During the past year, a handful of small, independent clothing stores-dare we say boutiques-have opened up around town, some in places we'd least expect them (see Mesh and Sugar Ltd., for example). But these aren't places that make one feel like Julia Roberts, clad in hooker gear, shopping Rodeo Drive in Pretty Woman. Rather, these are boutiques that have something real going on: We like that they're encouraging those “walkable” neighborhoods that smart planners talk about. But more than that, they're lifting San Diego's profile as a place that supports independent designers and artists. And we've nary a bad experience in any of these spots, where shop clerks and owners are friendly, prices are (mostly) reasonable and, more often than not, you walk away with a quality purchase.
Little Italy remains one of the few areas where you can hit up multiple shops in one swoop, and Civil Disobedience (1772 Kettner Blvd., 619-231-1500) is living up to its name by being the consummate place for local merchandise and designs. C.D. features clothing and accessories by 37 local designers, including Andria Renee bags and Blox jewelry (made from leftover interior-design materials) and most items sell for less than $100. They also carry some great earth-friendly brands like Elements of Nature whose threads are made from organic materials. Keeping with the communal spirit, they team up with Kettner Nights for sales and parties and work in tandem with Fashion Career College to help promote new designers.
With the Starbucks and condos sprouting like urban weeds, walking into Kate Ross' boutique (3013 University Ave., 619-688-1088) in the heart of North Park may seem disheartening for old-school 'Parkers (Ross indeed has had many a local come in and yell at her for opening her store there), but she's won them over with her “come one, come all” attitude and her no-nonsense approach to sales-she'll tell you if it really looks good.
Dually keeping up with the trendy (Yumi Kim) and old-school (Penguin, Ben Sherman), she prides herself on being local, already teaming up with Ray at Night for art shows, the Live Wire for trunk shows and fashion shows at Bluefoot Bar & Lounge.
Down the street and around the corner from Kate Ross is Mesh (2980 North Park Way, 619-808-8179), located at the south side of the gigantic parking garage on 30th Street. Owner Michael Delgado fashioned his clean, airy shop after his favorite San Francisco store, Villains, known for its urban-club-kid aesthetic. Mesh is one of the few places in San Diego where you'll find stuff from animé-inspired designers like Gama-Go and Bunny Kitty. Delgado also stocks Paper Denim, Fred Dandy and Hanamachi and, like 'hood-mate Kate Ross, on Ray at Night nights, he hosts store parties with DJs, beer and wine.
Randomly down a side street at the nexus of Hillcrest and University Heights, Neighbourhood (4496 Park Blvd., 619-296-2100) lovingly packs a lot of items in a tiny area, which gives it the feel of your hip friend's cozy East Village loft (spiffy leather couch and all). Don't bother coming with an agenda; the shop clerks have a great read, sizing you up and going out of their way to set you up with something that looks good on you, not just the most expensive thing that barely fits. Neighbourhood also carries vintage clothes, throws parties for local designers like Grammatique and stages fashion shows at Confidential. It's one of the few stores you can actually leave and not regret your purchase later.
Perhaps the smallest boutique in San Diego County, Sugar Ltd. (3723 Adams Ave., Normal Heights, 619-283-2611) reminds us of that San Diego-climate cliché: Don't like the weather? Wait a minute. Indeed, in November you can still buy a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts but also find an adorable faux-white-fur jacket for when the temp drops 20 degrees at night. In a space about the size of your bedroom, owner Jeffrey Parish packs in a little of everything: clothes for guys and girls (a good variety at that), like a perfect black beaded sweater for the retro princess but also lots of printed Ts for her casual hipster companion. Keep an eye out for all the smartly placed accessories, too. Sugar might be a little hard to find-if you're heading from Normal Heights to Kensington, it's on your right, mid-point between the two. Parish might be taking a chance with this less-traversed spot, but perhaps other like-minded retailers will follow suit.
Open only three months, South Park's Maeve Riley (2328 1/2 30th St., 619-501-3500) is small yet smart-it's not trying to be all things to all customers, but if the store's aesthetic fits your personal taste, you're pretty much going to wish you owned one of each item. The carefully chosen collection includes Paul Frank (grab the lovely green trench coat while it's still there), dresses by Lauren Moffet and tops by Mon Petit Oiseau. The store's an asset to a neighborhood where too often promising retail shops are conjoined to empty storefronts. Hopefully that will become a rarity.
... and a shop that understands our companions, too
Jeans are a fashion staple-and everyone's got a friend who'll live off Top Ramen in order to afford the perfect pair. The thought of driving to Cardiff for jeans might seem like going a little out of the way, but L.A. Fairchild (2021 San Elijo Ave.) has the denim-bar thing down.
The “L.A.” is the store's name refers not to our neighbor to the north, but are the initials of the store's owner, Laura Ann Fairchild, who, in 2004, opened her first boutique, packed with tops and tees from Development and Ella Moss, and jewelry from local designer Morgan Soule.
Adjacent to the boutique, the denim bar targets the shopping challenged-you tell a “bartender” exactly what you're looking for rather than having to plow through stacks of jeans looking for the perfect 32-32. For bored shopping companions, there's a pool table, HDTV and a Playstation. As a bonus perk, they serve beer on tap for you to sip while waiting to try on those True Religion Straight Legs. What really distinguishes L.A. Fairchild is the lack of pretentiousness. The staff is helpful, offering up fashion tips-right now it's skinny legs and darker colors for women, tapered and fitted for men. Such service will make you feel that much better about dropping $150 on a pair of Antik's. -Michael Field