When you open the freshly painted red door with the gold lettering and step inside the elegant space of Minxy on 24th Street, you are suddenly immersed in the distinctive musty scent of vintage clothing shops. It’s the odor of a thousand memories embodied in fashions from vanished eras. “I enjoy the history that’s in each piece,” says owner Tuc Luong, who opened her boutique in October 2010. “I like to think about who wore it, where did she go, what did she look like, who did she meet? It gives me a chill.”
Luong is wearing what she calls a “very Michael Jacksonish” red leather skirt. Born in 1979, the style-savvy owner of Minxy says, “I feel that many people in my generation are drawn to the fashion of the 80s. They remember the influences of rock stars on MTV.” Although clothes from the glitzy 1980s, along with cowgirl boots, stand out in Luong’s carefully assembled collection, she has pieces to appeal to every generation. “I think the clothing brings back a remembrance of…” she begins, then acts out: “Ohh! I remember this from back when I was 13 or 14 years old.”
Luong enthusiastically shows me quaint old labels hidden inside garments from the 1960s and ‘70s: Joni Blair of California, I. Magnin, You Babes, Livingston Bros. of San Francisco, Rodeo Girls of America. “The labels are unique, and they all have a little bit of history in them. We don’t see stuff like that any more. Maybe it was just less mass-produced.” These labels evoke not only vanished retailers and manufacturers, but more importantly, a whole vanished fashion system that was overturned during the 1980s.
From 1910 through the1930s, Jewish, Italian and Mexican immigrant garment workers in the United States fought for living wages and humane working conditions. For several decades after, labels signified the union shops that produced American fashions. But in the 1980s, giant retailers began outsourcing production to sweatshops in Mexico or overseas, and those old-style companies could not compete. Joni Blair Inc. lost its trademarks in 1984, and in 1986 a succession of conglomerates gobbled up the posh I. Magnin store on Union Square.
So the memories embodied in these vintage fashions are always mixed. A fur stole from the Livingston Bros. store recalls a time when well-off San Franciscans didn’t think about animal rights, but also when a garment union protected workers’ rights.
A converse set of memories come from a dainty Joni Blair prom dress, vintage early 1960s, in white cotton flowered print with a bubble skirt and modestly scooped neck. The dress may have been made in an L.A. union shop, but its look exemplifies an era when young women were compelled to embody the national fantasy of American innocence. The teenager who wore that perky white dress on a warm June night around 1960 could not imagine that 50 years later, on a cold December day in the Mission, a woman law student would slip on the same dress in a vintage shop and chat with the shop’s female entrepreneur. Even more surprising to that young woman from 1960 would be that the two women on Mission Street, with their hard-won accomplishments, were filling the most natural roles in the world.
Luong’s recommendation for muting what she calls the “outrageously bright colors” of 1980s styles applies to fashion memories as well: “The key,” she advises, “is to take one statement piece and tone it down with calmer contemporary pieces. Don’t wear it the way you did back then.”