The Interview: Emily Holt, Fashion Hero

By Janet Reilly

Hero Shop proprietor Emily Holt. Photo by Margo Moritz.

About a year ago, when my most fashionable friend (shout-out to Suzanne Jack) told me about a new favorite shopping spot located one block outside the Tenderloin, I thought she might have had her geography wrong. Turns out Suzanne was exactly right, not just about the location, but also about the fabulousness of Hero Shop. I’ve been a devotee ever since.

Enter Emily Holt. Founder of Hero Shop, former fashion editor at Vogue, Northern California native and style guru. Holt spent more than 10 years in New York City working at top-tier fashion publications before returning to San Francisco in 2016 to pursue a dream — opening her own boutique. Hero Shop boasts wearable high-fashion clothes, unique jewelry and fanciful home goods, many of which are made by local designers.

On a recent morning, lattes in hand, Holt and I settled into conversation at Hero Shop before it opened and talked fashion, taking a risk on bricks and mortar, and the importance of giving back — something Holt’s passionate about.

For our readers who may have not been in your store, how do you describe Hero Shop? It’s a place that celebrates fashion. It celebrates the City. It celebrates American brands — brands that I built relationships with during my time at Vogue. It’s people I want to support and, it just so happens — sort of the Venn diagram of this is — these are brands that you can’t find in a lot of places in the City.

You talk a lot about wanting the store to reflect the Bay Area and the California lifestyle. I knew there had to be a strong sense of place, because working at Vogue all you hear about is new stores opening. And, we would think, “Does the store have a sense of place?” Because none of us needs more clothes or another store, but if you have a place that feels very much a part of where it is, then it has an identity and it’s rooted in something. … And that place for us is both California and San Francisco. So, in June and July, we have sweaters in the store — that kind of thing.

Speaking of place, two and a half years ago when you opened the store, you made a very conscious decision to open in the Tenderloin area. Would you make that same decision today? It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I don’t know. I probably would. I wanted a place with a lot of character. I didn’t want to move into a white box. I liked being off the beaten path. I knew enough to know that narrative would be important. So, if I told you, “Hey, a new store opened up on Fillmore,” you’d be like, “Of course it did.” If I said, “Hey, a new store opened in the Tenderloin,” you’d say, “Tell me more.”

“It’s multilayered. There’s eclecticism. There’s comfort.”

— Emily Holt, on San Francisco style

That’s so true … It also was important to me that there was a strong sense of community and, for better or worse, there is a strong sense of community in this neighborhood. It’s important to me that the store doesn’t exist in a bubble, that we’re not just selling expensive things to the people who could afford them. … We do gift drives, backpack drives, we do shopping nights where we raise money for Larkin Street Youth Services, the Tenderloin Museum, 826 Valencia. There are very obvious ways in which we can give back to this community, and it’s very easy for us to do that.

Where did the name Hero Shop come from? Before I moved back to California, I was looking for an apartment in Brooklyn and I passed by a deli that sold hero sandwiches and it was called Hero Shop. I’d been thinking about opening a store for a long time. I had it in my notes: everything it would carry, what it would be like, but I didn’t have a name. And I saw [the Hero Shop sign] and I was like,“Oh, that’s what it can be.” I just like the way it looked. It’s two words, it’s not my name, it’s not super feminine, [it’s] strong, up and down letters — and there’s a thousand ways you can spin it, but it’s basically sandwiches.

The bright, sunny interior of Holt’s well-curated boutique, located at 982 Post Street.

Growing up in Los Gatos, did you always want to go into the fashion business? No. I went to UCLA thinking I might want to be in the entertainment industry. I had internships at production companies and literary agencies, but after that, I just realized those weren’t really my people.

Before opening the store, you were a fashion editor at Vogue. What was that like and why did you decide to leave? I was very lucky. I worked at two great magazines, W and Vogue, and at a pretty young age. It was a great time to be at each of those magazines. But I knew that for me, it probably wasn’t forever. I didn’t have ambitions to become editor-in-chief. I kept thinking about what would this second chapter of my life be like. … I liked to shop, that’s why I got into fashion, so I always thought opening a store would be fun… and so it was always in the back of my head. And then it became clear that things in magazines were shifting. The business was changing. The fashion industry was changing, and I thought, “You know what, I’m in a unique place. I don’t have anything keeping me in New York. I rent an apartment, I’m single, I don’t have family here, I can make a big change.” And, I just kind of went for it. … I had read enough self-help books to know to follow what excites you.

And how did your Vogue experience influence the store? Working at Vogue was incredible. I could not do this for a number of reasons had I not worked there. … Some of the things it taught me carry over into what we’re doing here …. supporting American brands, fashion that’s upbeat, lots of prints and colors. And polished. That’s definitely a carry-over from my time at Vogue. The magazine is really good at supporting the community. In their case, the community is New York and America at large. So we’re on a smaller scale supporting the community. Anna [Wintour] was so supportive of legalizing [gay] marriage and after 9/11, starting Fashion’s Night Out, which supported the New York City AIDS Fund. … It was incredible working with women who are iconic, who are legends, who are at the absolute top of their class. To be able to witness that was a real privilege.

What were your interactions with Anna like? My interactions with her were minimal, but she’s very straightforward. You know exactly what she wants. You know exactly what she thinks. There’s no question about it and I really appreciate that. … I was, obviously, terrified to go in and quit and had sort of psyched myself up a thousand different ways. And, finally, when I went in there — she had been told, obviously — she couldn’t have been more supportive, which totally threw me off. And she was really excited and kind about it. I was very grateful.

How would you describe San Francisco’s style? It’s multilayered. There’s eclecticism. There’s comfort. Practicality plays a large role, and at least with the women we work with, [there’s] a sense of wanting to look pulled together and kind of colorful, both in actual color and in attitude. And then we sell a lot of jeans and sweatshirts.

Compare this experience to New York. You can’t. You can’t. And I think the minute you do, it’s a losing game. I know a lot of people who move here from New York and the first minute they’re here, they’re like, “Oh, it’s not New York.” No, of course not, it’s not New York. It’s not supposed to be New York.

Any favorite fashion moments — yours or someone else’s? When I was still at Women’s [Wear Daily], I was covering the Met [Gala] and Gisele and Tom Brady were in line waiting for the receiving line. And Gisele, I think she was in Versace, was in the shortest, tightest, just smallest minidress with these thousand-inch heels. And, I was just, “OK. All right. This is what is happening.” And she was just bright and bubbly and happy to be there and it was, like, we are living in two different worlds.

If I were to take a peek into your closet, what would I find? A lot of sweaters and a lot of skirts. That has really kind of become my M.O. My style is pretty classic, it’s a clean line, it’s tailored, not terribly serious. And trying to be more polished. We don’t carry ripped jeans in here, and my sister and one of her friends and I have this running joke about ripped jeans. She wears ripped jeans to the office and I just think it’s a travesty.

What should every woman buy for the spring? We just got these dresses in from Sleeper. They are linen. They are for summer, but in San Francisco you can wear a jacket and boots with them. They are so fun. We just got a new shipment from this jean brand called Trave. They’re made and designed in L.A. They have a cropped wideleg. They have skinny. They have a sort of cropped boot-cut. The denim feels really nice. Everybody needs a pair of Trave jeans.

Who are your style icons? I don’t really have icons so much. I’m really a big fan of Dries Van Noten. He just had a show and I was looking at it, and there were a couple models where I was like, “OK, when I close my eyes, this is what I think I look like.” So for the last two days, I’ve been inspired by that when getting dressed.

Where do you get your creative inspiration? I went through a drought, so I’m working on getting it back. I read a lot. I’m trying to be outside more, spend more time in California, going out more. … Social media is that double-edged sword. I don’t want to be on it, but there are things that are inspiring.

What do you love most about being back in the Bay Area? I love where I live in the Outer Richmond. I love living by the beach. To be able to see whales, to be able to walk on the beach. It also gives me perspective. I will look out there and see big container ships and think, “The people working on that ship couldn’t care less about whatever is plaguing me at the moment. They’re just trying to get across this ocean safely.” My problems seem so small.

The Lightning Round

I’m happiest when … I am on the beach in a bathing suit for eight hours with books and magazines.

If I had a magic wand, I would … Eradicate fog and bad weather in the summer [in SF].

My biggest regret … I had a perm in third grade, and my teacher told me it looked like I had stuck my finger in a light socket. I don’t know if that’s my biggest regret, but that’s what came to mind first.

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