Gay designer opens store
by Matthew S. Bajko
London's Selfridge's and the New York Bloomingdale's carry Castro resident Kenneth Wingard's home furnishing designs. Steve Wynn hired him to design penthouse suites in his new Las Vegas casino and resort in Macau.
Target, Barney's, and Restoration Hardware have all hired Wingard to design merchandise for their stores. Wingard himself opened his own small boutique on Union Street three years ago to begin selling his wares directly to consumers.
Now he has taken the concept to the next level, opening a larger, flagship store in the Castro, a neighborhood Wingard has called home for 18 years. He overhauled Nancy Boy's former space at 2319 Market Street and opened Kenneth Wingard San Francisco Tuesday, March 2. On Saturday, April 1 he threw an official opening party.
"The party was purposefully on April Fools' because I didn't know if I was a fool or not for opening the store," said Wingard. "It is touching how people in this neighborhood want the businesses that come in here to survive."
Wingard's company has been in existence for nine years. His design studio is in South Park but is not open to the public. Beyond selling directly to customers, Wingard had another reason for opening the larger space.
"Nobody was putting the collection all together. I found a tiny boutique space on Union but I wanted to see the entire collection together and displayed as I wanted it," said Wingard, who lives two blocks away near Duboce Park.
His collection features a British mod style with bright colors, patterns, and textures. His inspiration derives from African and Eastern European architecture â€“ Moscow's train stations and Prague's historic buildings are favorites â€“ to the colors of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly orange, avocado, and gold. Half of the store's items are his designs while the rest are from other designers he has selected.
For his latest collection, Wingard said he drew upon "anyone's forgotten rumpus room in the basement with the sculpted orange and avocado carpet." He said somehow "the funness got lost in interior design" in the 1980s and 1990s and that it "is nice to bring that back."
The store also carries clothing, including leather belts and bracelets. He created his own T-shirt, "The Perfect T," that retails for $19. He had it cut specifically to fit the needs of gay men. The sleeves are smaller than normal tees â€“ "it makes the arms bigger" â€“ the middle is fuller â€“ "so it hides your paunch" â€“ and it is cut shorter â€“ "so it shows off a belt buckle or low-rise jeans," he said.
An admittedly cheap person at heart, Wingard deliberately has set his prices below other competitors. Soap dishes fetch $2 while couches from the Canadian company Gus range in price from $989 to $1,590. He also guarantees delivery of the furniture within two to three weeks.
"I don't believe in gouging the customer," he said.
The openly gay Wingard, 41, is also a pioneer of sorts. He is one of the few black business owners to move into the Castro. He joins the owners of a dental office, floral stand, and a yoga studio who also have businesses in the city's gay neighborhood.
Wingard, however, doesn't see himself as breaking down barriers in the business district, which has faced criticism over the years for the paucity of black business owners and employees.
"I don't identify as black or really as gay. I identify as an American," he said. "I am glad I live in a city where I don't have to think about being on the vanguard of being black and gay. In my mind that is the true vanguard. Anyone can go about being whatever they want to be. That is the cutting edge â€“ to be black, gay or whatever they want to be and not even think about it."
Wingard said in planning the new store he never thought that the Castro would not embrace his business.
"I think the Castro has to be the most welcoming place on the face of the planet. I love the Castro. I have always felt welcome here," he said. "I think blacks are very welcome in the Castro. Someone moving to the Castro who is bringing their racist thinking with them will find there is no place for that here."
Those working to see more black-owned businesses in the Castro say it is only a matter of time. Out of the 200 people who have sought the assistance of the LGBT Community Center's economic development program, about 30 percent have been African American. Most are at the early stages of writing a business plan.
"I wish I had more clients ready to get a lease in the Castro. I just haven't gotten many at that point. I am confident that will happen in the future," said Ken Stram, who oversees the center's program.
The closing of two other furniture stores in the Castro, the Barking Frog on Market Street and Castro Street's Home, which closed in the dead of night and allegedly defaulted on delivering furniture to its customers, gave Wingard more pause than anything else about opening a Castro store.
"It made me super hesitant. I had to do it quickly before I thought about it too much," he said. "I think the Castro is ready for it now. Gay men have evolved in what they need. I think they want to shop in their neighborhood. They don't want to go to Hayes Valley or Union Square."
Whether conscious of it or not, Wingard's presence in the Castro is opening people's eyes to a different perspective, not only in how they decorate their homes. Some customers of his store are struck by the fact there are no white people in the photos in his picture frames.
"All the photos in the picture frames in the store are of my family," he said, joking he couldn't afford to pay for the right to use other photographers' work. "I am amazed at how many people come in and say it is so nice to see black people in picture frames."
Wingard is also taking on a leadership role, having joined the board of the new community benefit district for the Castro. Yet he does not see himself as a role model.
"It's very nice to hear if I am being an inspiration to any young, black, gay youth. That makes me feel really good. I don't think like that, but if it works out that way, that brings me a lot of joy," he said.