Susan: a daring style store in San Francisco

Fashion faithfuls hotfoot it to this visionary San Francisco boutique, drawn by its owner’s fierce avant-garde sensibility and eye for rising designers

Susan Foslien, proprietor of Susan
Susan Foslien, proprietor of Susan | Image: Brian Flaherty

Susan Foslien opened her first store in 1966 in Alexandria, Minnesota, when she was just 22 years old. The Gear Shop was the place to go for wide-leg jeans, skinny-rib T-shirts and trousers with zippers that ran from the waist to the hem. “I was known as the cool girl in town,” she recalls. “I drove around in a white Triumph TR3 with a red vinyl interior and my golf clubs in the back.”

Olympia Le-Tan Community Chest clutch bag, $2,495
Olympia Le-Tan Community Chest clutch bag, $2,495 | Image: Brian Flaherty

Half a century later, Foslien, who grew up on a farm and started wearing black at the age of three, is still the cool girl – but has relocated. She moved to the West Coast in the late 1970s and opened her next shop in 1983 in Burlingame, California – a wealthy, slightly preppy enclave just outside San Francisco. It was an interesting choice, as Foslien had no intention of selling the classic styles women in that area typically wore. “I put Jean Paul Gaultier cone jackets in my window – they had never seen anything like it.” Still, she was clearly onto something, as the tiny 600sq ft shop grossed $996,000 in the first year.

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A second eponymous store, on Sacramento Street in San Francisco, followed in 1989 (the Burlingame location subsequently closed), and has remained a destination for women from all walks of life, from wealthy philanthropists to techies to the more expected creatives, looking for what Foslien describes as “interesting clothes that they’ve probably not seen elsewhere”. She was the first US-based buyer for Junya Watanabe, for example. “There were five American stores at that first show. They all said, ‘Oh no’, and I said, ‘Oh yes!’” She was also one of only two US stores to originally carry Vetements, and introduced the Bay Area to the Antwerp Six (including Ann Demeulemeester and “seventh” member, Martin Margiela) as well as Simone Rocha.

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For autumn/winter, Foslien, whose daily uniform includes Nike Air Max sneakers, a T-shirt of her own design and something Japanese (Comme des Garçons, Undercover or Junya Watanabe), is excited about pieces that she says are “unusual and won’t be on every online site”. They include a below-the-knee, red plaid Simone Rocha  dress ($1,460) with long black bows that she says is an “easy shape” styled with the designer’s black and white lace-up brogues ($1,125) with a Perspex heel. She’s a fan of Olympia Le-Tan’s Community Chest clutch bag ($2,495) because “she only makes so many, they are numbered, beautifully made and will last forever”. She says an attention-grabbing floral sequinned tracksuit (top, $2,400, and bottoms, $2,250) by Ashish “looks like you’re wearing a whole garden”. 

When the temperature starts to drop, she’d recommend Junya Watanabe’s faux-fur animal-print coat ($2,275). The choices are quite bold for a woman who typically wears all black. “I understate how I look because the shop is not about me, I’m just the vehicle,” she explains. “My slogan for life is: ‘I don’t want to go to the party. I just want to dress the guests’.”

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