Top Indie Shops in San Francisco

December 2009


Cable cars, misty fog and barking sea lions – San Francisco’s must-sees are as legendary as it gets. But what do us locals go crazy for? Food, fitness and fashion.

Sure, the City by the Bay is a foodie mecca, and judging from the healthy glow of its cyclers, joggers and weekend trailblazers, it’s just as wild about exercise and the outdoors. But take a moment to check out some of the girls’ outfits (like you weren’t already), and you’ll notice a distinct San Franciscan style. It’s laid-back and effortless but decidedly chic. And most often, eco-friendly and locally minded. But if you’re thinking poorly crafted hemp shoes, think again: in San Francisco, conscious consumerism looks as classy as the racks of Nordstrom.

sf_250_2Missing out on San Francisco’s unique, independent clothing boutiques would be like eating at the Cheesecake Factory instead of local favorite NOPA. Luckily, we’ve got a run-down of some of the best spots for you and your friends to experience quintessential SF style—and grab a couple souvenirs.


Quick: your friends have decided last-minute to get gussied up and eat at Slanted Door tonight. Or some cutie has asked you out on a date. But you’re living out of a suitcase and all your favorite dresses are in a closet thousands of miles away. What do you do? Head to Ambiance.

Anytime a girl in SF needs a new dress, she steps in under the black-and-white awning and surrenders to the cute looks and helpful staff of Ambiance. Consistently voted a favorite boutique by the readers of Bay Area weeklies, Ambiance’s three locations are jam-packed with vintage-inspired dresses, funky clothes, killer shoes and plenty of glittery accessories. Ambiance tends to lean on the dressy side of the style spectrum (no velor track suits here), so you’re practically guaranteed to find all the fixings for a hot outfit.

Five and Diamond

Amid the trendy boutiques, hip restaurants and down-and-dirty taquerias of the Valencia Corridor, one store stands out as truly original and unapologetically itself: Five and Diamond. Steampunk meets industrial chic in this one-of-a-kind boutique, featuring the high-quality, handmade works of local designers. Frilly bloomers, studded holsters and tawapa earrings might not be for everyone, but the more toned-down items can put a little SF edge into any girl’s look. (Ebony wood anatomical heart pendant—killer.)

Five and Diamond doesn’t just feel like a wearable art gallery. The space doubles as a design collective, hosting numerous events and art shows throughout the year and serving as an invaluable resource for the creative design community in San Francisco.

High-end, handmade items like these don’t come cheap, but do last nearly a lifetime. The knowledgeable, chill staff will help you make the right investment.


The 60s may be long-gone, but you can dig for wearable memorabilia at Haight Street’s Wasteland. Housed in a former Vaudeville theater, this vintage heavyweight features the crème de la crème of yesterday’s fashions. But don’t think tie-dyed shirts and flower-patched bell bottoms. Buyers here have an impeccable eye for retro chic—and, judging from all the 80s hair metal t-shirts, irony as well. Bedazzled sweaters, broken-in cowboy boots, 60s sunglasses and a wall of leather jackets serve as the fixings of a look worth its weight in SF street cred.

With satellite stores opening in other hip California locations like LA and Santa Monica, this mother store has a long history, and big reputation. Prices can be steep and the staff cooler-than-thou, but the appeal of Wasteland still surpasses any hipster drawbacks. And if nothing else, a look at the artsy mirrored façade is worth the trek.

Venus Superstar

An adventure is all things San Francisco, Venus Superstar is a well-kept local secret. But it shouldn’t be. Tucked unassumingly in the Nopa area, this is your spot for hand-made jewelry and edgy vamp dresses that add sophistication to your darker side. Most of the avant-garde goods are the works of local designers, including the coveted earrings, headpieces and necklaces of personable owner Rebeccah.

High-quality, handmade goods like these don’t come cheap, but neither does visiting a city like San Francisco—sometimes you just need to indulge. The boutique also features a healthy selection of vintage and vintage reconstructions, which tend to be a little friendlier to your pocketbook.

What else makes this independent boutique so quintessentially SF? How about handmade shopping bags printed on recycled paper? Eco-friendly never looked so cool.

Rag Co-Op

For an independent boutique that satisfies everyone’s style, head to Hayes Valley’s Rag Co-Op. It’s a co-op cum green-business cum community of good-looking. The sizeable space showcases over 70 local designers, with everything from chic t-shirts to ready-to-wear dresses to tailored blouses and skirts. It all conspires to create a warehouse of wearability where everyone from your mom to your teenage cousin can find something unique and purely San Francisco.

The curator/founder Blakely Bass isn’t just passionate about San Francisco fashion; she’s an environmentalist who’s all about building sustainable communities. Rag Co-Op is a San Francisco Green Business, meaning its carbon footprint is minimal. And, most likely, in the shape of a cute little pump.

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