Intensely absorbed at the sewing machine in her studio, her delicate features furrowed in concentration, milliner Elina Tachkova is creating a hat. But when she hears her hat store fill with customers, she passes through the connecting door, instantly transformed into the warmly smiling merchant.
Does the creative designer and busy owner of Alternative Design Workshop Hats feel divided between two worlds?
“You know, I love making hats,” she says. “I just want to be in my studio sewing all day, but I also need to have contact with people and I need to hear what my customers are saying. I need to hear constructive criticism. Many of my hats have evolved from comments that people make.”
The double space of ADS Hats at 418 Valencia Street reflects Tachkova’s irresolvable desire to be the solitary artist and also interact with her customers. The large bright store area has the inviting air of a successful commercial venture. Its long side wall is a giant mosaic formed, in Tachkova’s words, of all kinds of hats, from “classic berets to beanies to sunhats to cocktail hats, cashmere hats that roll up, and different styles of 1920s cloche hats — evening ones with feathers to everyday ones that you can wear in the rain.”
The opposite store wall displays exquisitely sculpted and adorned hats by local designer Tricia Roush, as well as basic hats by U.S. manufacturers. At the back wall, white French doors with filmy white curtains separate the store from the small windowless studio, where every inch of wall, shelving and table presents a wholly different mosaic. This one is formed from spools of thread, facings, ribbons, paper hat patterns, skeins of yarn, yet more hats and bags, bags, bags of fabric, all centered around the sewing machine.
Tachkova says that customers can’t resist peeking through the filmy barrier. “They hear the sewing machine and are fascinated. It’s hard to imagine that it’s still made by hand and locally.”
This possibility of a veiled glimpse from the space of consumption into the mysterious realm of garment production distinguishes ADS Hats from your ordinary mall stores. There, garment marketing excludes any hint of its production in faraway factories. That kind of merchandising belongs to the phenomenon that Karl Marx famously called commodity fetishism, whereby garments seem to come into being on store racks and shelves through their own magic power, rather than through the work of seamstresses in distant lands.
Aware of her difference, Tachkova offers customers another kind of magical feeling — that of a direct connection to her as creator, who can, as if in an abracadabra moment, bring them the hat of their desire.
“A lot of manufacturers will create a style and then they’ll discontinue it. I can reproduce my hats. People have come to me with photographs of themselves in a hat that they bought from me 10 years ago and said, ‘You’ve got to make this hat for me again.’ I have all the patterns that I’ve had for 16 years, and I’ll remember the hat they bought a decade ago and the conversation we had around it.”
Tachkova returns the loyalty of her local customers with a deeply rooted love for the Mission and its history. “There’s something about this neighborhood,” she says. “When I started on 18th Street, most of my customers were my neighbors, artists and writers who lived here. This neighborhood was considered sketchy and dangerous, and folks who supported my business in the beginning often had to save for a couple of months to buy a hat. That meant a lot to me, artists supporting artists.”