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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Pacific NW Cover Story Tyrone Beason

Seattle Style: Smart, spirited, sensible

We wear it our way

The sound of it will require some getting used to, so let's all take a deep breath, swallow our modesty and repeat it together: Seattle ... has... style.

That may come as a shock to some, but for a vanguard of Seattle shoppers and retailers, it's not exactly a news flash that the brooding artiness of Ann Demeulemeester and the effortless, socially conscious chic of Stella McCartney translate as well in Old Ballard and Belltown as they do on the straats of Antwerp and the cobblestones of New York's Meatpacking District.

Beneath all the fleece and trend-averse iconoclasm beat the hearts of some bona fide fashionistas who patrol local fashion blogs, relish discovering the one store in town that carries Denmark's Engbirk and think a marriage between Yohji (Yamamoto) and Ross (Dress for Less) strikes a perfectly hip, very Seattle sort of balance.

"Seattle used to be known as a Birkenstock-wearing, plaid flannel-loving city — not anymore," says Kate Bergman, a Seattle-based event manager who runs seattlechic.com, a blog that gives the low-down on the city's hottest boutiques and shopping finds. "Women, and men, are much more fashion-conscious than ever before. Thankfully, we've got a bunch of new shops to help us find our style."

Whether it's Polite Society on First Avenue, where owner Eric Akines showcases emerging designers like Engbirk, or Merge in Ballard, where Bergman recently bought a unique, blue, cowl-neck top that she can dress up or down depending on her needs, the options are growing along with the city's fashion sense.

But it's a particular kind of fashion forwardness, one defined not just by of-the-moment trendiness but also by sound design, comfortable fits, an independent spirit and, in a nod to the city's blue-collar roots and even the weather, functionality.

"People are looking for something that's different, unique, but that's relevant to them," says Akines, who opened Polite Society last summer with smart women's and men's clothing that has just the right touch of Scandinavian cool.

Call it sensible chic.

We've found peace with the contradiction of thumbing our noses at the catwalks while mixing high-end fashion into our wardrobes.

"There's always been a strong fashion customer" in Seattle, says Lynwood Holmberg, fashion director for women's clothing at the luxury retailer Mario's, on Sixth Avenue. And more people are coming to that dance, perhaps more than we realize. "There's a lot of people who are casual," she notes, "but put a lot of thought into their casual."

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It makes perfect sense, then, that in a soggy town like Seattle, Prada's outerwear — made of high-tech synthetics in sleek Italian shapes — are a huge hit among Mario's customers.

"Any kind of techno-fabrics we can sell right off the bat," Holmberg says.

She also raved about a "forward-looking" Jil Sander reversible raincoat for fall that is leather on one side and nylon on the other, and another nylon jacket for fall that's trimmed in cashmere.

"People in Seattle like a little less bling and a more understated elegance," Holmberg adds.

Seattle women sweat the details in their clothes. Style can pop up in the most mundane of places, such as the tailored outerwear and the three-quarter-length sleeves that will dominate looks this fall. Cool buttons, interesting cuffs, unusual trim, straps, zippers, gloves, hats and belts, dramatic footwear and leggings, all prevalent this fall, complement the city's quirky fashion sensibility.

At Polite Society, Akines pulls out a basic-looking, blue button-down blouse from Alicia Bell, who specializes in dramatic sleeves and cuffs. This one has white pleated cuffs that flair out like a flamenco dancer's fan. It's dowdy and edgy at the same time.

"I've sold these to 65-year-old ladies and to 25-year-olds," Akines says.

Nordstrom's Kristy Anderson, who heads up the department store's Personal Touch wardrobe consultation and personal-shopper service, says more and more women in Seattle feel they have "permission" to overtly embrace fashion, but they want to do it thoughtfully and on their terms.

"What I like seeing in the Northwest now is on any given Saturday, people are thinking about what they wear when they're walking around town," she says. "I can't say that was always the case."

Holmberg of Mario's agrees that women, in particular, are rethinking the old ways of dressing and, perhaps grudgingly, embracing longstanding Seattle no-no's like bold color.

"I have one customer who said her closet was so much happier now that Etro was in it," Holmberg says with a laugh. "She's quite typical of people in Seattle who play it safe with her neutrals" but are increasingly in the mood to experiment and push the limits of what's thought of as acceptable here.

Janet Walker, a Microsoft employee and devotee of Baby & Co., a shop on First Avenue that caters mostly to stylish women 40 and over, remembers an unusual "basket skirt" she purchased there that was so popular with her friends "I could have sold it out of the trunk of my car."

At the very least, there's a hunger for something new.

But if we don't care to be painfully trendy, or stand out in an ostentatious way, what message are we sending when we do decide to dress up?

Bergman, 31, puts it this way: "Wearing the same thing that everyone else has is boring... I think more women are on a mission to find new, interesting looks that help define them as individuals.

"I definitely follow the trends, but I tend to take classic pieces and add my own twist with accessories and color," she says. But "I don't need my clothes to scream, 'I'M DIFFERENT!' I want my clothes to say, 'I'm confident. I'm strong. I don't follow anyone else's rules."

If the mood strikes her to settle back into Seattle-casual mode, there's a right way to do it, she says: "It's amazing what a hot pair of shoes and a great necklace can do to a pair of jeans and a T-shirt."

Joon Yi Kim, a 24-year-old who works at Nordstrom, would concur.

"Bags and shoes — I think they can make an outfit," says Kim, who for a time worked as a Gucci handbag specialist at Nordstrom. "You can wear a black top, jeans and killer shoes and you're done... I can't live without my Tory Burch flats. I have two pairs."

The bottom line is, "I don't like looking frumpy," Kim says. "Even when I go out in my sweats, I still have to coordinate." And in the rare event she does go out in sweats, they're Juicy Couture sweats.

In the same way that working in a professional setting like Nordstrom, where employees need to look good every day, has helped Kim graduate from what she calls a "teeny-bopper" aesthetic, Seattle itself has matriculated to a higher level of fashion.

Art consultant Diane Elliott picked up on Seattle's formerly strained relationship with fashion right away when she moved from Boston to Portland, and then here, some 20 years ago:

"The first time I went to the ballet, I saw this guy in a windbreaker and jeans, and I was like, 'What? You can't get out of your windbreaker for one night?' "

But earlier this year, she attended an event at the Seattle Art Museum and was struck by how dressy people were, and how comfortable they looked in those clothes.

"That was a first for me," she says.

For Elliott, curator of Swedish Hospital's art collection, fashion is as much an attitude as a way of dressing. And the more personal your fashion sense is, the more confident you'll feel dressing up.

"I gather clothes from high-end to low-end and I put a lot of things together," she says. "If I'm in Marshall's and see a white T-shirt, I don't mind putting that with a Yohji Yamamoto skirt."

The thrill of "taking something common and making it a little bit 'off' " is part of the fun for her.

For a recent meeting in Ballard with the owner of the curiosity shop Souvenir, Curtis Steiner, Elliott paired her mustard-yellow cardigan with not one but two necklaces: an otherworldly, spiky brown creation made of pieces of sea kelp and another with gumball-size, clear-acrylic beads. Steiner is well-known for carrying off-center jewelry by local designers, and Elliott often goes there just to be inspired by all the trinkets he's discovered on his world travels. Sometimes, she says, an amazing piece of handmade jewelry can totally make an outfit, especially in a town where people still tend to shy away from flashy clothes.

Elliott is a big fan of texture and unique, sculptural forms — hence her love of New Hampshire-based Krista Larson's dresses and skirts, which she's found at Les Amis in Fremont.

Elliott's friend, art gallery owner Greg Kucera, actually describes her as a "walking sculpture" and one of the best-dressed people he knows.

But clearly, it's how she assembles outfits that makes certain pieces, like her Issey Miyake skirts, work.

"You can wear them with boots or you can wear them really dressy," Elliott says, noting that dressing down a striking luxury item can keep it from looking too precious.

"I have an anything-goes philosophy," she says. "I just have fun. I don't take it so seriously that everything matches. And I'm not afraid to fail. Whether it works for someone else is not my concern."

Like a lot of women in Seattle, Elliott stays connected to the broader world of fashion by going online. She recently ordered a Nehru-style jacket — "very stiff collar, with metal in it" — from the online catalog Wrap London.

But Elliott also looks to the artists for inspiration; she says they are bellwethers for important movements in fashion.

It's perhaps no coincidence that as Seattle's art, design and cultural scene has matured and taken on a higher profile with the Olympic Sculpture Park, SAM expansion and Rem Koolhaas' Seattle Public Library main branch, locals are adopting more sophisticated, grown-up tastes, too.

There's not much adolescent, for instance, about the clothes at Patricia Wolfkill's Soho-chic Merge, a store she opened in an Old Ballard storefront last year.

"I lean toward the more sophisticated, modern approach," says Wolfkill, dressed one day in a long black turtleneck sweater, black leggings and knee-length, glossy-leather boots with wooden heels by Dries Van Noten, who along with Demeulemeester has earned Antwerp a gold star on the fashion map. "There's definitely that customer in town who appreciates that aesthetic."

For fall, she'll carry lots of designs by Amsterdam's Tony Cohen, whose look is feminine but edgy, with a touch of volume.

"You can be feminine without being girly," she insists.

Smart, quirky, fiercely independent. These are themes in women's fashion at the moment, but they just so happen to capture the attitude of Seattle's style seekers.

"It's amazing how people's palettes expand when you give them a lot of options," says Jill Wenger, owner of Impulse boutique in Fremont.

"Something in them goes, 'I get this. I love the way I look in this.' "

Mario's Holmberg believes Seattle doesn't get enough credit for how creative and fashionable it is. That may be because people are interpreting fashion in their own idiosyncratic way. But that, in itself, is a sign of style.

"We don't all fit into the same fashion mold," she says. "And we don't have to."

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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