A catalog comes to life on Fillmore

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By Barbara Kate Repa

While putting the finishing touches on on her new Fillmore store, owner Annie Hurlbut was interrupted often and lovingly by longtime devotees of the Peruvian Connection catalog who welcomed the shop and thanked her for providing its unique designs.

Peruvian Connection’s clothes are romantic and elegant — a departure from the sleek styles shown in most new chic boutiques. The original concept, Hurlbut says, is far from trendy: “Imagine you’re an ethnographer from the 1800s and you could bring back things from another era you love.” Most of the offerings are made of soft alpaca or pima cotton, many hand-knit or hand-crocheted by artisans and colored with subtle vegetable dyes.

Noted knitwear designer Kaffe Fassett currently fashions a small batch of sweaters for the company. “When Kaffe called up out of the blue 10 years ago and said he’d like to make sweaters for us, I was blown away,” Hurlbut says. “But I told him, ‘First, I have a confession to make: I’ve been knocking you off for years.’ The two agreed to agree they had merely inspired one another’s business.

Although Peru was her original inspiration for the company’s muted and earthy offerings, Hurlbut is also widely open to other influences — especially Persia, southeast Asia and France. The print of one robe, for instance, is based on a piece of vintage fabric from a flea market in Paris. A geometric vest was inspired by a Bolivian weaving.

The store’s interior at 2326 Fillmore has been transformed in keeping with the company’s Victorian zeitgeist. The original floors from a turn of the century shipyard are matched with distressed lumber detailing, the walls covered in 100-year-old wallpaper. Hurlbut says she wants it to feel like someone’s home. She welcomes customers with the shop’s eclectic decor, much of it found furnishings from Peru, such as a worn wooden display table from the Andes. Portraits adorning the walls came from Bolivia.

Other details are also hard-thought and pitch perfect. The shopping bags bear a photo of a female artisan by Martin Chambi, one of the first major Latin American photographers. “I horsetraded with Chambi’s grandson to get permission to use and colorize that portrait on our bags — promising to use it respectfully,” she says.

“There they have the feeling that anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” Hurlbut says, gesturing to a small wall weaving that took six months to complete. “Only in the Andes are they crazy enough to put in that time and effort.”

Hurlbut hails from Tonganoxie, a small farm town just west of Kansas City. But early on she was stricken with wanderlust. As a sophomore studying archeology at Yale, she told a professor she wanted to “do something meaningful” over the summer — and he recommended working on a dig with a friend of his on a site in Peru. “I remember telling my mom about it,” Hurlbut recalls. “We were Kansas farmers, so a plane ticket to Peru was something they would have to dig deep for. But she just said, ‘You’re going.’ ”

And after spending that summer in the region, she was a goner. “Cuzco is especially gorgeous. You feel like you’re back in time,” she says. “The new stuff there is 400 years old; the old stuff was around in 1400 A.D.”

It also has one of the richest textile traditions in the world. And it was there that Hurlbut snagged the sweater that started it all: an alpaca sweater coat with a ribbed waist intended as a gift for her mother’s 50th birthday. “She didn’t like smelly old things like I do. It took forever to find something refined,” she says. The sweater turned heads and garnered envy among her mother’s friends, one of whom suggested they import them.

“And so we went into the wholesale biz,” she says now. An article in The New York Times style section spurred 5,000 requests for their catalog. “Mom and I started the catalog in 1976, the same time Roger Horchow started his. There was an explosion of wishbooks in the ’80s, but we came of age in an era of much less competition and much more demand.”

Her mother, Biddy Hurlbut, who died recently, worked with her for 20 years, filling orders for goods from their Kansas farm. “She didn’t do travel or design, but she was a constant presence. My dad helped too — but he also thought the two of us should clean the barn.”

Hurlbut says she long contemplated a store in the Bay Area, home to one of Peruvian Connection’s biggest customer bases, and agreed to the space on Fillmore sight unseen. “That was such a good call,” she says now, emphasizing that the shop is a good complement to the worldly wares offered by landlord Claudio Barone in his Cottage Industry shop next door. “He liked that we had a respect for other cultures,” she says.

The landlord saved the day during renovations by rescuing a large swath of antique wallpaper that workers had damaged and discarded. Now hanging on a dressing room wall, its injuries were cleverly blended with faux painting. “I loved that making lemonade aspect. It looks like it’s always been here,” says Hurlbut.

“Can you believe that view?” she says, suddenly taken by the look of the weathered bricks on the building next door. “And I love the uneven floors — the perfect imperfections of this place.”

The San Francisco location is the fourth brick and mortar store. The flagship store, bigger by far than the others, opened in Washington, D.C., in 2008. Others are in Santa Fe, Manchester, Vermont, and Kansas City, Missouri. But Hurlbut says she has no aspirations to become a large chain, predicting she will top off at no more than eight stores. “They’ll only be in places we really want to be — and we’ll always walk away from malls,” she says.

A new foray for fall will be simple pottery dinnerware. There will also be an increasing number of housewares and gift items in stock as the holidays near — along with rugs and a few taxidermy selections.

While most of the store is stocked with apparel for women, there are also a few choice items for men — including a full-length overcoat of ultra-soft alpaca and wool for $575. “I’m proud of our prices,” says Hurlbut. “And imagine if a guy wanted to look cool in the wind,” she says, flipping open the lapel to reveal the gold silk lining piped in red. “Sometimes I force men to try this on — not so they’ll buy it, but just so they can see how handsome they’ll look.”