02 Feb 2009

Fashionistas Discover America

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Woolrich Maine Guide Jacket

I always marvel when I read a fashion article like this one in Newsweek.

Fok-Yan Leung doesn’t look out of place at the local field-and-stream emporium. His Maine Guide Jacket is nearly indistinguishable from the coats his fellow Moscow, Idaho, residents have on, and its maker, Woolrich, has been a wilderness staple since 1830. But despite the duds, Leung is actually a Harvard-trained researcher at a nearby university—not a grizzled Gem State native on the hunt for a new Winchester. And his jacket isn’t your average Woolrich. It was produced by an Italian company. It was designed by Japan’s Daiki Suzuki. And, as part of the luxe Woolrich Woolen Mills spinoff collection, it sells for $500—four times the price of a comparable Woolrich garment. “If the guys here found out, they’d be like, ‘He’s flipped his lid’,” says Leung, who also manages Styleforum.net. “I’ve never fired a gun in my life.”

Introducing haute Americana, one of the most powerful—and paradoxical—forces in men’s sportswear. Until recently, men like Leung would’ve skipped the Woolrich for a skinny Dior suit. But in recent years a number of tastemakers, many foreign, have dedicated themselves to reviving iconic American clothing for a hip new audience. Some have collaborated with classic U.S. brands on revitalized products (see: Suzuki and Woolrich). Some have stocked hunting garb in their big-city boutiques. And some have actually begun to reproduce emblematic gear—Wayfarers, Penfield vests—to exacting standards of authenticity. The result—on ample display in places like Brooklyn, N.Y., and Portland, Ore., where certain streets now resemble catwalks crowded with bookish lumberjacks—is a subset of prosperous peacocks paying a premium for garments originally meant for mining or fishing, then wearing them to tapas bars and contemporary art installations.

Affected? Absolutely. Still, how we dress says a lot about who we want to be, and that ache for authenticity—or, at least, the aura of authenticity—is revealing. For the foreigners who instigated the fad, sturdy American gear has long evoked a distant, idealized culture. … With the recent decline in our security, industry and standing, that nostalgia for a prelapsarian America (and the durable domestic goods that defined it) seems to have settled over the stylish set here at home. “Ironically, it’s largely because of overseas interest that Americans can now wear real American stuff,” says Michael Williams, a fashion publicist who covers Americana on his blog, A Continuous Lean.

Like articles of military uniform adapted as fashion statements, outdoor and equestrian garb have become another occasion for sartorial Walter Mitty-ism on the part of an urban community willing to pay premium prices for artificially distressed blue jeans.

My parents and grandparents, who actually had a life, would be appalled at both the routine enjoyment of a budgetary surplus available for this sort of overpriced grasp at self definition and the need for purchasing an identity different from one’s own. Who knows? If we live long enough, we may come to see “Coal Miner Chic” adopted by residents of the coastal enclaves of sophistication, complete with knock-off carbide lanterns and specially imported coal dirt.

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