store opened in San Francisco in 1976 on Polk Street and went on to become a worldwide brand before shuttering stores and pivoting to online-only in 2017. 

Students in the Fashion Design 4: Sustainability Studio class taught by Lynda Grose at the California College of the Arts prepare for a classwide critique. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Tony Murray, an adjunct professor at California College of the Art’s fashion department, cites innovative material development—in part, thanks to biomimicry, which uses nature as a model to solve humans’ problems—as one of the factors that makes San Francisco’s apparel scene so unique. 

Murray called the Bay Area a hotbed of innovation and noted that representatives from these groundbreaking businesses come in to speak to the students, inspiring another generation of local change-makers. 

“It makes San Francisco totally different from New York,” he said. “They might have a larger garment industry, but they don’t have this type of innovation going on.” 

Reweaving the Apparel Industry 

But there’s another company doing more than just reimagining materials. In fact, it’s re-creating the entire process of making and selling clothes. 

The founders of San Francisco-based Unspun wanted to create a new denim supply chain that’s on-demand and customized to achieve zero waste, all while reimagining the retail experience, too. 

“This was the perfect place for us, because the Bay Area's really open to radical ideas,” McEver, the director of production innovation, said. After initially accepting her position, she thought she might not have a job in three months but was too excited to care. 

That was nearly five years ago. Unpsun is expanding, and it’s set to move in July from its SoMa headquarters to a micro-factory in Emeryville where the company will have three 3D weaving machines. 

“Threads go in; a pant leg comes out,” McEver said, explaining the company’s proprietary prototype named Vega after the goddess of weaving. You custom pick your fit, color and thread—essentially becoming the designer of your own jeans—and the whole process takes three weeks and costs around $200. 

Unspun is working to reinvent both ends of the supply chain, changing how clothes are produced and how they’re purchased. Its 3D weaving machine skips the steps of measuring and cutting, with no inseams and outseams to sew, which means there’s no material waste. On the retail side, a customer does a body scan and gets a pair of jeans custom-made for their figure. 

A composite image shows Unspun co-founder Kevin Martin and a staged demonstration of a 3D scanner being used to measure a customer's body for custom-fitted denim. | Noah Berger for The Standard

The way shopping works today, McEver said, “people are buying 10 pairs of jeans, but they're actually only wearing two, and then they're throwing them out.” Unspun’s founders hope that with custom jeans, there’s no need to hold inventory—and people will be more excited about the clothes they design. 

The Bay Area helped Unspun launch not only because of the freedom to think radically but also because of the deep pockets of its investors, including the San Francisco-based venture capitalist firm Fifty Years

It might be the most radical local brand, but it’s not the only one leading with sustainability. Cuyana, founded by two women 10 years ago, has the tagline “fewer, better.” The company is committed to selling through 90% of the goods it makes, as opposed to the industry average of 60%. Marine Layer offers a T-shirt buyback program, and Allbirds recently launched a zero-carbon shoe and expanded into its first East Bay location in April. Rothy’s makes washable shoes and bags with recycled plastic—and its very first brick-and-mortar store opened on Fillmore Street. 

The entrance of the Allbirds store in San Francisco | Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Fashion’s Dirty Secret 

Sustainability has become a fashion buzzword, with many brands touting their supposedly “green” products. This is in part linked to fashion’s dirty secret: The industry generates more carbon dioxide than international travel and shipping combined. Clothes have become so cheap and disposable that many are worn a handful of times and thrown away. (More than 11 million tons of textiles ended up in landfills in 2018 according to the Environmental Protection Agency, most often in the Global South.)  

Laborers work at a dye factory in Narayanganj, Bangladesh. | Piyas Biswas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“We have to change the way we’re making clothes in the world,” said Elaine Hamblin, the founder and designer of Kosa apparel, who has also worked at SF heritage brands like Esprit and Levi’s. “Our processes are destroying other countries faster than our own.” 

Any attempt at sustainability is necessarily complicated—no matter how good your intentions—as there’s always tension between consumer demands, feasibility and profit. 

Textile specialist Myrrhia Mealey began her career with hand-knitting patterns, started a clothing manufacturing operation and then moved to helping develop yarn in a lab at Bolt Threads. She now works at Google as a knitting engineer to create fabrics used in hardware products like speaker fabric and watch straps.

“Climate-beneficial fibers haven’t scaled yet,” she said. “Google decided post-consumer recycled polyester is the best choice to meet their sustainability goals, performance demands and customer expectations.” 

Part of the reason climate-beneficial fibers haven’t scaled—yet—is a story that begins all the way back in the 1990s. 

Viriditas Farm, an organic cotton farm in the Capay Valley in California, is where Foxfibre naturally colored cotton is bred. | Courtesy Sally Fox

As the country's first producer of organic cotton, Sally Fox developed a market for the product in the early 1980s. She grows cotton in different colors that are naturally pest-resistant, eliminating the need to dye and use pesticides (her cotton was used in the Levi’s “Naturals” line). She has nearly half a century of experience in the apparel industry and sees it from a completely different vantage point than designers and CEOs. 

Fox witnessed a dramatic shift in the textile industry in the mid-1990s, when the production of clothing became concentrated in Asia. Before that, the apparel industry was regional, with separate textile centers in North America, Europe and Asia. 

“There was a co-op of growers in Texas that owned their own denim mill, and they grew the cotton, spun it and wove it for Levi Strauss,” Fox said. “The cotton was grown, woven, cut and sewn all in Texas for Levi’s USA.” 

In countries like Bangladesh, there’s no Clean Water Act regulating the expensive process of proper dye disposal, which costs twice as much as dyeing clothes does. Soon, all the big apparel brands were scrambling to keep up with the cost-cutting, according to Fox. 

“The U.S. used to produce 97% of its textile, and then, boom, it went down to 3%,” Fox said. “I went from having 38 mil customers to zero in two years.” 

It wasn’t just in the U.S.: Italian mills that had been around for five generations suddenly went out of business, and Fox herself went from making $10 million in sales to nearly going bankrupt. 

“The money comes from ripping off people all over the world and dumping dye waste into the river,” Fox said.

Next Gen Fashion

Freedom, technology and innovation trickle down to the people whose job it is to imagine the future: students. 

At San Francisco’s California College of the Arts, the fashion department doesn’t mourn the fact the city is not a couture epicenter like Los Angeles or New York—they celebrate it. 

“I’m so glad I’m here,” said the school’s chair of fashion design, Gregory Climer. “It’s small and it’s special, and we do our own thing.” 

Climer came to CCA from New York’s Parsons School of Design. The art school is expanding, with plans to open a new campus by the fall semester. 

“Our students don’t feel beholden to what’s happening at the big houses,” Climer said. “And I love them for it.” 

He said this is, in part, what makes the scene here so different: the freedom to do your own thing. The fashion design program at CCA currently enrolls around 60 students. 

Mary Elsbury, who came to CCA after studying fashion in London and Los Angeles, said that San Francisco has several features that set it apart: the political landscape, sustainability and material choices. 

At the students’ end-of-year critique in May, it was apparent that sustainability and free thinking were on display. One student presented a pair of pants that became shorts and a skirt, offering three uses for a decidedly gender-less garment. Another student proposed custom additions to clothing akin to car modifications—with the sense that you satisfy the emotional craving to buy something new, without having to purchase new clothes.

“The idea is to build it, not buy it,” the student explained. 

A third took the emotional attachment to clothing even further—and more literally—by hand-embroidering customer-selected quotes and concepts onto recycled clothing, creating a new garment without adding to waste. 

“We are consumers of meaning more than anything else,” she said. 

Perhaps that’s why people in the Bay Area tend to care more about what they purchase and where it comes from than do people in other places—and why this region is on the forefront of changing how clothes are created, constructed and sold. 

“There’s a market here for sustainable products like nowhere else,” Mealey said. 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com


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