Benny Gold bets big and goes bigger in SF

Independent San Francisco streetwear designer Benny Gold is very talented, very genuine and even a little bit inspirational. But now, thanks to a recent letter he got from his landlord informing him that the rent on his 16th Street store is about to double to more than $8,000 a month, Benny Gold is also a little bit scared.

In fact, “it’s scary,” might be the phrase he repeated most over the course of a recent conversation in the basement of the Sixth Street pawnshop he converted into his design studio, warehouse and fulfillment center.

Gold is certainly worried about the jump in rent — but what really seems to have him spooked is what it signals for independent brands.

“In 2010, I opened the first little Benny Gold shop on 21st Street just past Mission,” he recalled. “Back then, it was a sleepier neighborhood, and that allowed people like me to take a risk and open a shop for $1,500 a month. I think that opportunity is gone now. Having a tiny shop in the Mission all those years ago literally put us on the map. It made us into a real brand before we really even were one.”

What makes Gold inspirational is that instead of packing up his goods and heading into a life of online sales and wholesaling, he’s betting big on himself. That means a very serious loan and a new retail location — currently under construction — at 986 Valencia St.

“When you hit a wall, you either climb over it or get left behind,” Gold told me. “If you don’t believe in yourself and invest in your vision, then you can’t expect anyone else to.”

“Besides,” Gold quipped, “if I’m going to pay Valencia prices, I might as well be on Valencia.”

His new digs’ cost is comparable to what he would have paid on 16th Street, but he’s calculating that the vastly superior foot traffic will be a boon to business.

“All my friends with brands think that I’m crazy,” he told me. “It’s a scary time when retail is down, the price of retail is really high, and everyone is focused on online business or wholesale. But I don’t want Benny Gold to turn into this faceless thing that you just see on the Internet. People will never get to know the substance of what we’re trying to do. A real shop that people have a reason to come to sets you apart from all the Internet noise.”

Gold’s eponymous streetwear brand was born in his Mission District apartment, and since 2010 has grown from a passion project to an internationally recognized label. No longer the hats-and-T-shirts operation it started as, Benny Gold has matured and moved into jackets, chinos, denim and more. I’d call Benny Gold a streetwear brand for grown-ups, the kind that certainly appeals to the heads, but it also finds easy traction with professional creatives who, like Gold, might occasionally ride a skateboard to work.

If Gold is betting big on himself, he’s in fine company. The block of Valencia Street onto which he’s moving is a hot one. The Benny Gold shop, expected to open in the next few months, is replacing the now-defunct Mission Creek Cafe, and its new neighbors include boutiques like Azalea, Amado’s, Chrome Industries and After Life.

“The idea for the new store is slowing down, holding onto youth, staying gold,” Gold said. As such, the new 1,500-square-foot retail space will house not just a clothing store, but a cafe and Gold’s office and design studio. With coffee from Four Barrel, chai tea from Samovar and stadium seating for both displaying goods and congregating, the vision isn’t so much commerce as community.

“I’m putting the cafe and hangout space in the new shop because those skate shops and record stores I grew up with, places where you could hang out and learn about skating culture or punk rock, were so important to me,” Gold said. “I want to be with the people who like Benny Gold. I want that kind of community in my shop.”

Aaron Britt is a San Francisco freelancer writer. Twitter, Instagram: @thepocketsquare

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