What's Stopping Boston?

Although published more than three years ago, Boston’s number one spot on GQ's “The 40 Worst Dressed Cities in America” list is still a sore subject among city residents. Alex Weaver, managing editor at BostInno, readdressed our place on GQ's list in an article published this past July. In Weaver’s opinion, there are plenty of well-dressed Bostonians. “I hear people to this day reference our ranking thereon,” he says. “For those who have never been here, that might be the reputation they go on. And that's a bummer.” It's easy for outsiders to shrug off Boston as a real fashion hub, especially since the Big Apple casts such an impressive shadow on us. But the truth is, there is a vibrant fashion scene just simmering beneath the Red-Sox-jersey-and-Uggs clad surface. It may not be as prominent or obvious as the fashion industry in New York or Milan, but it’s certainly there and open for anyone to participate in. One may only need to look a little more closely to find it.

It's hard to pinpoint just how Boston gained its unfashionable reputation. It’s a lot easier to try to understand how other cities gained their fashion capital titles. The world famous fashion industry of New York City has its roots in the Garment District. A comprehensive study on the Garment District titled, “Fashioning the Future: NYC’s Garment District”, published by the Municipal Art Society of New York in 2011 outlines the history of the Garment District and its integral role in creating the city’s fashion industry. The District was where manufacturers and laborers produced ready-to-wear clothing for the masses. It became a flourishing and expansive industry over time, largely due to the fact that New York was a major seaport with access to materials and supplies from overseas and wide-reaching markets. The industry’s success also relied heavily on the cheap labor of skilled immigrants workers who came in large waves. According to the report, by the 1920s, 78 percent of the nation’s clothing was made in the city.

Although New York was at the top in mass-producing clothes, it was Paris that was known for its artistic and innovative fashion designs. This changed during World War II, when the Nazi occupation of Paris isolated the French city from the rest of the world and the media turned its attention to New York designers. In addition, New York was the first to host Fashion Week, or “Press Week” as it was originally called in 1943. According to the study, these social movements coupled with New York’s growing relevance as a cultural hot spot helped catapult it into fashion capital status.

New York’s high status in fashion has a long legacy and is embedded in history, culture, and social and artistic movements. Boston, in contrast, has legacies in educational and medical institutions. To contrast even further, Boston Fashion Week is a relatively new institution, founded by Jay Calderin in 1995. Boston’s “worst dressed” reputation has a lot more to do with history and less with the poor taste of some individuals. The world isn’t paying less attention to Boston because of the inaptitude of its professionals or lack of talent in the city. It is because of legacy and history, and that is simply hard to compete with.

Fashion in Boston has developed differently than in other cities, which gives it its distinct qualities. “Every city has something unique to share when it comes to fashion,” says Jay Calderin. “And unique means different so it’s a waste of time to compare apples and oranges.” In Boston, there are burgeoning and established local designers, models, photographers, editors, and stylists; a strong fashion blogging community; and active participation from all industries of the city that make up the scene. For example, during Boston Fashion Week this past October, science and fashion joined forces as part of Descience’s runway show at the MIT media lab. Teams of scientists and designers produced wearable 3-D printed headdresses, garments with LED lights embedded, and structured clothes representing cells or tissues in the human body. Ministry of Supply, a menswear brand that incorporates technology and engineering to create everyday clothes with performance wear qualities, has its roots in Boston when it was founded by three MIT students. As Calderin says, “Boston fashion is smart.”

Renata Certo-Ware is a self proclaimed “fashion anthropologist” and creator of fashion blog, Scorpion Disco. While studying at Boston University to earn her bachelor’s degree in anthropology, Certo-Ware hadn’t quite entered the fashion sphere yet. “When I was in college, it was all coats and Uggs and that’s kind of what I was wearing back then,” she says. After graduating, she moved to Turkey and started a blog to share her experiences. After realizing that she enjoyed blogging about fashion related things, whether it was interviewing local Turkish designers or posting outfit photos, Renata decided she wanted to pursue a career in fashion. With this epiphany, the prospect of returning to Boston became less desirable. “I thought I would have to choose a different career, [I thought] there’s no fashion in Boston,” says Certo-Ware. “I thought it would be really hard and impossible and nonexistent. But I was wrong.”

Soon after she moved back to Boston in 2011, Certo-Ware googled “Boston Fashion Bloggers” and was surprised to see pages and pages of results of local bloggers who were all a part of each other’s networks. “It’s a really tight community, so everyone linked to everyone else which I think is really cool and supportive,” she says. She was welcomed with open arms to the community. “I just emailed all the bloggers and said, hey I just moved here, I want to be friends with you, let's talk about fashion,” says Certo-Ware. From there, she met other bloggers who she has still remained friends with.

In addition to blogging, which she continued as a way to connect with friends, Certo-Ware has had experience working with local designers, and taking on gigs in freelance writing, styling, marketing, and PR. Scorpion Disco’s readership grew, opening up opportunities for the blogger in fashion brand collaborations, invitations to preview new clothing collections, or press passes to cover Boston events.

For up-and-coming designer Chynna Pope, Boston’s fashion scene is all about networking. Pope grew up in Beacon Hill and currently studies at The School of Fashion Design. She is also the founder of The Beacon Hill Bow Tie Club, a custom bow tie business that she runs from home. Gaining exposure for her fashion endeavors isn’t one of her biggest challenges however. “Breaking in as a Bostonian...it’s been a little bit easier because my social network is already set, people know me, they know my style,” she says. Pope’s designs have been showcased recently throughout Boston Fashion Week including at The Launch, an annual show featuring five budding designers, and at Copley Catwalk Series, a fashion show held at Copley Place.

As someone with an insider’s perspective of the scene, Pope has observed that Bostonians can be standoffish and almost wary of newcomers. “Boston is one of those cities where as a newbie you break in and they're like, ‘who are you?’” she says. “Whereas take for example, California people are excited like, ‘Who are you? I want to know your story.’” Being a Bostonian is a big part of the student designer’s brand. “I want to prove the stigma wrong because we are dubbed the worst dressed city,” she says. One way Pope set out to prove this stigma wrong was by taking photos of people while walking through different Boston neighborhoods one day. She noticed that each neighborhood had its own distinct style, from the “uptight preppy Back Bay look” to the “earth tones” Cambridge look. “There are fashionable people everywhere,” she says.

Certo-Ware has experienced the fashion scene in New York and compares its Fashion Week with Boston’s. “NYFW is geared towards the business of fashion and commerce,” says Certo-Ware. “It’s about buyers and people who can propagate the business. And here it’s more of a social scene.” In her experience attending Boston shows, Certo-Ware has seen few, if any buyers present. Jay Calderin, who is not only founder but also Executive Director of BFW, explains this social element. “The show is status, often a perk that provides bragging rights and/or a photo op, which have a different kind of value,” he says. “Most people are under the impression that buyers that do attend shows are actually using these runway presentations to buy for their stores.” Calderin says that in reality, if a buyer is taking the time to attend a show, they research the line, are familiar with the designer, and have most likely already made a buy. “The real value of investing time, resources and money into putting on a show during Boston Fashion Week is to create content,” he says. “...Great photos and video that can be edited to tell a great story for the press, the public, and buyers.”

Another artist who is developing her career in Boston is Gina Manning who started four years ago as a nightlife photographer and is now pursuing fashion photography full time. According to Manning, the creative industry in the city is small and everybody just knows each other. “This is a great city for collaborating,” she says. “So many people want to work with one another just for the sake of making art.” Manning has worked behind the scenes and on the runway at Boston Fashion Week shows and has collaborated with local designers and fashion companies such as Dune Jewelry and Rue La La, helping them brand their art. “I think Boston is a great place to make a name for yourself and, in my opinion, a great place to cultivate your style,” says Manning. “You have a lot more space to grow here than you might in a more competitive and cut-throat city when you’re just starting out.”

There are many reasons to remain optimistic for the future generation of aspiring fashion folk in Boston. The consumer scene, which is inextricably linked to the fashion scene, has been flourishing. “If you look at Newbury Street openings, there is a new Chanel, a new Dolce and Gabbana,” says Certo-Ware. “I think it’s a sign it’s getting more serious, like game on.” In 2011, the late Mayor Menino closed down Newbury Street for the first time in 15 years to host Fashion’s Night Out Boston—a celebration of fashion that originated in New York City to boost retail sales with various store parties, discounts, fashion shows, and in-store events. Our city became star struck when fashion heavyweights Anna Wintour, Olivia Palermo, Karlie Kloss, and Gisele Bundchen attended the MFA’s Mario Testino exhibit in 2012. And according to Chynna Pope, BFW is growing every year. “This year we just celebrated the 20th anniversary and we had a really big turnout,” she says.

There’s a sense of mission among the local fashion crowd. “Everything is so accessible now that there’s no reason things can’t happen in Boston,” says Pope, referring to technology and modes of transportation. “I’d like to be the one, or one of the first to really make it happen.” Like many things in life, fashion in Boston is what you make of it. It has its misconceptions, but those passionate about the industry have embraced every aspect of it and are willing to continue to push its boundaries.

Selected from December 2014 issue

Photo by thisisekkalak via Flickr