Gentry’s Christine VanDeVelde speaks with one of the Peninsula’s most stylish women
The social arbiter who observed that style is the perfection of a point of view might have had Serita Sangimino in mind. Of course, the Store Director for Wilkes Bashford Palo Alto is ideally situated to create the perfect mix of good taste, chic and high fashion that results in that easy elegance the rest of us wish we had been born with. The kind that pairs an Oscar de la Renta skirt in matte-brown crocodile with a sheared mink sweater from Gucci and finishes it off with brown crocodile 3-inch heels, and a delicate, art deco necklace of brown and white diamonds.
But we'd expect no less from the woman chosen by the elegant Wilkes Bashford to head his Silicon Valley outpost. The legendary retailer opened the store near Union Square in 1966, where he was the first American retailer to carry Ermenegildo Zegna, introduced Ralph Lauren to the west coast, and over the years since has lead the edge of the fashion envelope with red leather biker jackets from Claude Montana, avant-garde from Yohji Yamamoto and the finest in Italian tailoring.
Serita was born and raised in San Francisco where Wilkes Bashford is as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge, so when she saw a sign announcing the store's arrival at Stanford Shopping Center, she picked up the phone. Wilkes, with his "Cheshire cat curly smile," as Serita so aptly characterizes it, teased her through an interview, then made her wait a day before he hired her. She promptly quit her job at that store across the street -- the one headquartered in Dallas. Three years later, her relationship with Wilkes Bashford – the store and the man – is still in vogue. "She has a directness and clarity of thinking in business situations that make her unusually effective at achieving a goal," says Bashford. "And she has a wicked sense of humor, which I love."
Petite, always perfectly made up, with a bob that is Louise Brooks sleek one day and in lazy ringlets the next, Serita, on first meeting, can have the same perception problem her store sometimes does – an impeccable façade with an all-encompassing interest in fashion that sometimes masks the wonderfully warm persona within. Ask any of her customers who have become clients and are now delighted to call her a friend.
We want those we shop with to be part psychiatrist (discrete and endlessly patient with our complaining), part girlfriend (we can't seem to stop dishing in a dressing room), and part personal assistant (service, service, service). Serita gets this. Her goal is "to have the women who come here and shop feel good about themselves by the time they leave." And she understands that, as she says, "everybody has body issues. But while there's always something they don't like, they're also something they do. You learn to give women silhouettes that they're comfortable with and that accentuate their assets. It's about the customer and the truth."
But the customer who shops Wilkes Bashford on the Peninsula is very different from their San Francisco counterpart and Serita and Wilkes have cultivated their understanding of what we want and passed on the word to the buyers. Both sexes on the Peninsula look for a less "suited" look, with men opting for luxe casual style and women focused more on family than work. "Women here are more fit, they're covertly sexy, and they want to look put together, not costumed," says Serita. "They'll put a Kiton jacket with Bernard Zin pants and a Loro Piana sweater. We bring things together for them."
They also bring an unparalleled level of service to their customers. Twenty-five years ago, my husband bought a wallet at Wilkes Bashford. It was the first thing he could afford to buy there, a milestone on the way to custom-made Brioni, and he carried it until last year when, after becoming a conversation piece among our friends, it finally fell apart. Wilkes and Serita worked together to have a duplicate wallet custom-made by their leather goods craftsman in Paris, with the Wilkes Bashford logo in gold leaf, just as it was in the original.
When Serita speaks about clothes, her approach to them is almost academic. She talks about their structure, the use of fabric, the history of the detail. Design from Celine, Agnona, Bogner, Lela Rose, Christian Louboutin, and Luciano Barbera is presented in the context of trends and influences. Trailing her across the floor of the Palo Alto store, as she scoops up a chiffon dress here, brandishes a shoe there, she offers a colorful running commentary -- describing the flirty note of a ruffle at the hem, the nautical influence in a wide-legged pant, a nod to the '50s in a silk shantung suit. She also has a flair for the headline pronouncement, the language of fashionistas everywhere: "Love it!" "Mad for it!" "Like a crazy person!"
She "loves" the 1940's, "the sexiest era," she says, and puts herself together in a conscious effort to use its elements – the body conscious clothing, bigger lapels, large belts, and seamed hosiery. As a teenager, she pored over Seventeen and Vogue and took her first job as a produce cashier at 23rd and Mission in order to afford the $60 Georges Marciano jeans modeled by Claudia Schiffer. She has, she says, a "sickness for shoes," with more than 200 pair she has collected now in storage and another 200 pair in her closet, including Pucci slingbacks – "They're art!" -- made in a limited edition of 50 adorned with freshwater pearls, Swarovski crystals and feathers. "I want to put them in a Lucite box!" she says. Her current favorites are from Azzedine Alaia – "the most amazing, beautiful shoes you've ever seen in your life!" In other words, perfection, and Wilkes Bashford, of course, will be carrying them this fall.