By Sandra Swanson
Photographing Susan Foslien for a story about her in the Nob Hill Gazette is impossible: The low-key independent retailer, who owns Susan and sister boutique The Grocery Store in Presidio Heights, prefers to work behind the scenes—up close and personal with the world’s top designers and fashionistas—rather than have her picture splashed across the pages of a glossy magazine. She even turned down a similar request from Vogue (an opportunity the rest of us would trade our Birkins for).
And yet, Foslien—who’s quietly built an international reputation as an impeccable curator of high-fashion, idiosyncratic designer apparel—has graciously invited the Gazette into her Laurel Heights apartment for conversation and lunch from Sociale, a restaurant next door. She gutted and redesigned the space, dressing it with one-of-a-kind finds sourced at Paris flea markets and galleries. A framed drawing of her by Christian Lacroix hangs on the wall. “I’ve stopped coloring my hair,” says Foslien, who wears her super-straight gray tresses in a bob-and-bangs. But she’s colorful in every other way, from her strong opinions on style—what’s cool and interesting and what’s neither—to the cheeky streetwear she’s sporting.
According to Foslien, style is indefinable but easy to spot: It’s singular, not trendy. It involves unerring intuition, distinctive taste and a rebel spirit that defies convention. Her look, on this February afternoon: an oversized black Vetements hoodie, with an image of Rose and Jack from Titanic on the front and the words “COMING SOON” in large red letters on the sleeves. Black Junya Watanabe harem pants complete the ensemble, and resting on her nose is a pair of witty specs by bespoke eyewear artisan Naoki “Nacky” Nakagawa of Nackymade, who does twice-yearly trunk shows at Foslien’s namesake Sacramento Street store. She warns, “I don’t talk about my customers. And I do not talk about the industry.”
Growing up in Minnesota, young Foslien marched to her own beat; her mother, Dagmar, encouraged a creative streak when her daughter began drawing at 3 years old and sewing clothing at age 6. “I didn’t want to wear what everyone else was wearing,” Foslien recalls. “I was asked to enter a fashion competition when I was 10. I created a red linen jumper that didn’t look like anything else women were wearing. So I didn’t win the competition, but losing didn’t put me off my style. I opened Susan when I was 22.”
Foslien set up shop in 1983, and 34 years later, she’s the destination for stylish and discerning women who crave runway pieces they won’t spot out and about on a fellow connoisseur. The white, galleryesque walls are lined with Balenciaga, Prada, Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and Rick Owens, among other labels. Next door, The Grocery Store—which Foslien opened after her regular shoppers solicited advice on what to wear while food shopping—skews more casual. Think sweaters, jeans and T-shirts from labels including Comme des Garçons, The Elder Statesman and R13.
Several times each year, Susan Foslien attends runway shows in Paris, London, New York and Milan on buying trips. She always sits in the front row, and her name is always attached to her seat. Unlike many other buyers, Susan Foslien works directly with the designers—not their salespeople. And when she pulls pieces to sell at her San Francisco headquarters, designers give Foslien her own racks. Last September, Foslien visited YSL in Paris to have a look at newly minted creative director Anthony Vaccarello’s debut Saint Laurent collection. She wore “stair-unfriendly” shoes, so Vaccarello simply carried down a few racks from the studio so she could view them comfortably on the street. Says Foslien, “I want to be known for sticking out my neck for special pieces and for the customer who appreciates them.”
In December, Elle magazine called Foslien “the designer whisperer” for scouting such talent as Junya Watanabe, and praised her as “too cool to even have a website.” (Foslien’s rationale for avoiding e-commerce: “High fashion is when you work with a person.”) Over the years, Foslien has supported American indie brands, hosting the first-ever trunk show for Rodarte sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy and helping promote Barbara Tfank, a favorite of Michelle Obama.
And when Simon Porte started his French line, Jacquemus, at the age of 19, Foslien was among the first American retailers to promote him. She bought Lanvin during Alber Elbaz’s early tenure there, and became close to Elbaz, who’s as intensely private as she. It was Foslien who talked him into designing streetwear in addition to his chic evening looks. Designers trust her suggestions and act upon them, which makes her similar in influence to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, another high-powered Foslien friend.
Forever on the hunt for something new and different, Foslien brought Watanabe’s innovative clothes back to the States when the Comme des Garçon protégé made his Paris debut in 1993. Impressively, she was the exclusive West Coast buyer for both Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo in 2000. “Fashion changed on the day the Japanese debuted their labels,” she says, showing off a long, printed skirt from Watanabe’s first show. “Put it on,” she suggests, and you can feel her passion for the garment, a work of art.
In addition to clothing, shoes and accessories, Foslien showcases several fine jewelry lines, including Tom Binns, whose tough-luxe necklaces, bracelets and earrings adorn admirers such as Natalie Portman, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Foslien and Binns have collaborated to design a unique, black-jeweled bracelet as a gift to her “30 most devoted customers.” The jewels spell R-E-B-E-L.
Curious for the names of those lucky devotees? Go ahead and ask, but you probably won’t get very far. Foslien never name-drops her customers—and photos are out of the question.