Dress Code Black

So what does it take for Vienna to become a fashion capital, a true “Modestadt?”

On The Town | Maria Willis | April 2010

On this winter night, the fashionistas of Vienna had come together to discuss the question that had been hanging in the air over atelier, catwalk and show rooms – whether Vienna is indeed a fashion city ("Wien ist (k)eine Modestadt", Westlicht, Feb. 21); in recent years, some fear it may have lost its edge.

In five years of Vienna fashion watching, the scene have been less-than-inspiring -- revealing a general lack of character, freshness or originality in the styles on the street that one finds in many other European capital cities. Particularly if you compare it with Paris, that has always been a hub for elegantly dressed women who seem to effortlessly manage the Left Bank, I-just-threw-this-on-this-morning-and-I-look-great look. Even London has come to epitomize fashion edginess, leading non-Brit style icons from Lauren Santo Domingo to Caroline Sieber to imitate the late Alexander McQueen and Burberry Prorsum.

On this night, however, viewers awoke to the great style of the Viennese that at least some had thought was only bestowed by women strutting through the Jardin de Tuilleries. This was a night to celebrate Vienna in all its originality.

If the stylings were anything to go by, the London look seemed to have blown across the channel and a half a dozen countries in between and firmly planted it’s seed in the mind of the Viennese.  This is wonderfully refreshing and far from the normal cries of stiff-collared shirts tucked unceremoniously into khaki trousers; here stood women (and men) who weren’t afraid to let a little chic shine though as a beacon for others, in the form of vintage Aigner handbags and men’s two-tone brogues, the dandy’s of the Prohibition era.

The discussion round was led by some well-known players, and many of the industry’s insiders incited a riot of new ideas and observations from the night’s other guests, addressing the possibilities for those in the fashion field such as Michaela Amort of fashion website Tschlip.com, Nicola Eller of ORF Kultur and designers alike to satisfy their style cravings in a city that may not wear its fashion heart on its sleeve.

So what constitutes a "Modestadt"?  Paris fashion week incorporates almost 90 shows inside its 9 day-long parade of top designers from around the world.  Milan attracts the likes of industry experts like U.S. Vogue’s Anna Wintour and stylist Giovanna Battaglia, as well as famed photographers Tommy Ton and Scott Schuman - commonly known as The Sartorialist. To put it bluntly, whom does Vienna attract? Perhaps this is too harsh a grading curve to go by in order to reach a conclusive answer on this topic – but how else are we to gauge whether or not Vienna’s offerings of fashion are or ever will be considered at the same level of the world’s already-established fashion capitals? Paris based fashion label Celine’s clean lines and simple but luxurious tailoring is picked up and reinvented by the likes of high street shops such as Zara; New York’s take on the new Lolita a la Marc Jacobs is being flaunted in current fashion magazines from U.K. Vogue to Austria’s own Woman magazine.  But which trends are originating here in Vienna?

What is considered "fashionable" changes, and thus must be acknowledged as subjective; but it is not entirely so.  There seems to be some sort of natural law to beauty, an honoring of inborn qualities as much confidence and finesse as physical feature, that convinces the "eye of the beholder." And as Economics 101 teaches, supply will eventually meet demand.

So is this the problem? Not enough interest? Do we even want Vienna to cater to this demand ? Or are we happy to live in a world of fashion obscurity, when it comes to the number of fashion house headquarters in Vienna with those in Paris and New York?  And if we want to be a Fashion City, how do we stir up the essential – and relentless – search for style?

According to the Times Online, CEO of the fashion chain Whistles Jane Shepherdson sees the success of fashion in London springing from the energy of the British people and being able to let go of their inhibitions, which allows them to take more fashion risks.  Perhaps Vienna, like London, as Ms. Shepherdson observed, is lacking "the long-established European-style luxury companies" which make cities like Paris and Milan such go-to spots for the fashion conscious.  Like London, Vienna is home to many smaller ateliers and innovative designers, while it lacks the deep-pocket investors, the kind who won’t even consider investing in a company with a turnover below £2 million.

Several Austrian designers have made London their home. Marios Schwab, characterized by British Vogue for his "unique interpretations of natural forms," bases his label in London after having completed his studies at Central Saint Martins.  London is also the home to the label of Austrian-born Peter Pilotto, whose designs favour haphazard abstract prints.

So what does London have that Vienna lacks?  Is it the large customer base of fans dedicated to the beautiful and eccentric yet commercially accessible fashions of these household names? Or is it the city itself which is the magnet that draws the designers with offers of business opportunities, grants and media coverage key to growing a fashion label? Which is the chicken and which the egg?

"The point is not for Vienna to recreate the ambience of cities like New York and Milan or even London but rather to develop its own niche, following on from its culturally and artistically rich heritage," says Thomas Koller, CEO of CIRO jewellery boutiques with outlets across Austria and Germany.

The support is there. As Olga Okunev from the Ministry for Education, Art and Culture pointed out in the discussion, there are many subsidies and initiatives offered by the City of Vienna for new designers to help them establish themselves here, showing that a lack government support is not necessarily the obstacle in this case.

And where there may be a strength in tradition, originality also has its drawbacks. Hilary Riva, Chief Executive of the British Fashion Council, critiques British fashion for not being ready "commercially," a factor that is vital to large-scale success in the fashion world.

So what does it take to become a fashion capital, a true "Modestadt"? There is no single nor simple answer, and the evening ended with the sense that there was still a secret that is only ever quietly whispered among the elite fashion insiders.  We as a city should perhaps decide if we want to be a poly-filler for the niches in the fashion world, or we want to create as large a fashion following as Paris or New York.

That night not many walked away singing Vienna’s praises. Many seemed to agree that the city has no fashion identity with which to associate itself; it is a work in progress for up and coming designers and entrepreneurs to reinvent Vienna’s image.

No easy task; but well worth the effort.

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