By Andrea Stuart | Photos by Hemali Zaveri
His voice is alive and vibrant. At times, it feels like he’s sitting right next to me rather than separated by 40 miles of phone line. Wilkes Bashford’s words are articulate, woven seamlessly around thoughts and accompanied by a smile that I can hear through his inflections.
One might say that a lot has changed for Wilkes since we last featured him in our pages. But aside from the obvious role change with the eponymous company, Wilkes Bashford, since its acquisition by Mitchells of Westport (Connecticut) in 2009, Wilkes is unassuming and unabashed as always. This is not a changed man. This is an evolved man who is finally living his purpose without the back office cacophony to distract him from his passions.
The store, like Wilkes himself, is still community driven and stylish. The man and icon remains the company’s customer connoisseur, having known many of his customers for nearly 50 years. As the founder, he is a key ambassador for the brand and continues to levy his skills in customer relations, strengthening company relationships. “I have the vision of what we can do for our customers. There’s a bond that’s created when you have five decades behind you,” Wilkes says. “If a customer came in with parents, which many did, let’s say they were nine, now they are 59. There are many folks in the Bay Area that don’t remember when there wasn’t a Wilkes Bashford on Sutter Street, both the store and the individual.”
Wilkes has done anything but slow down. Invitations from myriad organizations, friends, and colleagues line his desk, so many in fact that you can hear the shuffling of paper over the phone as he wades through them in an attempt to find one in particular. He goes out nearly five nights per week (even a recent back issue hasn’t slowed him down much); he is the President of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center Board of Trustees, serving alongside former Major General Michael Myatt, whom he admires; he dines every Friday at Le Central French bistro with good friend Willie Brown; and he’s still advocating for people and animals.
During a recent shoot with Montage TV, 65˚ Magazine’s lifestyle television show (airing Saturdays at 7 p.m. on KSBW), Wilkes and former mayor Willie Brown teamed up at their favorite lunchtime milieu, Le Central. And what could be more fitting? “As you know, the Friday lunch used to include Herb Caen. It’s a very special thing. That’s why we did the interview there. Montage is supporting Le Central’s 40th anniversary,” Wilkes adds with enthusiasm. He and Brown have dined at the iconic bistro every Friday for each of those 40 years. “It’s like a clubhouse. If someone is looking for Willie or me at 1 p.m. on Friday, they know where to find us.”
Montage TV couldn’t have come at a better time as Wilkes prepares for the store’s 50th anniversary. His praise for 57˚ Magazine is flattering and unexpected as he explains how important it is to celebrate and share the parts of our community, specifically the Bay Area, that make it timeless. “57˚ focuses on human relationships and understanding of what makes the Bay Area so special. It’s a wonderful thing, and the timing couldn’t be better,” he adds.
At this pivotal time in Wilkes’ life, a time when he’s been able to focus on that which matters most to him, he reminds me that priorities change over time. “As you get older, you have a certain amount of time to contemplate. Being on your own is important,” he says, stating that Sundays are his days for decompressing. Sundays are a time for reading The San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times and spending quality time with Duchie, his beloved 10-year-old dachshund.
Ultimately, Wilkes is a supporter of humanity and all things living, great and small. He’s an advocate for those who need assistance. When he talks about his greatest passion, animals, there are sparks in his words. His enthusiasm is evident in his support of Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, for which he served as emcee during the organization’s Haute Dog fashion show for the fourth consecutive year, walking Duchie down the runway. He’s also an avid supporter of PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support), an organization whose mission is to preserve the human-animal bond. “When you don’t have to force something, it’s more meaningful. There’s more connection and a feeling of contribution,” Wilkes imparts, the smile in his voice growing with each syllable.
When he’s not schmoozing at his favorite establishments, advocating for veterans and animals, attending banquets and fundraisers, and building the Wilkes Bashford brand, he can be found enjoying a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon in the company of Duchie and their friends in one of his three favorite California locales: Mendocino, Carmel, or Palm Springs. Having traveled across the world for much of his life, Wilkes appreciates the unique qualities inherent in each of these areas, including their proximity to home and their dog-friendly attitudes. When asked if he can recommend a couple of favorite wineries, he simply and eagerly replies in absolute Bashford style: “Wow! I have a half a dozen that I like very much. But I can’t say because I don’t want to inadvertently leave anyone out.” Wilkes rounds out the conversation by confirming that California wines are his favorite. The clinking of glasses converging in a toast can almost be heard.
This article originally ran in our Summer 2015 issue hard cover magazine.
Our family and team at 57° raise a glass in memory of our dear friend Wilkes Bashford, a man who was a total gentleman and exuded class and grace. He will be sorely missed.