SoMa’s secret fashion alley
I’m really into documenting the living history of this neighborhood, and the alley I live on is a great example of that.
If you walk down Washburn Street not knowing what to look for, the alley looks like any other in SOMA. But just like LA has its Fashion District, SoMa has a fashion alley and this is it.
Let’s start at the top of the alley.
As you turn the corner onto Washburn from Mission Street, there’s a three-story building on the corner that is painted close to fluorescent yellow. The first story is plastered with a gigantic mural that has against all odds survived without being majorly tagged. This building is home to Native Graphix, a screen printing shop that is staffed by volunteers from the at-risk youth program it shares a floor with. They will print anything for a fee. Come in with your design and a week later you’ll have a stack of freshly printed shirts.
As you continue down the alley, you’ll hit Kryolan. Kryolan is a makeup company based out of Germany, but they have a small storefront and production center on Washburn Street. You would be hard pressed to find a drag queen in San Francisco who doesn’t have at least a few jars of Kryolan’s beard-covering wax in their kits. A lifetime supply of Kryolan makeup was even provided as a grand prize for the televised drag queen competition “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” A large chunk of that makeup probably came out of this behemoth white and blue warehouse.
Right after the halfway home on the middle of the block you’ll find the crown jewel of fashion alley. If the big warehouse roll up door is shut you would probably walk right past it. The only clue about what is inside is a faded stencil on the door that reads “SAN FRANCISCO OPERA COSTUME SHOP.” This is where the ornate costumes for the San Francisco Opera are born. Yards of silk and bags of sequins enter this industrial looking shop and emerge as glittering pieces of art. If you’re lucky you can catch the crew on days when they’re loading out for a new production. It isn’t often you get to see a rack of period costumes rolling across the sidewalk that is usually strewn with broken glass and discarded syringes.
The last part of the tour isn’t especially remarkable, however it is an oddly appropriate contrast to the opulence of the costume shop. Located directly across the street from the gems and flash of the opera costumes is a drab looking warehouse. The front of the building is a sewing machine repair shop, and then the warehouse in the back is what I lovingly refer to as the sweatshop. When the roll up door is open you can see why. Rolls of cheap fabric stacked four high often fall out the door when one of the workers emerges for a cigarette. Tiny asian women hover over rows of sewing machines as shirtless men walk across work tables cutting parachutes of fabric down to manageable sizes. The racks towards the front of the shop reveal that what they’re making isn’t destined for the runways of Parisian fashion houses. These are the types of garments destined for the dollar store. Cheap, utilitarian, simple. They also seem to do a good business doing outsourced sewing for local designers, judging from the stylish women that occasionally swing by to pick up big bundles of dresses and coats.
So, now you know a little more about my alley. I’m hoping to do a few more entries like this in the future. Also now when I start to go on about the hidden identity of my alley, you can tell me to shut it because you’ve already read about it here. Hooray!