In my 22 years as a fashion editor, I’ve logged endless hours packing and preparing for long trips to style capitals. Covering the shows requires a certain facility for street fashion. My dull gray pantsuits—the ones that work in Milan and New York—would never leave the closet in Paris, where pencil skirts and opaque black tights are the bread and butter of a woman’s working uniform.
Street style can define a destination as succinctly as a landmark or monument. Only the glass-and-steel tumult of New York City could inspire the I-mean-business uniform of sleek suits and skyscraper-high stilettos. By contrast, the sorbet palette of Miami’s Art Deco architecture infuses the laid-back look and spirit of the trendsetters who hang out in cafés along Ocean Drive. The if-I-can’t-throw-a-Frisbee-in-it-I’m-not-gonna-wear-it vibe of Seattle has translated into Patagonia fleece jackets and New Balance sneakers. The surf culture of Los Angeles has produced the mellow, sun-kissed look of stonewashed denim and (yes, even here) Ugg boots.
You can credit websites like streetpeeper.com and thesartorialist.com, which chronicle style capitals, for the velocity at which locally grown trends now travel around the globe. But often, local street fashion is as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint and just as difficult to replicate. In Rome, you can’t miss the dominant masculine motif, held over, it seems, from the early days of the republic, when women had no place in the senate. As with many species of birds, it’s the males who wear the flamboyant colors and strut about in their sleek suits and wraparound sunglasses.
A few summers ago, my husband and I were invited with some friends to Valentino’s 45th-anniversary extravaganza in Rome. Decked out in sculpted suits and darted shirts with neatly rolled cuffs, Roman men as a matter of course make Americans—particularly the men in our group—look tragically unlaced. On the way back to our hotel after lunch one afternoon, we (well, the wives) felt the gravitational pull of a tiny sartoria off the Piazza del Parlamento. A kindly tailor named Elio sensed our despair and took over, outfitting my husband, Chip, and our friend Mike in crisp cotton suits, pastel-colored shirts, and pink ties. Unfortunately, you can’t always take it with you: at home in New York, Elio’s impeccable suit was relegated to the back of the closet, presumably because my husband would rather throw a Frisbee than fluff his feathers.
If Rome is a man’s town, Paris is all about women. French women, with their sexy nonchalance and their devotion to impossibly red lipstick, command all of the attention. When pressed, Parisiennes will shrug and claim they haven’t bought anything new in years. When I lived in Paris 20 years ago, I was often flummoxed by the throwaway chic of my French friends. They always looked as if they had just woken up and grabbed the nearest pair of skinny pants or borrowed their brother’s perfectly cut blazer. It took me years to realize that the French are as carefully groomed as the alleys of chestnut trees that line the Tuileries. And their precision when it comes to style is the result of ingrained social etiquette. “Ça ne se fait pas!” is a refrain often whispered sotto voce at the sight of a gauche American committing some unspeakable style crime.
Another summer, I traveled to Normandy to attend the wedding of my friend Bibiane’s eldest daughter. It was a thoroughly French affair: high heels, strapless cocktail dresses, and ostentatious, wide-brimmed hats. I thought I was reasonably up to par in a Lanvin organza dress and heels. But by midnight my feet were killing me, so I kicked off my shoes. What was I thinking? A friend glared at my feet and hissed, “Ça ne se fait pas!”
While Parisians may adhere to strict style rules, denizens of Tokyo fetishize style. Although the city’s street fashion is as jumbled and extreme as its architecture, it is always perfectly executed, completely premeditated. On one hand, you have the wildly expressive Harajuku girls in their bizarre Bo Peep getups, each eyelash carefully curled. Just as obsessively turned out are the older ladies in their immaculate kimonos, strolling the Ginza. Style is in the details—from the meticulous cell phone displays in the high-tech electronics emporiums to the pressed white-linen doilies that adorn the backseat of every taxi. You could even argue that the young Japanese street photographers who began obsessively chronicling the looks of fashion editors as they exited shows in Paris and Milan and posting them on makeshift websites in the mid 1990’s were the first to demystify street style by making it accessible. Fifteen years—and thousands of websites—later, the street has literally become the world’s runway. Anyone anywhere can log on and witness local style on a global stage.