NJAL: San Francisco Knows How

[Originally published on Not Just A Label, 8th May 2013]

San Francisco Knows How: A Letter From

- by Camilla Sampson

San Francisco is enveloped in artistic history, liberalism and a sense of ‘anything goes.’ In contrast to Los Angeles’ California Girl, San Francisco does not possess a singular overriding style.

NOT JUST A LABEL contributing writer Camilla Sampson, reflects upon her year savouring San Francisco, the creative core of California.

After a catastrophic earthquake struck the bay in 1906, San Francisco adopted the nickname - The City that Knows How. In the decades that followed, a new city regrew from the rubble; a city of elaborate architecture and sprawling hills, embraced by the Pacific Ocean. Its mysterious fog is a sight to behold as it rolls in in the evenings, seeping throughout the city's crests and engulfing the streets in a eerie white mist.

These days, the city is made up of numerous neighbourhoods each with their own aesthetic identity, yet the ideals are still shared. Alexei Angelides, the owner of Fiat Lux, one of San Francisco’s many eclectic boutique shops is situated on Church Street. He perceives the city to be made up of ‘three or four neighbourhoods - Noe, Castro, Lower Haight and Mission’, making the city ‘part classy, part grit, a little raw and no bullshit.’ Each area has its own identity, yet works in harmony, drawing the city together and ultimately creating something incredibly progressive and diverse.

The credit for this liberalism roots back to San Francisco’s cultural background. In particular the Beat Generation, a creative movement ignited by a group of American post-World War Two writers, and renowned for causing cultural dispute by challenging the America’s rigid, black and white society of the 1950s.

Head over to North Beach and you are faced with plenty of remnants from the Beat Generation. One reminder is the City Lights Bookstore, renowned for publishing one of the movement’s most controversial texts, Howl, which faced an obscenity trial when it was printed in 1956.

The city is sometimes more revered for its links to Silicon Valley and tech start-ups. Alexei points out that these businesses have allowed ‘more financial fluidity’ amongst San Francisco’s residents, ‘and a wider range of prices’ for designers and stores to work towards. Consequently it has opened up creative opportunities on all sides, similar to the encouragement that comes from the city’s Academy of Art University, whose graduate show took place this week.

The institute shares fashion shows, gallery openings and much more with the city’s residents – drawing a parallel between student and city. Its attendees undoubtedly add to the city’s artistic influence, adding to both business and community, propelling it into the forefront of modern art and culture.

The city’s artistic engineers are drawn together by a prominent coffee shop culture, where individuals can harbour their sense of free-thinking in writing, poetry and art.

The Mission District, is home to both the city’s oldest standing building and the Four Barrel; an upmarket coffee company where you are undoubtedly going to be served by, and seated next to, someone who is particularly pierced, tattooed and well groomed.

Across town the Haight-Ashbury district is a lot more colourful, and in many ways, a little chaotic from where It has clung onto its origins of hippiedom.

San Francisco’s coffee shops are based even more so around the community, where Cafés such as Coffee to the People and the People’s Cafë, are all about staging live art and encouraging creative community projects.

The city's neighbourhoods may hold their own identities, but a crossover and fusion of cultural and historical background still remain, reflecting local style and innovation.  

San Francisco and its artistic inhabitants are all about the breaking down of boundaries. One Fiat Lux designer, Daisy San Luis, manages to draw on both ‘vintage-inspired designs and old West style jewellery’, somehow managing to traverse the boundary between being ‘classic but still modern.’  

It is hard not to be unique in a city which provides one-off pieces made by local designers – often not stocked anywhere else in the world. There is an endless variety of thrift stores, and those stores that are more designer or independent boutiques, still tend to stock locally sourced designers.

This is the case with Fiat Lux, where ‘everyone is locally sourced.’ Alexei believes in representing the idea ‘that everybody who comes in here, is a maker of some sort.’

The boutique reflects San Francisco’s ‘self-made spirit and sense of DIY - a quality which really sets it apart from LA and NYC.’ It is this lack of mass production and innovation that makes San Francisco distinctive. Fiat Lux ‘preserves that idiosyncratic feature of the city but adds sharp and more fashionable looks...we make things ex nihilo here,’ - something perfectly apparent in the butterfly wing earrings and tiny skulls encapsulated in brass squares that I covet so much.

Looking back, my pre-conceptions of San Francisco, revolved around tourist traps: The Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square. Here was where I expected my first hotspots to be...and they were, yet ten months on I've discovered a more creative allure to this city.

As an imaginative individual making the big move to stay in San Francisco for a year, I yearned for more of a ‘living environment’ that revolved around particular creative sensibilities. What this year has taught me is that not only am I in completely the right place for such sensibilities to flourish, but what I have been offered and have experienced, is more than I could ever have hoped for. In terms of creativity, San Francisco truly is the city that knows how.

Camilla Sampson