Thursday, August 13, 2009

Inside the Mind of Fashion Guru Susan Foslien

Susan Foslien, photo by Jason Walz

Lanvin, Balenciaga, cell-phone etiquette, modern manners, books, black, and other passions. California fashion boutique owner, Susan Foslien, best pal of Alber Elbaz, shares her secret wisdom on all things stylish. Calling Alber! Nicholas! Miuccia!

Fashion-crazed clients fly in from around the world to see her Lanvin-straight-from-the-runway trunk shows. She’s the ultimate fashion insider, never a social butterfly. Perhaps because she is a rebel, and geographically outside the New York City fashion nexus, her name is known only to her devoted customers—and the very top-top designers in Paris, Milan, New York.

Staying at the top of the fashion industry for a quarter-century is a feat few designers or retailers have mastered. Through her focus on clients, imagination, precision, and innate talent, retailer Susan Foslien has succeeded.

Her trend-setting Susan stores in Burlingame and in San Francisco, and The Grocery Store boutiques in Burlingame and San Francisco’s Presidio Heights, have triumphed over fads, style twists and turns, and fickle fashion fate.

With her punked-out white hair, whole-hearted Rubenesque presence, full-throttle laugh, outspoken opinions, and obsession with fashion, Susan Foslien has placed herself front and center on the international fashion map.

“My philosophy when I buy is that almost every piece has to be collectible, with more than a 6-month life,” she said. “Most pieces—like Barbara Tfank’s evening coats or Comme jackets—could last decades. The art of dressing involves the intellect as well as a sense of pleasure.”

Interior of the Susan store on Sacramento Street in Presidio Heights in San Francisco.

Diane Dorrans Saeks chats with Susan Foslien, owner of Susan of Burlingame and the Susan boutique in Presidio Heights in San Francisco:
Susan on fashion: I’ve been involved in fashion for more than forty years, and I’ve been to thousands of fashion shows, in New York, Paris, London, Milan. I’ve watched thousands of names passing through. At any given time there are only ten designers that matter. Let’s start with Rei Kawakubo, Jun Takahashi, Junya Watanabe, Alber Elbaz, Karl Lagerfeld. All brilliant.

My secret weapon in life: black. I feel great in black cashmere sweaters (Scottish), black t-shirts by James Perse, and a pair of classic Comme des Garcons pants, black Lanvin flat shoes. Nothing’s better with diamonds.

Susan loves Lanvin: Alber Elbaz, who designs for Lanvin, has been one of Susan's best-sellers for the last few years, and Elbaz himself is clearly Foslien’s adored one.

“I think Alber is immensely talented,” she said. “He understands the difference between the dream of fashion and the reality. His collections are practical and modern, and always astonishingly beautiful. His ideas really work.”

Lanvin, Fall 2009

Designer Alber Elbaz

No-name handbags and totes: They are my everyday bags, my travel companions. Inside: my Blackberry, a mirror I never use, makeup I seldom wear, vitamins, Maui Jim sunglasses (trifocals with a bit of cool), a rolled up vintage Comme des Garcons jacket that I can wear anywhere.

I hate matchy-matchy.

I remember the first time I met Rei Kawakubo, after the first Comme des Garcons fashion show in Paris. She’s quite stern, all four foot ten inches of her. She’s the major conception queen, the greatest artist, and the most creative designer.

Comme des Garcons, Fall 2009

Music: you have to listen to all the new bands. You must know what’s going on in the culture. But I play everything—jazz, Mozart, classic rock. I’m listening to Ben Harper, ‘Both Sides of the Gun’, Fujiko Hemming, ‘Echoes of Eternity’, Cold Play, ‘X&Y’, with a dash of the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, and Big Mama Thornton and the Muddy Waters Blues Band.

I keep track of my world, my travel schedule, with my Blackberry, and my Toshiba Tecra M5 laptop, and with those everything is under control, anywhere I travel in the world.

My favorite getaway: Lobster Lake, Minnesota. I grew up there. Our new house, The Point, is on Lobster Lake.

What no one knows: I adore to go fishing on the lake for bass from a state-of-the-art pontoon.

Susan Foslien's Hideaway: Lobster Lake, MN
Photo by Rob Graber

In Paris I stay at the Renaissance Plaza Vendome Hotel on the Right Bank. It is just a great business hotel. It’s not too-too trendy. I’m skipping Milan this year, but usually I stay at the Bulgari Hotel.

Never get too full of yourself. Once you do, you’re done.

I love buying fashion in Europe. Paris is a working town for me, with back-to-back fashion shows, meetings. It's not social, so I never go to the fancy restaurants—only Kinugawa on rue du Mont-Tabor, Il Gusto Sardo (hidden in the 16th, small, Italian) , and Au Coin des Gourmets (a tiny Indochinese restaurant on rue Dante in the Latin Quartier). Not that I have much time to dine, exactly.

I always tell young designers, don’t limit yourself. No limits!

My staff is incredible—twenty great men and women.

My hair stylist is Skip Cathey at di Pietro Todd on Post Street, San Francisco. I have to have wash ‘n’ wear hair. I don’t do color anymore—only cuts.

A chic woman does not walk down the street yakking on her cell phone. I don’t allow cell phones in my stores. There is such a compulsion today to always be on the cell phone, out and about, on the street, in shops and the post office and in the car. But my store is not a phone booth. Be present, focus on fashion. I don’t allow cell phones, period.

I like simple clothes. I’m a working woman. You can’t do a floor move, windows, or sleep on a plane in pumps and a short skirt.

What I’m reading now: I read biographies. I love to get inside people’s heads. But I read widely and voraciously. At the moment it’s ‘Cutting For Stone’ by Abraham Verghese (He also wrote ‘My Own Country’), ‘Little Bee’ by Chris Cleave, ‘Sunnyside’ by Glen David Gold, and ‘A16 Food + Wine’ by Nate Appleman and Shelly Lindgren with Kate Leahy.

My favorite contemporary architect: Tadao Ando. Bold simplicity always thrills me.

Susan in San Francisco
3685 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94118

(415) 922-3685

The Grocery Store, San Francisco
3625 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94118

(415) 928-3615

Susan of Burlingame
1403 Burlingame Ave
Burlingame, CA 94010

(650) 347-0452

The Grocery Store, Burlingame

311 Primrose Rd
Burlingame, CA 94010

(650) 348-1372


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Wonderfully opinionated and insightful. I remember seeing the actress, Maggie Gyllenhaal, at the Golden Globes wearing Lanvin. I thought it was such a lovely dress.

I do so agree with her on cell phones and Scottish cashmere. And she has a pretty good ear for music as well!

katiedid said...

Great read! I look forward to visitng the shops next time I'm in SF! And looking forward to seeing you in September. It looks like shopping is in order.

Brillante Interiors said...

Thanks Diane for another great insight. I agree with every single word of Ms.Foslien (no names bags, timeless pieces, no cellulars especially). Next time in San Francisco I will make a point in going into the store.
Milan? I will be there during the fashion week and I may post about it (or skip it completely and going to Como lake).

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Loved hearing from you this afternoon. Yes, Susan is outspoken--and it is perhaps time to note that if you are always on a cell phone you are never present. She wants her clients to be present, to appreciate her fashion, to appreciate her boutique.
KATIE--loved your message. Yes, Susan is a great character and I adore her. She knows everything about fashion--and after speaking with her abut designers and collections, I am totally up to date. She speaks her mind about collections, design directions, and who has decided to manufacture off-shore (kiss of death) and which designer is about to get fired. She knows everything--before anyone.
Brillante-loved your newest post! Please be sure to go and visit Susan and see her boutique. You will especially appreciate the Sacrmento St shop.Her selections--Jil Sander, Marni, Lanvin, everyone great, Comme des Garcons, etc...are inspiring. Look for her in Milan.
Fondest to you all, DIANE

Marcy Carmack said...

A wonderful testament to a San Francisco original. I carry an LL Bean tote so can relate to the no-name bag.

Diane, love love the Lanvin image with gloves!

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

WOW!WOW WOW this is a fantastic post- as my nephew (20)would say baller(I had to look it up). They do keep you up on things,music and all. Susan is someone I would love to meet-the energy of the lady and this post is baller! My 26 year old niece would spend the day in that shop on Sacramento. There is a quote about symmetry and destroying it by Rei Kawakubo that I love- I will find it and send it your way. thanks DDS, I love meeting the people you know. la

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Little Augury-

Thanks so much for your 'baller' note.
Susan speaks her mind--and her comments about being 'present' rather than incessantly talking on a cell phone in presence of others is a wonderful one. It's more useful than saying 'it is bad manners' which never convinces anyone. But to say 'be present' is so inspiring.
Have been loving your poetic posts lately. Cheers...I hope all is wonderful in the South.

debra@dustjacket said...


Such an interesting post. What a lady, would love to talk to her in person. So agree with her on a number of points. The cell phone issue was well put, it is such a problem these days.

Thank you so much for taking time to vist "The Attic" and to leave a note.

You have a very interesting site, your books look so stylish.

Have a lovely weekend,

vicki archer said...

A wonderful interview Diane with a fascinating woman - she has great style and taste. xv

Clarity said...

I like her: precise, dedicated and she likes to fish! Can she come to London, please?

I would really like to see her rolled up vintage Comme des Garcons jacket - carrying everyday bags myself and wanting something similar.

With regards to music, most of the pop of my generation is as disposable as the fashion she avoids. From Beethoven to Hendrix, few contemporary bands match the power of the true artists. Seeing her point, I think youtube and blogging can provide her with the "now" material she requires.

*Chic Provence* said...

Hi Diane,

What an interesting lady behind the Susan's empire. I have always loved her clothes, and this very down to earth working girl outlook of hers is refreshing, refreshing!

Your insights and posts are so "devour-able"...thanks!

Dumbwit Tellher said...

What a fabulous interview of a fabulous woman. I have a smile on my face as I wish Susan & I were best friends. I loved what she said about wearing black. I "always" feel my best when wearing black. I try to resist but after reading her words, never again. Her thoughts on cell phones are priceless. I so agree 100%. Then to top it off, she keeps her greatness in check. Truly impressive, talented woman. Someone to inspire and admire. Thank you Diane ~

Unknown said...

Dear Diane,
I have the great privilege of working with Susan. In the world of fashion Susan is an anomaly. She is a well spoken, clear minded
visionary who dares to speak her mind This brings to mind one of my favorite stories ... the 'Emperor's New Clothes" when the king appears naked and the masses are pretending his clothes are divine and the little child cries out...."but he has nothing on!"

Thank you!

Barbara Tfank