Sunday, August 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Casual Chic

IT WAS COREY Gutch's first time at the Seattle Opera, so he asked a friend what he should wear. "Wear whatever," was the reply. "It's Seattle."

Still, having asked, Gutch presumably put some thought into his ensemble — more so, probably, than the guy who showed up at McCaw Hall on a Saturday night in Tevas. With socks, natch.

Perhaps nowhere else in the city is Seattle's eclectic sense of style — if you can call it that — so prominently on display as a venue where tuxedos and Tevas peacefully coexist. Here, in the city's most intellectual of arts venues, it is evident that the last thing cluttering anyone's intellect is visions of Balenciaga or Marc Jacobs or Chloe.

"We have a pair of guys who come in in their leather chaps because they rode in on their Harleys," says Rebecca Chawgo, a development officer for the opera. "People here attend the opera because it's an intelligent art form. The lights go down, and nobody pays attention to what they're wearing."

The same could be said for the rest of Seattle, where fashion is not so much statement as afterthought. We live in a city whose most famous fashion moment — early-'90s grunge — was bred from inexpensive flannel shirts, which we wore not because they were stylish but because they were cheap and kept us warm. Dot-com-business-casual dominated the landscape for much of the '90s, making us all look like we worked at the Gap, and a decade later, Seattle remains the kind of place where an outfit for just about any occasion can be had at REI.

"We have our own feeling up here in the Pacific Northwest, and fashion is about feeling," says John Fluevog, the Vancouver-based shoe maven who opened his first U.S. store on Pine Street in 1986. "I would say there is a freedom to be able to do what you want. I sense that Seattleites, in general, are not dictated to. Some people would say it's non-fashion. I say, no, it's liberating."

Right. That's maybe the nicest way to say that we simply don't seem to care. In theory, our free-spirited, independent-thinking town should be teeming with personal style. Like the hipsters in the music scene, or the fashionistas who shop the boutiques downtown, or those girls on Broadway. But for most of us, fashion is too fussy to be a priority. We'd rather be comfortable. We'd rather be smart. We'd rather spend our money on something else. Like a cute little kayak, maybe.

"It's interpreting fashion in a safe way. Nobody here wants to draw too much attention to themselves, for whatever reason," observes Annie Sparrow, owner of Tulip in downtown Seattle. "Maybe we create our individuality here in different ways, whether it's through our jobs or our politics."

Is there a way to blame all of this on the weather? David Avery is a Seattle doctor and professor who studies things like seasonal affective disorder. Pressed about whether our gloomy climate could affect what we choose to wear, he says: "I don't notice things like that. However, that might be my problem more than anything. Obviously, it's not all that helpful in terms of diagnosis."

Now he's curious. Is there a problem with fashion in Seattle?


"I wondered why I moved here."

THERE WAS A TIME when people dressed up to go downtown, and ladies lunched in tea rooms and wore hats and shopped for gloves. Thirty-some years ago, when Butch Blum opened his European designer boutique on Fifth Avenue, the fashion standard in Seattle was Frederick & Nelson. Butch Blum was radical and cutting-edge; customers couldn't get enough of the Yves Saint Laurent velvet blazers. The year was 1974.

"At one time, not that long ago," says Blum, "we were considered to be very trendy. Many young people today think of Butch Blum as being rather conservative, which makes me laugh."

"Young people today" shop at upscale boutiques with sassy names like Sway & Cake. The fashion landscape in Seattle has evolved — or devolved, depending on whom you talk to — to where a $1,000 dyed ostrich-feather handbag can now be had in Ballard. Arm Candy, indeed.

Still, Seattle continues to be a place where natives will wear a rain jacket, an ugly one, when it's raining. We're sensible like that. Seattle may be home to Nordstrom, but it's also the birthplace of Eddie Bauer, and with good reason. No self-respecting native would carry an umbrella, and rain gear can go anywhere without discrimination.

"It would never occur to me to walk into a shop in Italy dressing how I would dress here," says Susan Gaylard, an assistant professor of Italian studies at the University of Washington. "I had the experience of wandering into an expensive Seattle boutique wearing shorts and ancient Birkenstocks and being treated very well. It's astonishing. That's never happened to me anywhere else."

In a city ranked among the nation's most literate — where a library is a tourist destination — Seattle has a reputation to maintain: We're smart, so we don't have to be pretty.

"It's a place where people who are very liberal and very socially conscious go to feel they're around their own kind," says Sarah Caples, owner of Impeccable, a local image-consulting company. "It shows an assertion that we're not going to care about this sort of thing."

This is, after all, Microsoft country, where the smartest man of all favors khakis and navy-blue sweaters. And it's not because he can't afford a designer suit.

"I think a big influence is the Microsoft philosophy of, it's not what you look like, it's what you know," says Betty Lin, owner of the discount designer boutique Betty Blue in downtown Seattle. Some of her customers work at Microsoft, but they tell her fashion "is kind of pooh-poohed in their corporate culture."

Gaylard, who is creating a college course on fashion development, observes that Seattle's attitude toward the subject is perhaps not as blasé as we would like others to think.

"Everyone I've spoken to laughs and says, 'We don't care about how we dress,' but that's caring. That's already a systematic position, that we're not going to identify ourselves with New York fashion and Hollywood fashion," she says. "To me, that really reflects something very clear about the way Seattleites perceive themselves and want to be perceived.

"I wouldn't say people are defensive when I ask about fashion, but there's definitely a sense of, 'Oh, we're not like that.' "

YOU'RE NOT FROM here, are you?

You look too put-together, as if you made an effort. It's cute, kind of.

It'll pass.

Sandra Saenz, 31, moved to Seattle from San Francisco a year and a half ago. She recalls the time she met friends for dinner at a neighborhood restaurant in Madrona. It took five minutes to change from her work clothes into "something cute" — capris, a cropped jacket, leather flats. Her boyfriend said, "Everybody else wears tennis shoes."

"Sometimes, you almost feel like a sore thumb when you come dressed up. You get in the habit of dressing like everybody else," Saenz says. "One of the other girls was dressed up nice, but she just moved here from Italy."

A curious thing happens to transplants after living too long in the land of fleece. They get lazy. They start wearing pajama bottoms to the corner store.

It happened to Christian-Philippe Quilici, 26, whose previous life in Los Angeles was a fashion parade. Getting dressed was a daily production. So upon arriving in Seattle three years ago, the self-proclaimed "fashion warrior" was a bit nonplussed.

"I thought Seattle was very cosmopolitan before I moved here. Since then, I've been slightly re-educated," he says. "Everyone dresses like they're going to climb Mount Rainier once they've finished lunch."

Lin, the owner of Betty Blue, had been to the REI in San Francisco, where she used to live. The experience did not prepare her for a recent visit to the REI sale in Seattle.

"It was a Sunday morning at 10 a.m., and the store is jam-packed. There was a wait to get into the parking lot," Lin recalls. "I was literally flabbergasted. I thought, 'Only in Seattle . . .' "

There's a simple explanation: Our love of the outdoors translates to our streetwear. What we wear to walk Green Lake is what we wear to dinner at the Green Lake Bar and Grill. That magazine-bred concept of "daytime" and "nighttime" wardrobes? Not so much.

"When I think of style, I think of form and function. In Seattle, it's all function with no form," says Caples, the personal stylist. "People wear outerwear clothes and yoga athletic wear as if it were appropriate to every situation, whereas people in other regions might only wear it for the particular task — camping clothes for camping, that sort of thing."

Tammy Gordon of Orting doesn't consider herself a particularly outdoorsy person, but there she was browsing the racks at REI.

"It's not all about looking nice, it's about being comfortable," she says. "The clothes are well-made, and you don't have to buy them often. You can buy a pair of shorts that last a couple, three years."

This kind of logic violates all principles governing the fashion industry, in which the Bermuda shorts you bought today are already so last week. Gordon, 37, went on to posit that "since you have to wear certain things to work, on weekends you don't want to put on slacks or really tight shoes." Somewhere in Manhattan, a Vogue assistant just fainted into her Jimmy Choos.

But here in Seattle, sentiments like Gordon's rule. As for those non-native detractors: "Get used to it."

WHEN IT COMES to fashion, the typical Seattle consumer is nothing if not practical. There's no such thing as a fashion feeding frenzy — Nordstrom Anniversary Sale notwithstanding.

"In New York or other areas, it's kind of a race to get that dress or that boot or shoe before it sells out. Here, it takes forever to get that same product to even move," says Sparrow, owner of Tulip. "We don't have that sense of urgency to our wardrobe each season."

Sparrow buys heavily into winter coats and cashmere sweaters because customers will invest in them year after year. Trendier items like skinny jeans and the color white — ya think? — are a harder sell.

"It very much surprises me, especially with the amount of money that's here," Sparrow says. "The customer here thinks a very long time before deciding which piece to buy each season."

Francine Park, a former New Yorker who opened Promesse in Kirkland about a year ago, notes that her customers are more modest in both spending and style than their counterparts on the East Coast. Women come into the store and admire the designer collections — the craftsmanship, the material — but tend to buy on the casual and contemporary side. One of Park's best-selling lines is Mike & Chris, which she describes as "effortlessly chic sweatshirt material." Figures.

Seattle customers appreciate quality as much as they do a good bargain. People here are more likely to brag about discount designer shoes from Nordstrom Rack than show off a Louis Vuitton bag.

Betty Blue does a brisk business selling past-season designer duds at a steep discount. Still, owner Lin observes that Seattleites are conservative when it comes to spending money on clothing. She notes that local restaurants are busy and homes are lavish. Is that where the money goes?

Here's Amanda Kaplan of Kirkland. She's 32, and today she's on a mission for jeans. It's her lunch break; Lin's Second Avenue shop is conveniently around the corner.

Lin greets her sweetly: "Can I first show you something that's not a jean?"

The Italian-made corduroys fit beautifully. In both colors. So do the embroidered parachute pants, just as comfortable as jeans but a bit more special — the hand-stitched embroidery gives it a little kick.

Three pairs of pants that make your butt look fierce? It's a shopper's dream. Best day ever!

Kaplan scowls at the full-length mirror. "You are killing me today. I love these."

Come again?

"I don't spend $200 on clothes!"

NEIMAN MARCUS is coming. But not until 2009.

Here is the hard truth: We might still be wearing Tevas with socks in 2009. (But not to Neiman's! Never to Neiman's.) Or we may have dismissed the look by then as sooo 2006. Hah.

Who are we kidding? In Seattle, Tevas with socks are timeless. A classic. Our version of the little black dress. Oh, it's depressing. But it's so delightfully us. And it suits most just fine.

There are those among us who are optimistic. We watch "Project Runway" on Bravo — more so here than any place else in the country. We know. It's surprising.

But Seattle is changing. We're becoming more cosmopolitan, attracting those who not only want to visit but also want to shop.

"Seattle now is a major hub for people on their way to and from Asia. We're getting a much more sophisticated, worldly traveler coming through," says Butch Blum. "And they're creating the need and want for these kinds of stores."

Indeed, the proliferation of trendy — and thriving — boutiques all over Seattle is perhaps the first harbinger of an imminent fashion revolution. People appear to be buying the clothes. Surely, it can't be too long before they start wearing them. In public.

"I think we're gearing up for it. I think there's a huge momentum building to this thing popping, it's like a pot simmering," says Caples, the personal stylist. "We've been on a back burner since grunge, and Seattle is due for its next cultural zeitgeist moment."

In fashion, to paraphrase Heidi Klum, one day you're in, the next, you're out. Maybe our next big fashion moment will come from a Seattle-inspired challenge on "Project Runway": Make a cocktail dress out of Gore-Tex and fishing wire! You have two hours!

Count us in.

Pamela Sitt is a Seattle Times staff reporter. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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