Category Archives: Fashion and the City

Travel in Search of Vintage

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My grandmother Edith used to buy a set of salt & pepper shakers in every place she traveled. It was an eclectic collection, with some sets reflecting the specific place (like Mexican sombreros) and others not (like the set shaped like two stalks of celery). Her children and grandchildren also started sending her sets from where they traveled. The shelves where Grandma displayed the salt & pepper sets were right at eye-level for us grandkids, and I would always peruse the shelf for new ones, asking where they came from, who brought them. I would pick them up, turn them over, and examine them with interest thinking about the place from where they came.

I think many of us want to bring back something specific from the places we visit that reminds us of our travel, something that reflects the particulars of a place. We want to find gifts for our loved ones that can’t be found anywhere else. And doesn’t everyone still have that excited thought (leftover from being a kid) when a family member comes home, “What did you bring me? What did you bring me?!” And it’s not the latest from Target that we’re hoping for; we’re hoping for something we can’t find here, at home. Travel is supposed to give us a break from monotony and routine, including the clothing, objects and foods we bring back.

But finding something specific to a place has become harder to do. While there are always local food items – spice mixes, a fancy olive oil, rhubarb wine – with airline restrictions, even that is getting harder. Clothing is also difficult. Stores in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have pretty much the same items as they do in Twin Cities. An H & M in Paris might have slightly different shirts than one in Minneapolis, but really, who cares?  And even if I buy an I Love NY T-shirt, it’s still likely to actually be made in Bangladesh or India.

This state of affairs is not new – I remember when I studied abroad in the late 1980s I was surprised to find Benetton, Esprit  and look-alike department stores in every major European city. It was then that I discovered that shopping secondhand is key to finding local or at least unique items while traveling. I first discovered this at the Waterlooplein Market in Amsterdam. I came home with aging Dutch lace curtains like the ones I saw in nearly every window, a short olive-colored Dutch army jacket and a crisp white cotton lace-trimmed nightgown, which I intended to belt and wear as a dress. The secondhand markets have been a something I look forward to on every trip.

And the vintage stores. I’ve learned that looking up city streets and neighborhoods where vintage shops cluster is key to discovering the part of town where more local, unique shops in general can be found. There’s a reason. When geographers Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe studied where vintage and secondhand shops cluster (for the book Second-Hand Cultures), they found that retro shops are found in urban neighborhoods with more edge than the “high streets” occupied by franchised stores. This occurs because such areas have lower rents. Vintage stores clustering with businesses that attract a similar crowd do best; thus the tendency for vintage shops to be located on streets with coffee shops, tattoo parlors, funky breakfast-all-day diners, t-shirt screen printing shops, and local designers trying to make a go of bricks-and-mortar retail.

I was recently in Vancouver, British Columbia and looked up where the vintage shops cluster. Sure enough, Main Street not only produced a fun vintage store tour of Vancouver (C’est La Vie Vintage, Woo Vintage, F as in Frank), but also shops that sold the work of local Vancouver designers (Twigg & Hottie Boutique, Two of Hearts Boutique, Devil May Wear or Motherland). I actually came home with some cool things that contain a “Made in Canada” label.

Making vintage stores a must-do for travel has also helped me see overall “trends” in vintage. While not as homogenous as H & Ms, there can also be a certain sameness to vintage shops. For example, it seems like the majority of vintage clothing stock is polyester. I think of this as an evolutionary process – a sort of “survival of the fittest” in used clothing, the Triumph of Polyester – because it, like other plastics, lasts forever. Vintage stores almost always have a certain whimsy, carnivalesque quality to them – mannequins dressed in wild hats, garish patterns, bright colors. And there’s usually a certain messiness – a sense that one has to hunt a little to make the great find (in fact, Gregson & Crewe found that making customers forage a bit was often key to making customers feel like they’ve found a bargain).

Vancouver vintage store mannequinsVancouver vintage store door

And of course, I observe regional variations in vintage stores. For example, forget trying to find nice vintage sweaters in cold-climate stores – people here won’t give up a good sweater, even in the afterlife. Los Angeles vintage stores are impeccable – only perfect-as-a-Hollywood-costumes are on the racks. Places where it rains a lot (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver) have more leather coats in stock.

After years of making vintage shopping a much-anticipated part of my travel experiences, I’ve got a closet full of clothes that remind me not just of other times (distant from my own life), but of places and trips that have had meaning for me.

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Paris and the Time Traveling Tourist

I was cleaning out a closet this weekend, when I rediscovered a scrapbook I made after my first trip to Europe. It was 1984, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, and I had been a member of a American-Canadian orchestra that toured Europe – six countries in two weeks. Traveling from my farm in rural North Dakota to Holland, Germany, Lichtenstein, France, Switzerland and Belgium remains the most mind-opening two weeks of my life. “How are you going to keep them back on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” indeed.

As our group traveled through Europe, I bought trinkets for my family and friends, and I saved every single shopping bag and even paper placemats from fast-food joints. The different languages, styles of graphic design and fonts all fascinated me – everything from Europe looked different, and different was good.

Paris was the city that made the biggest impression on me during that whirlwind tour. We of course visited the major Paris landmarks, including the Champs-Elysees. In the small bit of free time that I had, I bought an aqua, loose-fitting, squarish summer jacket, and a pair of leather charcoal gray oxford shoes that I adored (and unfortunately grew out of by the following summer). Both were designed and made in Paris.

Unfortunately, the days when a seventeen-year old farm girl could go to Paris and come home with a French-made jacket and pair of shoes from the Champs-Elysées have passed.

“The Champs-Elysées, a Mall of America” was the headline of a New York Times story by Steve Erlanger on how there is little French culture or couture on the Champs-Elysées amongst the international brands that have taken over the grand boulevard such as The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, H & M, Tiffany & Co., Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch.  

Sociologist George Ritzer uses the phrase the Mcdonaldization of Society to describe how the production and consumption “efficiencies” of the fast food industry have spread throughout other types of industries (apparel being one of them). One of the key downsides of globalized McDonaldization is cultural homogenization, something the French have fought in other areas of culture such as food and language.  But the Champs-Elysées is apparently a casualty, taking on some of the homogenized characteristics of what James Howard Kunstler referred to as a “Geography of Nowhere;” urban spaces where the same brand-name stores occupy the main commercial districts, giving what could be distinctive places a look of sameness.

Of course, Paris’s architecture saves the Champs-Elysées from the banal soul-lessness of Kunstler’s suburban geography of nowhere.  According to a Franco-American joint research project, “What Makes Paris Look Like Paris?” the look of Paris is unique, its urban planning grammar recognizable to almost anyone, even when simply viewing random images from Paris streets that do not contain its iconic landmarks.

While we should all rejoice that Paris still looks like Paris, I do regret that the interiors – the shop floors – no longer look like Paris, but, as the headline said, like the Mall of America.  French-made apparel still exists. Mephisto still produces shoes in France, and there are small boutiques that feature French designers whose garments are custom-made (though such boutiques are not on the Champs-Elysées). Unfortunately, I can only look, not buy, since a purchase would be a major investment.

My interest in vintage clothing was also cultivated during that 1984 tour of Europe. I remember an Amsterdam outdoor clothing market that had a mix of old and new clothing (possibly the Waterlooplein Market). I bought a secondhand short wool Dutch Army jacket that I thought looked quite smart.

The flea markets and the secondhand shops have been my shopping destinations abroad for years now, although unfortunately, even open-air flea markets now hawk more new, cheap, China-made garments than secondhand.

Nonetheless, the secondhand spaces are the only places where I feel like I have a chance of finding apparel that is local, and where I can possibly come across something unique that I possibly could not find at home.

It is telling –  today I not only travel to a different country, but I must time travel in order to bring back a souvenir that is made in France.

– Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by author

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Fashion Cities of the World and the U.S.

While Paris was once the undisputed center of the western fashion world, it has had to share the stage with a number of other strong players in the last ten years. This week for The Atlantic Cities, Richard Florida and Sara Johnson wrote about The World’s Leading Cities for Fashion. The top cities were London, New York and Barcelona, with Paris coming in fourth.

The cities were ranked on the basis of how much fashion buzz they generated this year in the news media, the internet, on blogs and on Twitter. This list of top 20 global fashion cities reveals that the buzz around fashion is no longer limited to Europe and North America. Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Bali, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Singapore and Tokyo all made it onto the top 20 list.

Of course, “buzz” is just one way to determine who’s hot and who’s not in fashion. Another way of measuring “world fashion cities” is by looking at where there are concentrations of people who work within the fashion industry, for example as designers, seamstresses, textile workers, or staff at fashion design schools. According  Jasmine Watts for Yahoo, in 2007 list of the Top Five Cities for Shoppers and Industry Careers, Paris maintained its top position as a fashion center at the industry level; it was followed by Milan, New York, London and Tokyo in the top five list.

Florida and Johnson analyzed which U.S. cities are centers of fashion domestically, also basing their rankings on where there is fashion industry occupation concentrations. New York was on top, followed by Los Angeles. This makes sense, given the mix of fashion design schools, garment districts, and (particularly in the case of New York) the location of fashion industry corporate headquarters these cities possess. But smaller cities rounded out the top five, including Columbus, Ohio and Nashville, Tennessee, which both ranked just ahead of the San Francisco bay area.

Florida and Johnson also discuss how the city as a location influences designers’ visions. You may see the occasional ad with a picture a model wearing a a striking gown in the middle of a rural meadow. However, most often when we think of fashion, it is an urban image, whether it’s The Sartorialist’s or Bill Cunningham’s streetstyle photos, fashion ads that pose models hailing cabs, or the glamorous window displays of boutiques and department stores. As I wrote in my post An Urban Ecology of Fashion, ” It is the city with its storefronts and plate-glass windows, its sidewalks, plazas, bars, coffee shops, nightclubs and theaters that is the setting where fashion blooms and becomes a feast for the eyes.”

– Nancy L Fischer

1st photo is from Yahoo.com (see linked article); 2nd photo is by the author.

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An Urban Ecology of Fashion

In one sense in North America today, one could say fashion is suburban, not urban. According to the 2010 census, most cities in the U.S. have continued to lose population to their surrounding rings of suburbs, where most Americans now live. What this means in terms of fashion is that, from a retail standpoint, most clothing is purchased in suburban malls, not city boutiques, department stores, or vintage shops. And yet, to think of suburban fashion seems oxymoronic. Critic James Howard Kunstler refers to the suburban landscape with its ubiquitous chain stores as a “geography of nowhere.” There is some truth in the observation that many suburban spaces lack specificity — a sense of being in a particular place with a particular history that can be recognized from its built environment. It is no wonder that fashion designers, editors and marketers often refer to the apparel they hawk as having an “urban look,” an “urban edge,” or an “urban feel.”  It is the city with its storefronts and plate glass windows, its sidewalks, plazas, bars, coffee shops, nightclubs and theaters that is the setting where fashion blooms and becomes a feast for the eyes.

Georg Simmel observed that there is an inherent paradox of fashion; to be fashionable, one must both stand out and fit in. And the city is the setting where the success of one’s efforts are judged. With a large audience of strangers whose gaze one can attempt to attract or avoid, urban dwellers must decide where to locate themselves on the continuum of standing out and fitting in. Many people dress to be looked at in the city – at least to attract a glance or a brief acknowledgement. With the exception of teenagers, the suburban shopping mall is not a place where shoppers “dress to impress” those who walk its broad corridors. There is something about the city street that communicates the social significance of public space which makes strolling down a fashion avenue an engaging visual experience, whether one looks at the store windows or at the reflections of others looking.

In fact, fashion, in terms of how it is displayed for visual consumption in store windows on city streets, has the ability to define an urban area perhaps like no other commercial good. The display of clothing can determine whether there is active street life in particular parts of the city. It seems that only fashion retail can draw people to slowly walk up and down a particular avenue, looking at the window displays and at one another, even after stores have closed for the evening.

William Whyte, in the Street Life Project in which he studied the public plazas of New York, observed that the number one activity there was “People watching people…watching people.” Fashion has always been dependent upon cities for providing spaces where there is a potential audience to gaze upon those who walk its sidewalks. Elizabeth Wilson in Adorned in Dreams describes how eighteenth century Paris was a city where fashionable aristocrats promenaded in their finery through its parks and boulevards. As Thorstein Veblen observed, displays of class difference was the point of fashion for most of its history, though the 20th century eventually witnessed more diverse displays of street style. Veblen, were he alive today, would have difficulty recognizing class difference through dress. Valerie Steele contends that this blurring of class boundaries through fashion represents a “democratization of fashion.” The types of clothing purchased by elites is no longer noticeably different from that bought by the middle-class.

But the spaces where different types of fashion is sold is not democratic. These spaces are marked in ways that remain deeply inscribed by class.  There is a reason why, in Chicago, elite brands like Burberry, Escada and Ferragamo seek storefronts on Michigan Avenue and not the suburban shopping mall. Such downtowns of major cities remain the centers of finance, and therefore they are most likely to have the elite “one percent” of the population who can afford their apparel.

Crowds stroll up and down these fashion avenues to look in the windows of the elite boutiques, but affluent stores’ use of subtle codes signal middle-class customers not to venture further than window-shopping. And thus Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, and Armani are relatively quiet, their clerks patiently waiting for a wealthy customer to pay $2,000 for fine Italian wool slacks, while there are lines at the cash registers of the Michigan Avenue H & M, Banana Republic and the Gap. These same stores could be found at the mall, but in the built environment of downtown, the stores for the wealthy seem equal to the mass-market retailers, thus adding to their allure in this particular urban space.

When looking at fashion magazines it is easy to forget that designer fashion is only one part of “Fashion.” There are multiple fashion scenes in metropolitan areas, with smaller scenes occupying the commercial main streets of neighborhoods that cater to the specific communities who live nearby. Here, the store windows may display clothes that appeal primarily to working-class African Americans. And, there are immigrant neighborhoods whose windows are filled with brightly-colored head scarves and the ankle-length skirts of the East African immigrants.

There are also alternative fashion scenes for those who want to bypass mainstream homogeneity and find the unique or quirky. These scenes are marked as “edgy” by the way the urban spaces are coded by graffiti, a bit of grittiness, and post-industrial decay.

Clusters of vintage and secondhand clothing stores, and indie boutiques often appear in these areas. If the stores in the downtown fashion avenues suggest affluence and elegance, the atmosphere of these fashion scenes suggest irony. Such stores are playful, with a somewhat disheveled layout; shelves of old toys, mid-century housewares and oddball art interspersed with the clothing. Playing the role of urban ethnographer, I observe hipster couples who make a Saturday of visiting the secondhand shops in Northeast Minneapolis, first joking with one another about buying the outrageous kitsch items that first attract their eyes. After the joking back and forth of “you should get this [red, white and blue sequined short shorts],” they become serious, intently foraging through racks and bins for the perfect ironic t-shirt or disco dress for an upcoming 80s party.

What the secondhand and vintage shops add to the urbane fashion scene is a sense of  spontaneity, discovery and surprise. Chain stores like Urban Outfitters, American Apparel or Brooklyn Industries try to capture some of the vintage/secondhand stores’ ambiance by locating themselves within the same neighborhoods and having a similar set-up, with small toys, kitschy apartment-wares, and clothing. If shoppers do not find the perfect fit in the vintage store, success is more likely to be found in these chains that at least have a retro look about them.

According to Nicky Crewe and Louise Gregson in Secondhand Cultures, the resale shops and vintage clothing stores in the “edgy” parts of town are eventually threatened by the very sartorial popularity they help create for these urban areas. Chain stores encroach, nearby buildings are rehabbed into condos, the rents rise, and eventually the resale shops with their smaller profit margins try to find other “up-and-coming” parts of the city that attract hipster youth who are also likely to move on, away from the gentrification, thus maintaining a cycle of fashion defining and redefining the scenes of the city.

As the world economic recession continues and Western cities become more economically polarized, the question arises of whether all of these multiple metropolitan fashion scenes – suburban malls, elite flagships, small ethnic boutiques and vintage shops – can all remain part of the urban shopping ecology.

[All photos in this essay were taken by the author, Nancy Fischer]

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