Wednesday Martin On Manhattan’s Manic Style
In the city that never sleeps, fashion, too, has insomnia. “Being fashionable in New York can be a blood sport, especially now that designers are feeling the pressure to make their clothes immediately available after runway shows,” observes Bob Morris, frequent contributor to the New York Times’ Styles section and Town & Country magazine. “Who gets her hands on the signature Proenza Schouler skirt or Marc Jacobs dress before it gets into the stores all those months later?” Like so many things in Manhattan — spots in elite kindergartens, getting into Stacey’s 8:30 a.m. Soul Cycle class, the Hamptons summer beach pass quest — it’s a race.
Fashion’s ‘time is of the essence’ clause is not the only pressure we feel. In a new era, there’s change to the nth power, as the biggest rules, ones that guided us for years, are being aggressively rewritten.
“Although the great tastemakers like certain fashion glossies remain very powerful, in the internet era, bloggers, celebrity trendsetters and even street style have all challenged the gatekeepers’ traditional authority,” explains the Columbia University sociologist and New York City nightlife expert Victor Corona, Ph.D. In this changed-up ecosystem, Instagram can make or break a designer, or create a star or trend we’ve never imagined, and haute fashion purloins from small designers, the girl on the street, Insta feeds, even H&M.
And there is no single voice or crisp clarion call. Fragmented and decentralised, anxious about its own future and mission, fashion now has a hectic, harried pace and arguably an unprecedentedly unchartered course. The rules are more confusing than ever. Yet for the urban, urbane sets from Mumbai to Manhattan, opting out is simply not an option.
“Am I still supposed to be wearing plaid shirts?” one stylish Downtown Manhattan denizen was overheard asking her equally chic companion at the newly (re)opened Barney’s in Chelsea on a recent afternoon. “I can’t keep track anymore.”
The store’s very resurrection replays fashion’s own ‘eternal return, with differences that keep you buying’ dynamic. And with its swirling, white central staircase like a DNA helix, downtown Barney’s further suggests to New Yorkers that our fixation with fashion, with its endless pivots and fickleness and form-shifting, is virtually part of our physiology here.
It works in our favour, then, that we New Yorkers are also an impatient and solution-focused breed. Sure, some of us have or make time for leisurely shopping with a friend or alone on a stress-free afternoon, trying to gather a sense of where ‘style’ is headed through actual fieldwork. But for many, the new fashion free-for-all has given rise to city-specific practices. ‘Homo sapiens newyorkus’ is a remarkable, adaptive and flexible species whose fashion strategies warrant careful observation.
A unified palette
Many men and women in New York evolve their very own version of a uniform over the years. Samira Nanda Sine, an Upper East Side mother of four and host of the popular Essence of India cooking show, needs an outfit that takes her from day to night, school drop-off to shoot to dinner out or an evening event.
“I don’t like wearing Lululemon all day — I like clothes,” she laughs. A unified palette of greys, whites, and blacks by James Perse and Joie with jeans are among her favourites for meeting up with friends and daytime duties. And she always punches up her simple workaday palette with a brightly coloured scarf or coat, an individualistic twist that harkens to her past. “My mother, grandmother and great-grandmother wore beautiful pink, orange, green, purple silk saris with gold zari borders…and it had an indelible impact on my fashion sense.” At night, she says, she favours a single easy piece: “It’s always a dress. I love Dolce & Gabbana and Alaïa.” Sticking to one or two designers means when she reaches for those evening options, there’s a certain harmony to her choices — and her look.
Downtown fashion plate, New Yorker cartoonist, and author of bestselling graphic novel Ann Tenna, Marisa Acocella Marchetto sticks to something like a uniform too. She favours leather leggings, Trash and Vaudeville T-shirts, and Saint Laurent or other timeless designer jackets in shocking iterations (a silver, red, and black striped one is a current favourite). In warmer weather, she dons simple sheath dresses. She finds flatforms (sneakers in winter, sandals in summer) that rare combination of practical and snazzy: “We always want to be taller and skinnier here, but you need to be able to walk!” An artist through and through, she finds make-up a way to express her nonconformity — purple and blue lipstick and blue nail polish are current obsessions.
From fun to serious
In a town so rich in every sense — money, options, opportunities — we might tend to overdo it. Restraint and discipline become an art form. Having once found himself in an elevator with an uberchic editor who observed of his attire, plaid pants, clogs, and a flannel shirt ‘So much going on there, Bob’ — Morris now sticks to jeans, white shirts, and simple jackets for fashion shows. “Diana Vreeland was right, even if she wore too much rouge,” he notes. “Elegance is refusal.” That does not stop him from indulging in the occasional plaid jacket. His glasses with heavy black frames are another Morris trademark look and an essential part of his uniform.
Up-and-coming young literary agent Liz Parker describes her uniform and style as ‘tomboy chic’. After years of experimentation, she settled on a mix of J. Crew and Theory separates. Vans are her shoes of choice. Her look can segue from fun to serious with the simple slipping on of a jacket — but make it a little leather one, please. She says that in her interactions with clients, she likes to channel “spunky, confident, and prepared”. I was sure a blouse that she wore to our meet-up was Saint Laurent, but it was a Jenna Lyons special.
Stylists on demand
They’re not just for movie stars anymore. Researching my book Primates of Park Avenue I discovered that Upper East Side mommies avail themselves not only of personal shoppers, but also the bloom of professional stylists that flourish in our fashion-centric habitat. For less than it costs you to get a massage at the Mandarin Oriental, they’ll ‘shop in your closet’, pulling out items and combinations you didn’t know you had, suggesting key new items to purchase that will update your wardrobe.
Our town’s haute trend is filtering down to the mainstream: if you live in Ohio or Oklahoma you can subscribe to online stylist services, receiving a box of options customised to your measurements, preferences, and personal style through providers like Stylist Box or Stitch Fix. Usually you have 15 to 30 days to consider the options your stylist has pulled together for you. More than one busy New York City working mother told me they loved the idea of a FreshDirect — the popular grocery delivery service — for clothing. Other New Yorkers told me they turn to Twitter and Instagram for guidance, tips, and inspiration.
In the brave and busy new world of fashion, there are more ways than ever to keep up.
Merle Ginsberg’s haute tips
The veteran fashion reporter’s advice for the eternally stylish:
- Avoid too much black — it looks lazy for New York.
- Avoid too much frou — it makes you look vulnerable and NYC is a tough place.
- Invest in flats because NY is a walking town and foot pain makes you helpless. Ginsberg loves Roger Vivier.
- Seek balance: floral dresses are great — with a men’s jacket and boots.
- Strong pants need a soft blouse.
- Tight sexy dresses need a funky shoe, not a sexy stiletto.
- A ‘wacky’ outfit needs a simple, clean, stark coat or jacket.
- It’s not about a single designer or look from head to toe — it’s about pieces that balance each other out.
- Similarly, if your legs are covered, show some arm and cleavage.
- If you’re bare and daring on top, cover your legs.
- If your arms and legs are covered, a strappy sandal adds interest and balance.