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The Consumers Behind the Money

NEW YORK — "You see people coming in here who could buy the store," said Jack Mitchell, president of Mitchell’s of Westport and Richard’s of Greenwich, two high-end specialty emporiums in southern Connecticut.<br><br>That explains,...

NEW YORK — “You see people coming in here who could buy the store,” said Jack Mitchell, president of Mitchell’s of Westport and Richard’s of Greenwich, two high-end specialty emporiums in southern Connecticut.

That explains, no doubt, why lower Fairfield County, which also includes wealthy pockets of real estate such as Stamford and Norwalk, landed the top spot on the list of U.S. metropolitan markets with the highest average per capita expenditures on women’s apparel. (See The WWDList, page 10.)

“These are fashion-conscious areas,” said Pari Kreutter, personal shopper at Saks Fifth Avenue at the Stamford Town Center. “We’re sort of the barometer of whether people are still buying. It’s that top 2 percent that buys constantly.”

On the face of it, the list seems to have some surprises — and glaring omissions. For example, where is New York City? The world-class shopping mecca didn’t even make the top 25. That’s because the wide disparity of income among residents dragged down the household average.

How about Dallas, the city of glittering malls, Escada suits and big jewelry? According to researchers, Dallas ranks 37th with an average of $891 per household allocated for women’s apparel. The city’s average household income is $76,312, lower than most on the list. However, when it comes to total dollars spent, Dallas climbs to number 10.

Another surprise is that there is often no correlation between apparel spending and style savvy.

When she finally stopped laughing at the idea of Boulder landing in the 13th slot on The List, Cindy Sutter, a reporter at the Boulder Daily Camera, offered an explanation for the area’s high per apparel spending.

“Boulder is the antifashion capital,” she said. “People don’t wear suits here. You’ll see a bank officer wearing clam diggers and a Banana Republic shirt.”

In other words, women are buying outerwear and high performance sportswear, not cocktail dresses. What women in Boulder wear has little to do with fashion and everything to do with lifestyle. The city has bicycle lanes so people can bike to work and companies have showers for employees who jog to the office.

“It’s a very affluent community and very educated,” Sutter said. “People will buy $400 Gore-Tex jackets or $200 Nortex fleece vests. It’s almost pretentious to dress up.”

The same could be said for Seattle, where a similar outdoor ethos exists. “Patagonia is probably on nine out of 10 people’s backs,” said Julie Merriman, owner of Olivine Atelier in the Ballard area. Her store offers an alternative to the athletic fleece and microfiber crowd, and the Nordstrom loyalists who go in for classics with a twist. Denim is a big seller because it dovetails with the lifestyle, but Olivine sells brands such as Seven and Paper, Denim & Cloth, rather than Levi’s.

The appearance of Somerset and Hunterdon Counties in New Jersey at number four on The List partly reflects the real-estate boom in the area. Some of the horse farms and large estates are being carved up by developers building mansions for wealthy young Manhattanites. Pam Schroeder, the owner of Epitomy in Bernardsville, caters to their needs for black-tie corporate evenings and private school functions. Schroeder notes the dichotomy between old guard residents and young transplants. “There’s still a lot of old money here,” she said, but more flash is creeping into the area.

The same could be said of Boston, long a Brahman stronghold. Here, wealthy European, Asian and Mideast students are pushing the style envelope.

“After Sept. 11, when some students had visa problems and couldn’t get back to school, the stores on Newbury Street really were hurt,” said Tina Cassidy, fashion editor of The Boston Globe. “A lot of these students are driving BMWs and own their own condos. And it’s not just the students, it’s their parents.”

There’s also a connection between consumer spending and housing prices.

“We’ve been in this long boom where people who own homes are getting breaks from refinancing that over time may give them more income to spend on clothes,” said Kathleen McDermott, a fashion historian at the Massachusetts College of Art.

Perhaps the most unusual shopping phenomenon exists in Rochester, Minn. Wives of Mayo Clinic doctors shop at the local Marshall Field’s, which carries Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent and Donna Karan.

But it’s the families of Mayo Clinic patients that spend the big bucks. Many end up at Julius Estes, an upscale specialty store.

“Eighty percent of the economy in this town comes from people going through the Mayo Clinic,” owner Jan Hoffman said. “You’d have to be a very foolish merchant to cater to the other 20 percent. These are people from the Middle East, Europe and South America.”

When they’re not buying knit mink coats for $2,000 at Julius Estes, the visitors are renting limousines to take them to the Mall of America in Bloomington.

“If they’re from Saudi Arabia, they tend to have a truck following them,” Hoffman said. “That’s where they’re going to put what they bought. You see semi-trucks parked at the airport unloading purchases. Someone even filled a private plane with merchandise, sent it home and then had it flown back.”