A dozen stories up, in a building overlooking Union Square, six artisans sit in white lab coats with magnifying glasses, painstakingly working on Goyard handbags and luggage. Not stitching them, but carefully embellishing the French luxury goods with monograms, stripes, flowers, animals and any other design its customers can dream up.
The painting workshop is one of only three in the world operated by Goyard - the other two are in Tokyo and Carcassonne, in the south of France. The San Francisco office handles all the work requested by customers in the United States, at a rate of 250 to 300 wallets, canvas totes, rolling luggage and other pieces every month of the year, all year long.
Monogramming - from hand-embossed initials on Gucci bags to Ferragamo's Red Carpet customized shoes - is a surefire way to add an extra level of panache to luxury goods. It also burnishes the appeal of mass-market products, from personalized M&Ms and initial necklaces to Converse tennies with the customer's nickname on the heel.
Goyard, however, has been at it for more than a century.
The French trunk maker, reputed to be the oldest and most prestigious in business, has roots in the House of Martin, founded in 1792, and became Goyard in 1853. The company emerged as a favorite of aristocratic families, who had their trunks painted with coats of arms.
"The monogramming has never stopped," said Graciela Cors, studio design manager for the Goyard franchise in San Francisco. "It's one of the few houses that kept the tradition."
In the days of steamship travel, when many trunks looked alike, monograms and coats of arms were useful for identification, Cors said. Today, Goyard clients enjoy the customization as a status symbol and a fashion perk.
Certainly, anyone could slap a decal on a handbag, tote bag or purse to make a statement. But Goyard's monogramming is meant to last the lifetime of the bag or trunk.
The process starts with the purchase of a bag, wallet or trunk. Goyard sells its wares in boutiques here and in Tokyo, London and Paris, and also at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and Barneys New York department stores in New York, Boston and Beverly Hills. Customers are presented with 17 colors and two styles of lettering for monograms, stripes, words or other images. Customers may also present their own design motifs - including house pets, dragons, zodiac signs, nautical symbols, company logos and free-form drawings, to name a few.
Each design is transferred to a stencil, then mapped out on the product, and hand-painted with boar hair brushes for a smooth finish. The paints are oil-based, and artisans mix them with solvents and glue, all measured to the gram, to adhere better to product surfaces.
Depending on the intricacy of the design and the number of colors used, each piece might take between two weeks and two months to finish. Each coat of paint requires 24 hours to dry.
Painters train at Goyard headquarters before being allowed to work on the line's pricey bags, to avoid costly mistakes. Among San Francisco's six artisans is Gerardo Ruiz, hired by Goyard a year ago. An engineer by training, he enjoys painting because "it's different every time, with different colors - it's challenging," he said. Christine Mendez, who has worked for six years in the studio 13 floors above the Goyard boutique, studied art history and photography. She worked previously at a research center for archaeology in Mexico, restoring archaeological finds in a lab. "I am quite good with my hands," she said.
Although intended to be permanent, the monograms can be removed, a request often made when a customer divorces and her initials change. Jessica Simpson, for instance, removed the center letter from a monogram after she split from Nick Lachey, and replaced it with a star, Cors said.
The work is difficult and time-consuming, requiring the use of chemicals and tweezers for months to pry pinprick-size chips of paint off the surface one at a time. The surface is then usually repainted.
Like Goyard products, which run from $1,600 for a canvas tote bag to $6,000 or more for a trunk, the monogramming service comes at a price - about $150 for lettering, another $150 for stripes, $600 for a flower and up. A customer from Dubai recently bought a trunk on wheels and requested a cable car to be painted on one side and the family shield on the other, a graphic that Cors designed from scratch, and a project that will add $3,000 to the bill.
The artisans take their work seriously, some to the point of waking up in the night with worry, said Lizbeth Becera, who has worked at the studio for five years. "Sometimes you have nightmares about the customer being upset and refusing to take the bag," she said.
Luckily, said boutique manager Marcela Sepulveda, that has never happened in San Francisco.
Cors said the biggest problem occurs when husbands come in to buy a bag and pick out the monogram and stripes to surprise their wives. They forget one important thing: They aren't customizing it for themselves.
"Pay for the painting, but let her choose," Cors advised. "Wives often hate the colors they pick."