THE cherry on top of 2008, the year that the predatory capitalism virus binged itself to death by accidentally killing its host, was what I dubbed “The Christmas That Nobody Wanted.”
“I think everyone is finally burned out on ‘stuff,’ ” my uncle Rick said. “People are realizing that having 1,300 teddy bears didn’t make their life any better.”
I bought my first good belt — sturdy, plain, timeless — at MAC (Modern Appealing Clothing) on Post Street in San Francisco in 1993. At the time, I was way too broke for this reckless expenditure. But I still have the belt, and I still wear it.
Today’s MAC is a 3,500-square-foot shop in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. In the foyer a huge farm table holds a sprawling prehistoric pleasure garden of potted cacti and euphorbia from Flora Grubb Gardens.
MAC, run by Ben Ospital and his sister, Chris (their mother, too, has a hand in the business), has been a beloved San Francisco retail destination for more than 25 years. Arguably, the core attraction has always been the family’s gleefully eccentric personalities, their affection for quality and their dedicated cultivation of lesser-known talents, which has kept the store vibrant as long as its doors have been open.
In 2007, MAC celebrated the holiday season by offering small gifts made within 100 miles of the store. For 2008, their motif was “Artists Like the Holidays, Too,” a collection of works ranging from $25 to $50, all original pieces by local artists. MAC took no commission; 100 percent of the proceeds went to the artists.
“Art has always sustained us through depressions,” Mr. Ospital said, offering me a shot of artisanal chestnut soup, imported every day from the celebrity chef next door, Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake.
Let it not be said that MAC doesn’t also go out of its way to support literature. A book on Geoffrey Beene by Kim Hastreiter of Paper magazine was on display; also “Poems about anything for $25” by Zach Houston, a local poet who writes wild, wobbling lines on a vintage red Olivetti typewriter right in the store. A selection of hand-painted bottles of homemade (and allegedly drinkable) moonshine by the artist Ben Shaffer was also included in the $25 to $50 gift range.
In the last two decades, Mr. Ospital has done considerable work for the Creative Growth Art Center, an organization that supports disabled artists. His appreciation for the work of these artists is genuine and wholly infectious. One of Creative Growth’s rising stars, the self-taught William Scott, was commissioned to draw the MAC holiday card: a slightly too glamorous pencil portrait of Barack Obama, next to the words CITIZEN PRESIDENT in block letters — an image, ever so slightly off, that blazes with unfiltered pride.
The clothing in the shop shows a clear bias toward Belgian and Japanese designers. Chris Ospital walked me through her current favorites: a collection by Dirk Van Saene of whiplash-collar sweaters, massive mohair coats in bright Muppet colors, and wool party dresses exaggerated into primary triangles with big bows.
“All the Belgians are ‘on the bow’ right now,” Ms. Ospital said. “See? You’re a present!”
She showed me how one reversible gown with an obi-size Audrey Hepburn bow could also be used as a kind of fashionable arm restraint.
Other items beloved of Ms. Ospital included a pair of Martin Margiela cotton leggings in a faux fishnet print, and a Tsumori Chisato skirt inspired by the movie “Helvetica,” featuring the designer’s name, laser-cut and layered into black Helvetica frills ($748). “Fonts are the new accessory!” Ms. Ospital enthused.
MAC has a truly superlative men’s section, with selections from Engineered Garments, which has rediscovered Woolrich Woolen Mills and made masculine plaid shirts worthy of Jack London. “Sometimes it takes a Japanese man to reinterpret American style and show what’s good about it,” Mr. Ospital said.
This statement also held true for Yoshi Kondo’s beguiling reinterpretations of classic wool melton schoolgirl coats, which Mr. Ospital described as “French ingénue peacoats for the girl who shops at L. L. Bean but is also a stripper.”
I was taken by the work of Ryan Roberts, a men’s designer specializing in Italian knits. I bought his black wool sweat-kilt ($198) and would have bought the matching zipper jacket had it not been $400 (a fair price had my wardrobe budget not already been damaged beyond sanity this year).
“Our model is really the farmers’ market,” said Mr. Ospital, who speaks in free-associative bouquets of enthusiastic appreciation and well-tuned mission statements. “The farmers honor labor. They sell the freshest stuff at its most perfect point in time. Disposable fashion is like fast food! We honor the hands that make clothes. Like ‘slow food’? We like to think of our clothes as ‘slow clothes.’ We’re not fashion victims. You want to find that jacket that is your most perfect tomato, and wear it for 20 years. If it’s all going to end up as landfill anyway, it should all be really good-looking.”
How does one reconcile the relatively expensive price of perfect tomatoes and/or perfect clothing?
The answer, according to Mr. Ospital, lies in one’s personal values. “We have customers who buy a Jil Sander coat, then to save money they’ll stay home at night and learn to make beer.”
At the finish of any regrettable life episode, we invariably go back to basics to distinguish values that are real and indissoluble from those that are false and temporary. In doing so, we rediscover joys we forgot during our manic race to the dead end.
MAC is a good place to remember that you really can’t buy style. Style is evolutionary, egalitarian, deeply curious, often weird and always personal — the accidental costume of any character with a wide-open mind, enjoying a constant bumper crop of new discoveries. But for those having trouble finding their own inspirations, MAC has almost always been there.
387 Grove Street (between Gough and Franklin Streets), San Francisco; (415) 863-3011.