Boston Fashion and Shopping - A New Era

Boston's famous shopping destination, Newbury Street

Between Banana Republic and Ann Taylor, the Stil Distinctive Clothing boutique stands out for its small, yet eye-catching window display.  One Saturday afternoon, four stark white mannequins hang in the large window sporting flirty and sophisticated black and white designs by new designer Lucy Sykes.  Inside the small boutique, a trunk show featuring Sykes' clothes is lively and diverse. Walking through the door transports the customer from the cold and conservative Boston streets to the edgy and fashion conscious blocks of Soho.

Soothing jazz music infuses the space with a sophisticated air as impossibly flawless models glide by, smiling.  Lucy Sykes stands in a floral shirt dress over skinny jeans and camel pumps, surrounded by men, women and children.  For Chestnut Hill Mall in the suburbs of Boston, the people gathered in Stil are the picture of hip sophistication.  Lively women of many ages try on clothes, sip champagne through straws from pink cans, and browse the sleek metal racks.  Two models strike casual poses, capturing the essence of New York style.  One is dressed in a belted cream-colored chiffon top with ruffled shoulders, cropped black pants with white piping down the leg and black sling back pumps.  Her wavy chestnut hair is pinned to the side, and she looks fresh-faced, without a hint of makeup.  The other brunette models wear the feminine black and white Lucy Sykes' designs impeccably.  They are what customers aspire to be, bringing New York style to everyday Boston life.

A model wears a Lucy Sykes New York design

Sykes is British, and is a picture of perfection when it comes to blending European class with New York style.  With her blonde hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, simple gold jewelry, and charming accent, she pinches the bridge of her nose between her fingers, breathing deeply. Sykes has been working hard to sell her women and children's clothes all day, and is eager to sit down with a cappuccino in the midst of the shopping and chatter. Although this is her first visit to Boston, the trunk show, an event exclusively displaying her collection, is a success, selling about 100 pieces by mid-afternoon.  Ranging from $200 to $350 for separates and dresses, Sykes' designs are clearly going over well in Boston.  A former fashion director for Marie Claire magazine, Sykes began designing in 2004 for children, and continued with her women's line which targets what she calls 'yummy mummies.'  Her clothes are designed with a femininity and flirty sophistication that is not necessarily typical to traditional Boston style, but her immediate success here is a testament to the fact that the city is opening up to new influences.

'I absolutely love [Boston], because it reminds me of London,' gushes Sykes.  'But the biggest difference I see between here and New York is the jeans.  There, we all wear these skinny jeans,' pointing to her own slightly tapered, slim dark jeans, 'and here all the girls are wearing 7 [for all mankind] jeans that flare, like we wore a year ago.  It's like last season here.'  Her observations do have truth, and while there are people in Boston who are on top of all the trends, it takes more time for the styles to change and gain momentum here.  'I'm surprised and happy as to how [the line] is being received, although the people who are shopping in this store are very into fashion,' says Sykes.  'Even on Newbury Street though, I saw Valentino is coming, and it must be a consumer thing because a store like that isn't going to open without doing their research.  Obviously this is the tip of the iceberg, and something is about to happen here.'

A model in unique designs available at Stil Distinctive Clothing

Sykes considers herself a New York designer, but that does not mean that her clothes have no place in Boston.  Her presence at Stil is only one step of many that are necessary get this city to the point where it can shed its preppy, conservative Ralph Lauren image and become a force in the fashion scene. With strong fashion design programs at the School of Fashion Design, Massachusetts College of Art, and Lasell College, Boston is producing talented and forward-thinking designers.  Boutiques like Stil, which is two years old and has another location on Newbury Street, are opening and thriving and are supporting young designers while simultaneously inspiring their customers with unique styles.  Well-established companies like Barneys New York, Jimmy Choo and Valentino are opening stores, and the market is increasing for upscale fashion.  As Sykes sees it, 'there must be something going on if people here are interested in me this teeny tiny New York designer.  It's very inspiring that they're really enjoying it here.'

A Rich History

Historically Boston has always been considered very sophisticated and forward thinking, in the fashion sense it has always lagged behind.  People think about Bostonians wearing preppy Ralph Lauren and stuffy Brooks Brothers.  Stars and celebrity fashion plates go to New York City, Paris and Milan to see the latest trends. In opposition to the city's liberal politics, Bostonians historically prefer a buttoned up, conservative style with a certain English sensibility.

Boston does have fairly well known shopping areas such as Newbury Street, Copley Place Mall and Faneuil Hall, and the added attraction of no sales tax on clothing. Many people know about this tax break, but not many know that it was initiated because Boston was historically such a big manufacturing center for clothes.  The father of Boston fashion is Alfred Fiandaca, according to Jay Calderin, the founder of FashionWEEK Boston and a design instructor at the School of Fashion Design on Newbury Street.  Fiandaca has enjoyed a reputation for dressing first ladies and celebrities, and got his start in East Boston in the 1960s.
Many people do not recognize the history of fashion in Boston and only see its recent growth.  Fashion Group International is an organization for members of the fashion industry in cities around the world.  Headquarters are in New York City, but Boston's chapter was the third in the country and began about 60 years ago.  Anne Vallely is the Regional Director for Boston and has witnessed the style cycles shift due to a number of influences.

The chic Armani Cafe on Newbury Street

'The face of Boston has really changed,' says Vallely. 'We used to think of it as being so preppy and conservative with not a lot of fashion going on. But now you can list all these stores and think of when they arrived here in a very short time.  Parallel that with the economy of Boston, the real estate possibilities and the student factor.'

Students from Boston University, Harvard, Northeastern University, Boston College, Berklee School of Music, MIT, MassArt and many others make the city a hugely diverse college community. Students come from all over this country and the world.  No other American city can boast such a vastly distinct college demographic that shares a symbiotic relationship with the city, taking higher education and history from Boston, and imparting worldly cultures and styles.
'I think it's becoming a lot more open to fashion,' says Calderin. 'The fact that it's such a big college town, and that used to mean boy and girl next door, but in Boston it means international.  It has them taking what Boston has to offer to other places, but their families come in and influence local retailers.' This city is growing economically, culturally and stylistically, and in all directions, encompassing all the influences and styles that are available.

The tourism industry in Boston has been on a steep incline as of late. Every year millions visit.  The Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau counted an increase of about three million leisure visitors per year more than in 1999.   The numbers of business visitors is consistently lower than those here for leisure, and the numbers keep rising.  Tourists from Europe come to Boston instead of New York because it is generally cheaper, and hotels offer lots of packages connected with area shopping.  Boston offers history, fine dining, lower priced hotels, a variety of activities, and increasingly bigger and better shopping. 

'The trend in the demographics of Boston shows that the families that lived in the suburbs are moving into the city,' says Vallely. 'When these well-heeled people lived in the suburbs they might have gone to New York City to do their shopping, but now that they're paying millions of dollars for these luxury apartments, they can afford the high-end merchandise in Boston as well.'  In addition to the residents of Boston being able to afford the designer wares that are available at the newest stores, visitors are spending more money and coming to Boston in droves.   'They're planning conferences in Boston, because it's always been a great city historically, but now we've got shopping too,' says Vallely. 

A fabulous hat designed by Marie Galvin for her hat line, Galvinized Headwear

'I think that some of the best minds come to Boston for school and most remember Boston in a favorable light, making it a more cosmopolitan city,' says Calderin. 'People stay here or come back to work and it's a destination point for tourism. It has grown globally and it's becoming more visible.  Fashion latches onto that.'

A New Era In Luxury

Barneys New York is known as a fashion mecca, and its Madison Avenue store in New York is a destination for fashionistas with a discerning eye and a penchant for cutting edge styles and designers.  In March, Barneys opened in Copley Place, to a city curious about the famed store.  Would Boston's Barneys be conservative to fit the city? Or would it provide the community with new, inspired style? One step inside the wide, angular glass doorway, and there is no hint of Boston's fabled old-world, cable knit style.  Barneys in Copley Place is the real deal. 

An enormous skylight allows sunshine to pour into the store, making every object glow.  The grand staircase looks like the stairway to heaven, though it is actually just the path to the less formal women and men's collections upstairs.  With jewelry and handbags to the left, cosmetics in the middle, couture designers in the back, and the legendary shoe department to the right, shoppers wander a bit awestruck.  Almost like a museum, no more than three of each garment hangs evenly spaced on smooth racks.  Simple signs with names like Nina Ricci, Thakoon, Comme de Garcons, Derek Lam and Proenza Schouler identify the rich, luscious threads as expensive works of art.

A fashion event at Saks Fifth Avenue in the Prudential Center

Upstairs a mostly younger crowd browses the racks for designs by Imitation of Christ, Threeasfour, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Vince, and Habitual jeans.  Glass cases hold funky necklaces and chunky accessories, and in the men's section tables are filled with a rainbow of ties and shirts.  With an edgy vibe, mannequins wear thousands of dollars worth of clothes.  Tags hang off with the designers' names for the shopper who wants to imitate the look.  And many of the shoppers, and certainly the sales associates, do resemble the expertly styled mannequins. 

Barneys' famous shoe department is filled with men pushing strollers as their wives shop for $500 platform sandals. The peaceful, sleeping babies are clueless to the fact that their college funds are being spent on Prada pumps or Christian Louboutin espadrilles.  A tired looking mother waits on a fuchsia leather divan.  She reaches a sparkling, diamond-adorned hand into the stroller at her side to stroke a lock of her baby's hair and kiss her forehead.  A sales girl brings over boxes, and the woman tries on shoes, leaving her sleeping daughter to primp in the mirror.  Unsatisfied, she asks the girl to bring more choices.  A few feet away a woman weighs in on her friend's sandal choice, 'It looks like you're going ballroom dancing.  You can't even walk in them.'  Ten minutes and Prada and Robert Cleigene mules later, the mother decides on a $450 pair of Roberto del Carlo wedges with the help of the sales girl cum personal shopper.  She hands over her Barneys credit card and adds the sleek black and white shopping bag to two others hanging off the stroller. 

Boston will only become more dangerous for these shoe-addicted mothers when Jimmy Choo opens soon in Copley Place.  Although probably not practical for the brick sidewalks of the city, shoes seem to be an acceptable splurge for women of a certain financial bracket, and the market is indeed there for these high-end retailers to continue setting up shop here.  Some women entertain thoughts that they are helping a hurting economy by going shopping.  They're right.  And they are setting the stage for more designers to expand to Boston. 

'It will be quite interesting to see if Boston can support such a mega store [as Barneys],' says Euan Rellie, chairman of Lucy Sykes New York.  'New Yorkers can be snobby and it is only a four hour drive from here but it is so different.  In a way though, Boston is more sophisticated than New York.  It's more substantial.'

An award-winning student design sketch

Fostering New Talent

While New York City has always, and will probably always be the American fashion capital, it is not the only place where one can assemble a career in the fashion industry.  For the most part, New York is where many wannabe designers flock, and where those destined to be great flourish.  Its diversity and size allow for every personality, belief, and style to be displayed through artistic expression.  New York is avant-garde. It is bustling and constantly changing.  It is the great mixing pot.  Boston may not be those things, but it does have tradition.  And with its rich tradition as a base, much is possible.

Massachusetts College of Art was founded in 1873 by the state's legislature, after being persuaded by business leaders whose families had made fortunes in textile manufacturing, railroads and retailing.  The other institutions they founded before MassArt were the MIT and the Museum of Fine Arts, in order to stimulate learning in technology and the arts.  One of MassArt's popular majors is fashion design, and their experienced faculty fosters and develops new designers.
 
Another area school with multiple fashion majors is Lasell College in Newton.  This year the school was so overwhelmed with applications for their fashion programs that it was forced to cut off admissions early.  'There's been a big trend as far as education goes, and like everything else there are cycles,' says Vallely.  'Lasell is getting so big they can't take any more applicants. And the flip side of that is that six or seven years ago people were scrambling for people to design.  For all these schools the cycle is coming back.'

Boston's School of Fashion Design was established in 1934 as an institution dedicated exclusively to the study of fashion design.  The school emphasizes a solid base of traditional techniques while addressing technological advances and the innovative ways in which the industry is evolving.  In the four years Calderin has been teaching at the School of Fashion Design, he has worked with all types of students.

'You get different types of students all the time, and sometimes you get a crop that are really dedicated to their work,' Calderin says.  Many students go into the school with the idea that it is simply about fun, but Calderin says, they come around and realize the work is worth it.  He finds the teaching to be a learning experience as well. 'The teacher needs to keep learning to keep passionate about it.  You see them do really cool things and it gives you hope for the future.' 

Daniela Corte browses through racks of her designs

While there are few boutiques or department stores in Boston that carry local designers' clothes, Stil is one exception, carrying School of Fashion Design alum Daniela Corte's designs.  Corte is Argentinian, but came to Boston to follow family tradition and study fashion design.   After training at the school and with some local designers, Corte founded her own fashion studio called Daniela Corte Fashion, which produces designs that are timeless, elegant and appropriate for many ages.  Her clothes are sold in a few boutiques such as Stil, but she also custom makes clothes by appointment from her Newbury Street studio.
 
'She's in her early 30s but her stuff can go both ways college students and their mothers,' says Bonnie Cardillo, the manager of Stil.  'Her cuts are pretty, easy and wearable.'  Being a local designer has benefits, such as the awards she has accumulated since the inception of her brand in 2000.  She also has the distinction of being the only local designer Stil currently carries. 

Though they are not currently selling more local designs, Stil is a boutique that has taken it upon itself to help change the fashion landscape in Boston.  Contrary to what Barneys offers, Stil introduces mostly Scandanavian and unheard of European designers to New England.  They carry what a shopper could not find at H&M, The Gap or Urban Outfitters.  'We stand out. We don't try to blend in,' says Cardillo.  'Boston is conservative but our clothes could go both ways.  We're definitely a little more edgy and we're helping to break the style barrier and trying to make Boston less conservative in their clothing.'

A model shows off a lace wedding gown for Priscilla of Boston

Stil may be trying to influence Boston with unique and unconventional clothes, but some more established Boston designers are fairly traditional.  Daniela Corte Fashion offers creative options, but Karen Warren Clothing, the label behind local designer Karen Hipwell sells customized but basic dresses and staples to boutiques and stores in New England.  'There are all sorts of strategies and we have all sorts of designers here,' acknowledges Calderin.  'Karen Hipwell lives in the area and started a dress company, and she sells around the country.  There are the values of a great home life here in Boston but you get to be sort of a fashion player.'

There are opportunities for niche designers in the local arena as well.  Ana Hernandez, a former student of Vallely's, has a boutique and studio on Newbury Street for her line, Ana Hernandez Bridal, offering wedding gowns, headwear and accessories that are custom fit and sewn.  Marie Galvin is a local hat designer who began Galvinized Headwear, a line of inventive and distinctive hats sold in area boutiques.  Galvin designs hats for all occasions and has been featured during FashionWEEK Boston in previous years.  Joseph Abboud is a successful classic menswear designer who is from Boston and is now represented in stores nationwide.

Boston offers possibilites for new designers, but they need to garner community support to be a success.  FashionWEEK Boston events are on hold because the way it was progressing was not helping the designers or retailers in the city.  'I believe fashion week in the traditional sense doesn't have the legs for Boston,' says Calderin.  'Other cities have the city and state support, and the press and the buyers. We don't have that here.' 
 
Right now, Calderin is working with locals in the fashion industry to create projects that will feature online virtual archives of local designers and historical trends.  'We'll continue to do shows and events tied into fashion week cycles, but the main thing is going to be education online so that people all over the world can access the designers,' he says.  'We want to foster new talent so they can be competitive in a global market and not have to leave the city they love.'

The inside of a Jasmine Sola boutique -- a favorite amongst teens and college students

Some people see potential in Boston but still recognize insurmountable barriers.  'Part of fashion design is inspiration,' says Anthony Conte, a sales consultant for the past 17 years at Louis Boston.  'In New York you sit at a cafe and see people walking by and you can come up with a motif and a whole line based off it.  It's so easy there. But here I'm not sure that's possible. I haven't seen fabulous things coming out of Boston.'

Louis Boston has been an institution in the city for 75 years and has been known to catch designers on the verge of their coming out.  They do not usually carry local designs, but that is not to say they do not want to.  Conte's opinion can be seen as a way of discrediting Boston, or it could be a challenge to those who do see inspiration in Boston's rich history and character.

The Journey to Greatness

A bright sunny day lures shoppers and working women outside and onto Newbury Street where the newest H&M store attracts customers to its grand opening.  Red and white balloons adorn the open doors, allowing loud club music to leak onto the quiet but busy sidewalk.  Inside the popular store, college students, women in business attire and casual shoppers flood the first floor, squeezing through the racks and aisles as a DJ spins the records that accompany them.  Shoppers search for articles of clothing that imitate the looks from the latest Vogue but at their price point, and translated to meet a certain practicality or use. 

The interior of the Newbury Street Marc by Marc Jacobs store

Stores like Louis Boston, Filene's, Chanel and Neiman Marcus are not new to Boston's shopping scene.  Newbury Street has long been a destination for tourists, students and residents alike.  Moving from upscale at the Public Gardens end of the street, and becoming younger and more trendy toward Massachusetts Avenue, Newbury Street has everything, and it is getting even more. 

'These companies don't go into cities where they haven't researched that there's a market,' says Calderin.  'It's a really good indication for designers that need to forget about competing and just say 'I'm coming to Newbury Street or Copley.' It says a lot about the possibility of surviving and thriving in Boston in a positive way.'
Stores like H&M flourish on students' business, because they provide inexpensive trendy clothes for each season that spice up a wardrobe of basics.  More expensive designer stores such as Marc Jacobs, Nanette Lepore and Max Studio have opened in the past few years, and Jimmy Choo, Kenneth Cole and Valentino are on the way.  This mix of stores allows Bostonians to create their own style, combining many labels.  'People today are not so head to toe,' says Vallely.  'If they can afford Chanel they don't necessarily buy 100 percent Chanel.  They buy the staples from the high-end specialty stores and they take the designer jacket and pair it with things from those other lines.'  The idea that younger people can wear classic pieces like a Chanel jacket paired with jeans, a t-shirt and funky jewelry, is a fairly new one in Boston, but not to the rest of the fashion world.  'These boutiques offer your own signature look combined with established designers to end up looking very fashion forward,' says Vallely. 

Another element is the competition between established stores and new boutiques and designers. 'We find that there's competition in any city,' says Jeff Mullen, manager of Marc Jacobs.  'You're going to find your brand in other stores, but I look at it as an opportunity to continue to shop to find another option.  If a client is curious to know about other fabrics or styles they tend to come here, so it's to our benefit.'  Mullen finds Boston very conservative in comparison with New York, Los Angeles and San Fransisco, but sees the diverse student body and visiting families as a benefit to the way Boston is perceived visually. 

While years ago, students in Boston were thought of as slouching into class in jeans and a sweatshirt, there are now many who dress to make a statement or to shape their image.  Drawing on the idea that Boston is the largest college town in the country, Ralph Lauren took a chance in opening a store for its newest clothing line here a year and a half ago.  Rugby is a Ralph Lauren brand geared toward students who are bored with the plain polo shirts and corduroys offered by the parent store.   The funky store at the Mass Ave. end of Newbury Street is filled with edgy clothes.  Polo shirts feature rugby players, khaki pants are embroidered with black skull and crossbones, and jeans are torn and embellished.  This is not your mother's Ralph Lauren this is the Ralph Lauren of the new Boston. 

The Rugby store window on Newbury Street

Rugby stores have opened in New York City and Charlottesville, VA more recently, and the first location is constantly busy and introducing new trends.  The current window display has a nautical theme, but with a little bit of punk thrown in.  The new ideas being thrown into the mix of Boston fashion can only improve the overall reputation and look of the city.

'Because so much has come to Boston, it's more on people's brains and there's more of a focus now,' Calderin says of the current mood.  'There's a lot more avant-garde stuff going on in New York, but there is something special in the fact that people have more of a conservative vibe here.  In New York it is much more about image and you become numb to it because you see all these outrageous things.  If you notice something clever here, you can appreciate it so much more.' 
'We love people to ask questions and understand fashion,' says Conte.  'Clothing is a mood enhancer, whether it makes you feel sexy or comfortable, it's important to feel something about clothing.' Whether sticking with sensible sweaters and slacks, or building a unique style from a variety of influences and pieces, the success in Boston right now is that people are becoming interested in fashion.  The recent influx of stores and young designers to the city is important to the growth of the industry.  It will never be and never should be New York City, but Boston is growing toward reaching its fashion potential. 

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