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Lisa Pierpont’s annual women-only party in her Victorian near downtown Boston is billed as a potluck. But the night is more about styling than baking.
“Who’s that by?” and “where did you score that?” are often the conversation openers as guests bond over Chardonnay.
Fashion has come out of the closet in Boston, the city that defined preppiness and New England pragmatism (read: flannels from L.L. Bean and bargains from Filene’s basement) rather than Miu Miu platforms.
“In the past five years that Yankee repression has thawed,” said Pierpont, a former ABC affiliate television producer in Boston who launched the Web site Boldfacers.com last year to profile the city’s creative class.
“Fashion has been traditionally viewed as anti-intellectual, shallow and self-indulgent,” Pierpont said. “Now it’s seen as a respectable and interesting form of art.”
The city has loosened up because of its young population, a concentration of universities that cultivates an entrepreneurial culture and burgeoning industries such as biotech that recruit stylish out-of-towners.
There are also shifts in the social landscape — a hipster contemporary art scene and younger, more aggressively fashionable women stepping out in Christian Louboutin heels and onto prominent cultural and charitable boards. The colorful plumage of Roberto Cavalli or Etro is now spotted in restaurants, along with Chloé and Balenciaga at charity luncheons and avant-garde pieces from Comme des Garçons or Martin Margiela at artsy parties.
Luxury store openings are rolling ahead and several major new mixed-used developments with substantial retail may help transform the city’s South End, historically a blue-collar enclave.
About 120,000 people viewed re-creations of Parisian couture runways that Museum of Fine Arts, Boston curator Pamela Parmal staged last year. And more than 100 people paid $1,000 each in 2006 to join the MFA’s Fashion Council, a group that will travel to New York this winter to tour designers’ studios.
“We tried to launch a similar fashion group in the Eighties and it just didn’t fly,” Parmal said. Now, however, “there is a growing interest in — and willingness to spend on — fashion.”
Several fashion publications have launched to chronicle the scene. Charity balls have taken to restaging New York runway shows for an evening’s entertainment. And in September, organizers resuscitated Boston Fashion Week, although there seemed to be as many panel discussions about fashion as designers attempting to show it.
“There is more conscious interest and intent in dressing well,” said Debi Greenberg, owner of the influential specialty store Louis Boston, which has brought emerging designers to the city. “There is receptivity to learning about new labels.”
The intensity of fashion coverage on cable television and the Internet, coupled with expansion of global luxury brands’ demographic and psychological shifts — what retailers call “psychographics” — among women has developed new fashion audiences everywhere.
“I can’t think of any secondary market that hasn’t gotten more fashionable,” In Style creative director Hal Rubenstein said at a recent luncheon celebrating the Chanel boutique’s 10th year in Boston. “Boston, Atlanta, Seattle, you name it.”
But there are specific local factors propelling change, too. Health care and education, along with biotechnology draw a national and international talent pool and have emerged as the city’s growth industries. About one-quarter of Boston residents are foreign-born, according to The Boston Foundation, which studies economic and demographic factors.
These transplants, whether affluent students attending Boston University or scientists working at a Cambridge, Mass., start-up, are a major force in quickening Boston’s fashion pulse and diversifying its ideas about design and beauty.
“It’s the Texans, the New Yorkers and the rest of us who have tried to give this town a shake,” said Becky Bruce, a Texan who built a career at Gillette’s headquarters downtown and lives in the Back Bay neighborhood. Until recently, like many fashionable Bostonians, Bruce did most of her shopping via air shuttle — to New York.
Significantly, the region is affluent. In 2005, the metropolitan area had the country’s third-highest average household income after the Washington-Baltimore metro area and the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the Boston Indicators Project, a nonprofit research initiative studying macroeconomic conditions.
The rising luxury tide during the last three years has brought to Boston or the metro area high-end names, including Bottega Veneta, Michael Kors, two more Burberry doors, an additional Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Valentino, Loro Piana, Marc Jacobs and Jimmy Choo. The Christian Dior in Copley Place mall has been expanded to add ready-to-wear and Saks Fifth Avenue just completed a major overhaul. Next year, Gucci will open its second Boston-area store in Natick Collection in Natick, Mass.
The Barneys New York flagship that opened last year in Copley Place is outpacing sales expectations, said executive vice president of stores Michael Celestino. Lanvin, Balenciaga, Christian Louboutin shoes and Goyard handbags are among top performers. Until recently, Barneys had reserved Goyard for its Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive flagships, but brought the brand to Boston as a test and the goods have prospered.
New contemporary boutiques, flush with $600 swing coats and $300 pencil skirts, are colonizing the South End, now the city’s hottest restaurant scene. Stores like Parlor, Turtle and Looc search out small labels globally, but Parlor and Turtle have worked particularly hard to promote local designers like Jess Meyer, whose Myre line features tailored jackets and dresses.
“I can do so much more of my buying here,” said Alisa Neely, a personal shopper whose knee-high, gray Mayle boots attracted attention at Pierpont’s potluck.
Neely’s business of dressing suburban women has taken off. In addition to one-on-one work, she hosts how-to seminars in affluent suburban towns like Winchester, Mass., breaking down trends and advising women on what to dump from their closets.
New fashion and lifestyle magazines are lining up to cash in on new advertising dollars. Boston Common — sister publication to Gotham and other socialite-focused glossies — launched in 2005. Its winter issue features a cover profile of Boston University grad and actress Emily Deschanel.
It’s been followed by two ventures from Boston Globe Media — the monthly Fashion Boston, which launched in September, and Lola, a lifestyle magazine geared toward women, which kicked off this month.
Burberry, which in September opened its third Boston-area store in Natick Collection, has seen all its Boston-area stores exceeding sales expectations, including a smaller concept in Copley Place that focuses on accessories, handbags and outerwear. The city “really has this enormous, powerful international clientele…we never bought into the old stereotypes that Boston wouldn’t understand fashion,” said Eugenia Ulasewicz, president of Burberry USA.
Affluent women are increasingly choosing to raise a family here and benefit from the city’s commercial and cultural fruits.
“I can definitely attest to the growth of families who have opted to stay in the city,” said Anna Cheshire Levitan, who is active in philanthropy and is raising three children in Boston. Levitan, a South Georgia native, called the growth of fashion in Boston over the past several years “exponential.”
She cochaired last year’s Carmen Ball, an evening featuring a Marc Jacobs fashion show that raised more than $1 million for the Boston Ballet. Looks from Narciso Rodriguez, Valentino, Chanel and Oscar de la Renta are well represented at the galas and committee meetings, but this year’s obsession, said Levitan, is “Dior, Dior, Dior — bags, shoes, dresses.”
There’s also a stylish contemporary art crowd, responsible for raising $62 million to build the new Diller, Scofidio + Renfro-designed Institute of Contemporary Art, a building that cantilevers dramatically over the harbor.
The ICA supporters, tacitly recognized as being part of Boston’s more chic social scene, are predominantly in their 30s and 40s, well-traveled and invested in keeping the quality of life they enjoy in Boston while pushing it to catch up with other top-tier cities. To fete ICA’s first anniversary in its stylish new building on Dec. 3, Ferragamo is flying in its men’s wear designer, Massimiliano Giornetti, to style and host a runway show.
For all the change, Boston does not approach New York for fashion sophistication or Los Angeles for youth culture. Fashion Boston editor Alexandra Hall writes a regular column called “This Is a Test,” dissecting a runway trend against the likelihood Bostonians will actually wear it.
“I’ve always said this city has a great B.S. meter,” Hall said. “So even while we are embracing new fabulousness, we remain by nature somewhat skeptical.”