Paris has been smugly claiming to be the world’s style capital since the rule of that famed self-promoter Louis XIV. The French royal court seized control of the luxury goods market and arguably became the arbiter of taste and style across Europe. As the king’s canny finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, observed: “Fashions were to France what the mines of Peru were to Spain” – a wildly lucrative domestic and export commodity.
Previously, during the Renaissance era, it had been Italian city-states like Florence, Milan and Rome that were Europe’s principal trendsetters, owing in part to the quality of craftsmanship. For years a “Made in Italy” label afforded bragging rights to any woollen sweater, leather bag or organza hat; even now, “Made in Italy” tags are twice the font size of a “Made in Hungary”.
But stylishness is a slippery crown to keep affixed to one’s poised head. During the 19th century, thanks to the heft of the rapidly expanding British empire and the star quality of a young Queen Victoria, London’s fashion profile rose – admittedly still looking to Paris for inspiration. But London can counter-claim that the “father of haute couture” was an Englishman living in Paris: Charles Frederick Worth, the first dressmaker to sew branded “House of Worth” labels into clothing and truly boss customers around. By the late 19th century, his preferred clients were no longer French royals such as Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, but wealthy Americans who, as Worth put it, “have faith, figures, and francs – faith to believe in me, figures that I can put into shape, francs to pay my bills”.
In 1943, New York aggressively challenged the dominance of a war-bruised Paris by launching the world’s first organised fashion week. Press week was the brainchild of fashion’s first superstar PR, Eleanor Lambert, who also engineered the first International Best Dressed List in 1940, topped by the Manhattan socialite Mona von Bismarck. “It was as if she had opened a school to teach fashion to the rest of the country,” recalled designer Oleg Cassini, and soon the pages of Vogue were filled with images of Hollywood stars and Manhattan society belles in Bill Blass.
For most of the 20th century, fashion’s “Big Four” – Paris, Milan, London and New York – predominated, but Berlin, Barcelona, Tokyo, São Paulo and Los Angeles have since entered the arena. In financial terms, New York hogs the top spot: the bi-annual fashion weeks last year brought in €514m (£390m) per event, compared to London’s €322m. (Paris trails in at €66m, behind Berlin and Sao Paulo; Milan places eighth behind Sydney and Istanbul.)
But stylishness is about more than gauche financial figures. Strictly speaking, style has nothing to do with money at all. To be fashionable requires money; style requires character. “Fashion is what you’re offered four times a year by designers. And style is what you choose,” as Lauren Hutton put it.
The stylishness of a city is better indicated by social permeability – to what degree do the citizens engage with fashion? (Whether they slavishly follow current catwalk trends, or wittily subvert them is immaterial; it’s taking part that counts.) The Global Language Monitor research centre in Texas scours blogs, print mags, and social mediums for buzzwords associated with fashion, to produce a comprehensive annual ranking of the most fashion-oriented cities. Boringly, for 2015 Paris still wins, just beating NYC, followed by London, LA and Barcelona. Although there is a healthy degree of flux – Milan came top in 2009, then London reigned for 2011 and 2012, and last year New York narrowly beat Paris by 0.5% to come top.
The US unarguably leads the way in terms of retail space per capita, with a frankly insane average of 46sq ft, compared to the UK’s 23sq ft. Yet Australians, by a significant margin, spend more on apparel than any other nation, at US$1,050 (£714) per year. They’re followed by Canada and Japan, with per person expenditures of $831 and $814 respectively. Then again, an impressively disproportionate three out of ten of the world’s ten largest shopping malls are located in the Philippines, while Seoul sees the most credit card transactions per capita.
But does a serious shopping city really equate to a stylish city? A swift stroll through Bluewater shopping centre suggests otherwise. Anecdotally speaking, one reliable barometer is the robustness of the cobbler industry, indicating a citizenship willing to pay £30 to re-sole a beloved pair of Gucci loafers or vintage Dr Martens, instead of buying a new pair of shoes in H&M for £15.99.
Of course, a stylish city isn’t necessarily an influential city. And this is where Paris, London and the grand dames struggle to hold the attention of notoriously neophiliac designers. Designers make their money on Bond Street and the Champs Elysées, but regarding inspiration for their latest collection, there is much greater style kudos in namedropping the street style blogs of Lagos and Johannesburg.
“Lagos, with its love of red carpet glamour, is fast on the way to becoming a fashion powerhouse, while Johannesburg has a creative scene full of energy and edge,” says Hannah Azieb Pool, editor of Fashion Cities Africa. “Parts of Joburg, like Maboneng and Braamfontein, have strong hipster vibes – think Meatpacking meets Shoreditch with a side order of Kreuzberg. There aren’t many cities with the political and style pedigree of Joburg.”
And are we to judge a city’s stylishness by quantity, or quality? I’m inclined to award more style points to a plucky style tribe like Tokyo’s gothic Lolita schoolgirls in full Bo Peep regalia, or the dandyish sapeurs of Bacongo (documented in the Italian street style photographer Daniele Tamagni’s books) than an entire Scandinavian city clad diligently in Uniqlo. “Beyond the so-called ‘fashion capitals’, pockets of style exist everywhere, even in the most seemingly unlikely places,” says Tamagni.
So are Paris and New York really the most stylish cities in the world? Or does London’s fiercely innovative spirit or Milan’s manufacturing heritage make them a more solid choice? Then again, Japan’s insular culture has engendered a truly unique fashion ecosystem, and Tokyo’s singular street style stands alone amongst the big-hitters for being truly avant garde. But are the nascent style capitals in Africa more thrilling, given the socio-political context?
“Personally I would point to Lagos, Nairobi and Joburg, where there’s real sense that the new generation are using street fashion to build a whole new identity and sense of style,” offers Tamagni. The trouble with ranking the stylishness of cities, of course, is that any truly stylish city is unique, and uniqueness renders all comparisons redundant. “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different,” observed Coco Chanel. And no stylish city would ever, ever ignore Chanel.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010