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Al’s Attire

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I’ll never forget the first time I walked into Al’s Attire.  A relatively new resident of San Francisco, I was still in the process of uncovering many of the city’s hidden gems, and  Al’s is definitely one of these gems.  Tucked away on Grant St. near Cafe Trieste and Vesuvio, the shop hums with the unique energy one expects to find in North Beach.

A long time collector of vintage clothes, I was first wowed by the shop’s appearance.  The window display and scattered dress forms featured unique custom-tailored pieces, many recalling updated and re-designed versions of classic wardrobe pieces spanning the late 1800s to present. English hacking coats, pencil skirts, cashmere berets, ’50s style sun dresses, and wingtip boots are but a few of the treasures I came across as I worked my way through the racks.  Looking up, the rafters of the store were packed with stacks of vintage hat boxes and mounds of gorgeous fabric bolts.  Under my feet, the well worn planks of the hardwood floor suggested that Al’s was more of an institution than a shop in North Beach.

And then there is the constant parade of customers: local beat cops needing their work caps stretched, neighbors wanting a piece of clothing altered or shoes re-soled, tourists taking pictures and asking questions, excited brides designing their wedding gowns.  I took it all in and knew I had stumbled upon something special.

Then, there’s Al.  Sincere and personable, this eccentric designer and his loyal staff provide the final dramatic flurry to the vibe of this shop.  Al, a native San Franciscan, opened his first shop in the ’80s.  The Taming of the Shoe, located in SF’s mission district, allowed him to refine his shoe-making skills.  He also at one time owned numerous vintage stores around town and did wardrobing (primarily costumes and shoes) for San Francisco’s theater companies.

Contrary to my assumption that Al’s Attire has been around forever, the North Beach shop has only been open about ten years.  In the beginning it was a more sparsely filled space, housing only a few sewing machines, local sewers, bolts of fabric, and clothing racks.

Al’s concept: Locally-made, beautifully-constructed, hand-tailored clothing.  Al doesn’t really enjoy the term vintage associated with his designs.  And the closer I looked, the better I understood why.  It’s the construction, not the era, that defines his collections.

Personalized hand-stitched labels, hidden stitching details on the underside of each coat collar, custom tailoring of each garment sold; these are unique elements you just don’t see anymore in ready-to-wear, factory produced clothing.  They are also the anal-retentive signatures of a designer obsessed with minute details like the angle and color of a single button hole.  Perhaps that’s why his designs seem vintage-inspired; local in-house design and production is a nearly extinct craft borrowing on the long forgotten practices of cobblers and tailors from a bygone era.

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