For months, Valerie Luu was obsessed with a single pair of shoes. Every morning on her way to her local café, she would see a parade of seniors departing a nearby bus. And every morning, among all the shuffling feet, she’d see the shoes: a cheerful pair of jade sneakers with a speckled, '80s pattern. She never saw the wearer’s entire outfit or face. Just the shoes.
Luu, a restaurateur, was a recent transplant to San Francisco’s Chinatown when she quickly became infatuated with the fashion scene of the neighborhood’s senior population. They mixed patterns with gleeful abandon, embraced color, and accessorized with an eclectic mix of utility and style. Along with her photographer friend, Andria Lo, the pair began highlighting the unabashed fashion they saw, first in an article (“Chinatown Sartorialist”) and now on a blog. Chinatown Pretty offers readers both fashion inspiration — Those silk blouses! Those snapbacks! — as well as a peek inside one of San Francisco's most iconic neighborhoods, filled with nattily dressed 70-, 80-, and 90-year-olds.
To kick things off, Luu and Lo spent their weekends literally chasing down seniors whose outfits they liked. Against their expectations, “most of the time, people out-walked us,” Luu says. And unfortunately, most of the time, their photo requests were declined. Eventually, some relented. With the help of a translator, they started learning the trends: While the area’s fashions are steeped in pragmatism — hand-me-downs, handmade pockets added to jackets, and multiple hats to protect from the city’s chill — there’s a sense of whimsy and boldness. There are floral prints and plenty of color, especially purple. Jade and gold jewelry is everywhere. Some subjects sport internet trends, like the woman with the “My Favorite Salad Is Wine” socks or the man wearing a five-panel Obey hat given to him by a stranger. Their clothing selections are surprisingly not too far off from what we've seen on the latest runways: When Lo looked at photos from a recent Dries Van Noten collection, she was charmed by the patterned suits, which, among many other pieces, reminded her of the Chinatown seniors. “They look like something a Chinatown popo [grandmother] would wear," she says. "A lot of what they’re wearing is actually on trend.”
Finally, after photographing many men and women, they stumbled upon Man Ta — the woman with the jade sneakers who started it all. “She’s our Cinderella,” Luu says of Ta, who was wearing the shoes with a patterned blue suit and cozy vest, dotted with red flowers. “We looked at her feet and we [said], ‘Oh my God. You inspired this entire project.’” In addition to outfit photos, the blog’s posts also serve as lessons about the immigrant experience and Chinatown’s history. Many of the women Luu and Lo speak with worked in garment factories when they first came to San Francisco and are experts at mending and making their own clothing. And in a time when your new dress from H&M can barely survive a washing, it’s impressive how these seniors have been able to maintain their clothing for decades. In many ways, Chinatown is an island, sheltered from the steadfast gentrification creeping across San Francisco like its famous fog. Most residents have lived there for decades — for years, segregation made Chinatown the only neighborhood where Asian immigrants were welcome — and thanks to a variety of social services, seniors can remain active and independent there well into their 80s and 90s. “They have very vibrant social lives.” Lo explains. “They tell us they prefer to live in Chinatown instead of with their kids in the suburbs because, as they [say], ‘We’d be so bored.’”
In the future, the pair hopes to expand their project to other Chinatowns and are looking for submissions (so if you know any well-dressed seniors in your local Chinatown, get in touch). But for now, they continue to head out on the weekends, talking to anyone who’s willing. For Luu and Lo, who are both Asian-American, this experience has been so much more than clothing — it's been an opportunity to connect with the cultural history of their own families. “We’re talking to a group that’s often not represented," Lo says. "We were born in the States. Our grandparents immigrated. There’s always been this language barrier, cultural barrier, and a generational barrier, so this is our way of trying to get to know that generation and find out more about them.” In exploring themselves, Luu and Lo admit that the project has definitely pushed them to dress more playfully. “I have a uniform," Luu says. "Black, head-to-toe, down to my socks. But since we started, I realized how much joy someone’s outfit can bring another person and how that can affect your mood. Right now, I’m wearing a patterned two-piece, very typical of older Chinese women. It's my homage.”