I sit (bookended by manspreaders) on the R train during my morning commute and scan the sea of shoes and bags and skirts and suits and denim and coats and stacked rings and ironic tattoos and rainbow-bright hair. Between Whitehall Street and Fifth Avenue I count twelve military jackets, eleven J. Crew gingham shirts, ten Herschel messenger bags, nine Burberry scarves, eight plaid flannel shirts, seven black hoodies, six pairs of (non–Canal Street) Chanel sunglasses, five pairs of Vans, four navy peacoats, three Mansur Gavriel bucket bags, two Shrimps faux-fur coats, and a partridge in a pear tree. Just by looking at the cast of characters and their ensembles, I can make educated guesses about their careers, their interests, their lifestyles. Most everyone looks pulled together, stylish — very “New York” — yet seemingly more by rote than creative innovation. I can’t help feeling as if I’m trapped in an urban rewrite of Brave New World where there is a uniform for every social archetype. (Aside: That novel mesmerized me to such a degree that I named my cat Huxley.) Have we all become too cool, too plugged-in, too consumption-savvy, and thus completely homogenized in the way we dress? Has the globalization of the retail fashion market made us look like we all shop at the same digital mall? In this dynamic 24/7 city where nothing is shocking, I am shocked as I wonder: Is personal style dead?
“That’s ridiculous!” says Kate Betts, a former editor of Harper’s Bazaar whose memoir My Paris Dream: An Education in Style, Slang, and Seduction in the Great City on the Seine was published this past spring. “If anything, personal style in this city has gotten even bolder because of the street photographers and bloggers.”
Bolder, perhaps, but it also seems…blurrier. The legions of legitimately savvy street-style shutterbugs and online authorities have birthed a parallel wannabe punditocracy. Add in all their followers (literal and virtual), and you get a sea of well-dressed similarity that makes it increasingly challenging to distinguish personal-style innovators from personal-style adopters. The more access we have to, well, everything, the more that line is smudged.
“Access to fashion shows, street style, and retail has closed the gap and made the world smaller,” says designer Peter Som, whose namesake label has graced the pages of Vogue and the bods of myriad celebrities. “The idea of a ‘country bumpkin’ coming to the big city and getting a city-slicker makeover doesn’t happen anymore.”
Perhaps what I perceive as blurriness is simply a side effect of Som’s smaller world — merely a bump on the road to the evolution of personal style. “NYC is such a melting pot,” Som adds. “Influences come from all around the world, from the worlds of art [and] theater and from uptown to downtown. Mix all of this together and you get such an inspiring crazy quilt of individuality.”
Note individuality. But also note Som’s dismissal of the Great NYC Makeover. The world has changed. New York has changed.
“It’s different than it was back in the 1970s, say, when each neighborhood had its individualistic stamp of style,” Betts agrees. “These days personal style is not so much a statement about a neighborhood but more about a global tribe. All those tribes move through the city pretty fluidly, so you see style statements everywhere.”
Personal style has changed, as has its dissemination.
“Everyone is a global citizen who can find inspiration in creating personal style without boundaries,” says designer Chris Benz, creative director of the newly relaunched Bill Blass label. “I think this is fantastic, even if you don’t have to go all the way to Paris for a Ladurée macaron anymore.”
But that doesn’t mean you can just sit back, consume, and eschew imagination or individuality. No, in this new era you have to push the boundaries even further in order to transcend the masses. “Everyone should have their one thing,” Benz adds. “For example, I had pink hair for a long time, and I never had to go out of my way to wear anything interesting, because my hair was instantly recognizable and eclipsed anything I would be wearing. It was freeing.”
But with the freedom of this new era come challenges: In our Instagram-centric world, devolving into a state of mimicry is all too easy. There’s a delicate balance between gaining inspiration from bloggers, celebrities, or even your friends and blindly following, thus subsuming your true self and, by extension, your personal style. With all of these tools and near-limitless access, we have to dig deeper within ourselves in order to figure out exactly who we are — and, if we’re so inclined, to decide how we want to present that self to the world by way of adornment.
“Personal style is alive and well in NYC,” menswear designer and animal activist John Bartlett assures me. “The world takes its cues from NYC. Among the Lululemons and bearded hipsters, there are individuals who find great freedom in flying their freak flag, and that is what I love about this city.”
The late Art Cooper, former editor of GQ (and my mentor), once told me, “Kat, style, like God, is in the details.” On my next subway voyage, I will gaze upon my fellow commuters’ outfits through a different lens. Instead of counting familiar labels and fixating on sameness, I will focus on the details, no matter how subtle. Just because you don’t have pink hair doesn’t mean you aren’t making a distinct statement that authentically reflects your true self in this braver, newer, globalized urban landscape.
[This is part of the winter 2015 edition of The Seen, a quarterly style supplement by the Village Voice devoted to exploring and sharing the most dynamic elements of New York City’s fashion and design worlds, from the iconic to the as yet undiscovered.]