An Ode to San Francisco Shoes from Birkenstocks to Blahniks 

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Who, what, where … and wear? We’re fortunate that San Francisco is one of America’s (all too few) cities built for walking … and we love it that way. When hoofing it up, down, and across our eclectic patchwork of seven-by-seven miles, look down. The distinct personalities of each neighborhood come into focus through footwear.

We had some frivolous fun pairing the personalities of a few neighborhoods with footwear to reflect their vibes. The result is something like this: “If I were Pacific Heights, I’d be a Gucci loafer” or “If I were Noe Valley, I’d be mother-and-daughter matching Allbirds.”

North Beach sports a pair of vintage Italian handmade brogues.

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Raoul Ortega, Unsplash

Affectionately known as Little Italy at the time, strong Italian influence peaked in North Beach in the 1920s. Due to the neighborhood’s proximity to the original shoreline, traditions from the home country were part of everyday life. In this district, over 60,000 residents claimed Italian ancestry and five Italian language newspapers were in circulation. Contemporary gentlemen sporting fashionable brogues benefited from the shoes’ decorative perforations which were designed for water to drain out of the shoes when the wearer crossed marshy land.

Today, stepping into Al’s Attire at the corner of Grant Street and Vallejo Street, you inhale the scent of real leather and fine worsted wool cloth. As proprietor Al Ribaya explains, “Everything is made with “a needle, thread, and our own two hands.” A talented team of designers, shoemakers, tailors, sewers, and embroiderers have turned out items with a vintage sensibility since 1986.

The Marina District slips on comfy and chic Birdies flats.

The Crane, Birdies

If you know, you know — birds of a feather flock together. Marina-dwelling, fashionable-yet-sensible super-moms, jet-setters, and work-from-home warriors get it done in flats that look as chic as they are comfortable.

It’s no coincidence that when Birdies was hatched in 2015 by two busy mothers, they settled into a cozy Union Street boutique in the Marina. More than one million pairs later, fans still flock to find their favorite flats, perhaps in a buttery soft suede or in a Cinderella slipper adorned with a flirty pom-pom. Every style is eye-catching, just like the neighborhood. Note: Read more about Birdies in this issue.

If I were Noe Valley, I’d be wearing mother-and-daughter matching Allbirds.

Philosophically rather far from Dolores Park, yet geographically only a stone’s throw away, we acknowledge the ambiance that prompts some to tag Noe Valley as “Nappy Valley.” On 24th Street, Saturday morning strolls begin at the farmers market in Noe Valley Town Square, where the toddler set likes to meet up, parents in tow. One requires appropriate footwear with grip for chasing three-year-olds around playground slides and stalls of organic produce before tackling local inclines like Sanchez at 22nd or Diamond and 29th.

When the whole family wears machine washable Allbirds, multitasking moms and dads can remind others of their support for ethically sustainable choices while maneuvering the double stroller and balancing the latte. 

In the Haight, be a Birkenstock or be barefoot. 

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Nothing says retro Haight Ashbury quite like a flower adorning your hair and wearing worn out, oiled leather Birkenstocks —importantly, the original ones. (After all, the brand’s newest sandal styles have hit $150 a pair, a price point that feels neither rebellious nor hippie-approved.)

Founded precisely 250 years ago by Johann Adam Birkenstock, a German cobbler, the brand was introduced to America in 1966, on the cusp of Haight Ashbury’s defining moment: the Summer of Love and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. By the way, did you know the Bay Area lays claim as the home to Birkenstock’s U.S. corporate headquarters in Novato?

Pac Heights is elevated in a snaffle bit Gucci loafer.

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Discretion and understatement are the watchwords. A lambskin Chanel ballet flat is tasteful, but both men and women can appreciate Gucci’s most recognizable silhouette, a classic equestrian-inspired moccasin that debuted in 1953.

While Fillmore Street and Sacramento Street are the shopping stomping grounds for Pacific Heights denizens, so are Fifth Avenue and New Bond Street, where Milan-based Gucci operates their biggest store and the smart, newly opened London store, respectively.  

Hayes Valley’s Civic Center sidekick is a stiletto. 

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En pointe? On your way to a performance of the fabulous San Francisco Ballet, you balance impeccably in a perfect, pointy-toed, patent pump, towering in your 110-millimeter Manolo Blahniks as you slip into premium orchestra seats at the exquisite War Memorial Opera House.

Ditto for the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Symphony, our city’s beloved century-old cultural crown jewels. Poised at the front door of Hayes Valley, San Francisco’s Civic Center is the nation’s most impressive urban collection of elegant Beaux Arts-style structures outside Washington, D.C.

The exhibition, Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style at de Young through Aug. 11, 2024, looks at the social and urban development of the city through its collection of 20th and 21st century fashion and haute couture—shoes included.