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Cable Car Clothiers' Jon Levin Talks Shop

Cable Car Clothiers is perhaps the oldest men’s retailer in the city, but its classic style and determination to help gentlemen stay fashionable has allowed it to remain a San Francisco institution for generations.

Started in 1939, Cable Car established itself as a gentleman’s retailer offering a blend of “East Coast Ivy style with a West Coast flavor” with made-to-measure suits and a large collection of men’s accessories. In his sixty-something years there, Charles Pivnick, the store’s founder, became something of legend and an icon in the men’s retail industry across the country.

Pivnick’s grandson, Jonathan Levin, now runs the store, which recently moved to a brand new location on 110 Sutter Street.

Levin sat down with me to talk to about how men’s fashion in San Francisco is evolving and how Cable Car is managing to stay relevant and appeal to a younger generation of stylish shoppers.

Business Times: Cable Car is the oldest men’s retailer in San Francisco. How has it been able to stay so successful for so long?

Jonathan Levin: The most important thing has been building a relationship and rapport with our customers. We provide excellent service and attention to detail. We also offer quality clothing that stays relevant. Fashion is cyclical, so we keep classic clothing but make it more modern. We also keep things in stock that our customers have been comfortable with over the last decade. Also, customers see stuff in our store that they can no longer find anywhere else, like wool and cashmere from Scotland and England. We’re one of the few true haberdashers left in the country.

BT: Who are your main customers?

JL: Mostly gentlemen who enjoy nice things from Europe or the United States. They enjoy nice fabrics and realize that the construction of garments is something that will last them for decades. People still come in that purchased their first suit or sport’s coat here. There are also men who have gotten these things passed down from their fathers. We’re also seeing a younger generation of customers who enjoy dressing up for work or special events.

BT: How is men’s fashion evolving in San Francisco? Are men dressing up more?

JL: The old-school look is definitely back in style. And classic men’s style is making a renaissance. We’re seeing more young professionals coming in from the financial district coming and all over the country. Shows like "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire" are also helping fuel this trend.

BT: How are you attracting younger customers?

JL: We really try to educate customers about items and colors. For example, you can dress something up by simply adding a pocket square. We teach them that paying attention to detail — whether it be jazzing up your socks or wearing a different collar on your shirt — is really important. Style is all about developing your own identity. Men need to realize that how you dress gives you a lot of confidence.

BT: Men’s retailers around the city are expanding, updating and opening new shops. How are you staying competitive against retailers like Wilkes Bashford or Wing Tip?

JL: We have established a reputation for ourselves. We have a legacy. People know that we offer a quality product with a really personal touch.

BT: How do you like the new location?

JL: It’s closer to Union Square and closer to our roots. We were on Post Street for many years.

BT: What’s different about the new store?

JL: It’s updated with new merchandise and a lot of new suits. There’s also a new barbershop that’s helping attract a much younger crowd. People are coming in for hot shaves and haircuts.

BT: The store has now been in the family for three generations. Why did you decide to take over?

JL: I wanted to continue my grandfather’s legacy and keep this longtime San Francisco institution alive. I wanted to reinvent what we did and bring it to younger generations. I also really enjoy clothing and helping men look good and feel good about themselves.

BT: Any lessons learned from your grandfather?

JL: He has been pretty inspirational. He even pioneered the catalog business. But what I learned from my grandfather was how to deliver a consistent, high quality product and to stand behind what you do love what you’re doing.

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San Francisco Business Times
October 26, 2012
By Renée Frojo, Reporter

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