THE BIPOLAR SOUTH
A MIX OF TRADITION AND NEW STYLE CHARACTERIZES TODAY’S SOUTHEAST.
Byline: Georgia Lee / with contributions from Neal Turnage
ATLANTA — Call it the Scarlett Syndrome.
While the stereotype of the Southern belle in frilly floral prints is widely held, the look is essentially gone with the wind.
Demographically, the Southeast today is a mixed bag. The Deep South, with a more homogeneous population, is a far cry from South Florida. Miami and environs, with its large New York and Latin American contingents, is considered a world apart from the rest of the region.
While global influences and mass communication continue to narrow the most obvious gaps in style, vestiges of Southern culture and heritage still influence the way women look here.
From birth, Southern women are taught to be feminine, well-mannered, pretty, ladylike and, above all, never vulgar. They are brought up to love fine things, including fine clothes. Quality is valued above designer names or the trend-of-the-moment, say local retailers.
Although style varies widely depending on the geographical area, most specialty retailers say an emphasis on tradition, put-together looks, and social occasion dressing are common denominators for Southern customers.
Social occasions — weddings, proms, graduations and church activities — are big in the Southeast, particularly in smaller, more tightly knit communities.
“With fewer transient people here, tradition is important,” said Rhea Kirk, fashion director of Gayfers, a Mercantile store with 10 units in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. “Casualization hasn’t completely infiltrated the South. There’s still a dress code for occasions and for work, and it isn’t lax.”
Underscoring her point, Kirk added that her class in good manners, which she has taught at the Montgomery, Ala., Gayfers for ages 5-15 for 20 years, always has a waiting list.
“Tradition is extremely important in Richmond, Va., where people tend to stay put and live here for many generations,” said Jan Girardi, owner of Ardeley’s, a 60-year-old store for women’s better clothes. “With fewer outside influences, their isn’t as much change, and daughters tend to dress like their moms.”
Girardi, a Richmond native herself, said her mostly over-45 customers are open to new trends, but within strict boundaries.
“We follow certain rules,” she said. “We will not buy skirts shorter than 25 inches, we won’t buy anything tight, or anything sleeveless, even with a jacket over it, and we’ve had problems with dresses with slits up to the thigh.”
Girardi said Southerners have an horror of looking “tacky” and are obsessed with figure imperfections.
“Even our young, size 6 girls are afraid of anything form-fitting,” she said.
Southern women also want to look put-together head to toe, said Girardi. Outfits, including jackets, pants and skirts with a blouse or print that pull it together, outsell items. Accessories, including matching shoes, bags, scarves and jewelry, are also key components.
With its emphasis on tradition, social events, such as proms, debutante balls, weddings, etc., are still highly revered, and casualization is perhaps less noticeable than in other areas.
“In California, people wear shorts to the nicest restaurants. People here tend to dress up more and have more events that require dressing up,” said Sylvia Hills, owner of Mam’selle, a Jackson, Tenn., better-to-bridge women’s boutique. Besides the usual mix of social occasion, towns like Jackson usually have something unique to the area, such as the Bal Masque, a month-long festival started there by two former Mardi Gras queens.
Hills said that Southern women are as particular about service as they are style.
“She is used to being pampered,” she said. “She’s been put on a pedestal by men, and been treated specially all her life, so she expects to be catered to, with tons of customer service.”
As in most areas, smaller towns still tend toward a slightly more conservative, provincial style. But major metropolitan areas, particularly Atlanta and Miami, have attracted top international names and developed the upscale markets to support them.
Atlanta, always the hub of the Southeast, has catapulted to a major international city in the past decade. Tremendous growth, augmented by the 1996 Summer Olympics, has made this city a media darling, in sharp contrast to the rest of the region.
“Without Atlanta, the state of Georgia would be just like Alabama,” said Jeff Humphries, director, economic forecasting, University of Georgia.
In the past few years, an influx of top designers, including Ralph Lauren, Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani and host of smaller companies, have discovered Atlanta and opened or expanded boutiques here.
Most describe the Atlanta market as “up-and-coming,” citing stores as “top performers.” Guess opened a 5,300-square-foot boutique in Lenox Square Aug. 7.
“This store will be a shining star, in the top 10 out of a projected 100 stores we plan to open by the end of 1998,” said Andrea Weiss, president of the Guess retail division. “Atlanta women are as upscale and aware as anywhere in the country.”
Nicole Miller will open a 2,800-square-foot prototype boutique at Lenox Square in October. Bud Konheim, chief executive officer, said Atlanta, and the entire Southeast, has become a major focus.
“Out of 30 Nicole Miller stores, 20 are below the Mason-Dixon line,” he said.
But even with growing access to designers, Atlanta women, as in the entire Southeast, are more concerned with the total look than in blindly following every trend and name-of-the-moment.
“Southern women embrace the ‘P’ word. Pretty is taught like a religion,” said Marigail Mathis, the eponymous owner of two Alabama and two Tennessee specialty stores. “They err on the side of simplicity, good taste. Audrey Hepburn is a role model, but Kate Moss doesn’t cut it.”
Still, the modern version of Southern pretty is quite different from years past.
“We aren’t walking around in linen dresses, theme sweaters or pink pants,” she said. “They want sleek and sophisticated, not prissy or frumpy.”
Designer Rickie Freeman for Teri Jon, a New York-based suit and special occasion designer with 35 percent of sales coming from the Southeast, describes the region as “the last bastion” of well-groomed, well-dressed women.
“Southern women, underneath all that personality and sweetness, are very strong-minded and individualistic,” she said. “They don’t care whether it’s Gucci or Prada, they value what makes them look good. And they still like to dress up.”
Bare or see-through looks won’t work here, said Freeman. “They want to look sexy, but never slutty,” she said.
Southern retailers have always screamed for color and year-round fabrics, a cry that is now being embraced by the rest of the world.
“The whole world is climate-controlled now, so everybody’s come around to lightweight fabrics and appreciation of color,” said Freeman. “If something works in the Southeast, we know it will work in the North. But not the other way around.”
While manners, tradition and quality drive the Southeastern woman, her Miami counterpart has an entirely different motivation — she wants to be noticed. She isn’t afraid to flaunt her figure, as well as her wealth, through status symbols like designer labels.
Fashion and retail experts describe Miami as a town where both locals and tourists aren’t afraid to do whatever it takes to achieve “the look.”
Caron Cherry of the women’s designer specialty store in Bal Harbour, Fla., bearing her name, said “extremely” fashion-conscious women are the bulk of her business.
“We edit the best of all the collections and offer outstanding service,” she said. Her fall bestsellers included a pinstriped coat and black corset dress, both by Dolce & Gabbana; a knee-length coat by Costume National; Ann Demeulemeester’s belted jacket, and Herve Leger body-hugging evening dresses. With designer collections, Cherry noted a 25 percent sales increase over 1996.
Well-heeled tourists, especially those from Latin America, are partially responsible for Miami embracing designer style.
“Latin American women will come here and buy six gowns for $30,000 a piece and not think twice,” said Stanley Whitman, owner/ developer of Bal Harbour Shoppes, a Miami luxury shopping center.
Sandi Powers, of Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, calls the south Florida fashion scene “form-fitting, trendy and very sexy — something that really separates it from New York or L.A.” Another defining trait, she said, is that the sexy looks are worn by women of all ages.
“More often than not, there’s a lot of skin showing,” admitted Powers. “And the style is definitely not casual.” She reported that the taste level bends toward the higher end, saying big designer ads go over with the most bang.
“I think Gucci, Prada and Versace ads trigger the most response.”
“Name brands are very important — even for younger people here,” said Charlene Parsons, chairwoman of fashion merchandising at International Fine Arts College in Miami. For juniors, she cited Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein as favorites.