Urban Resonance The city as a fashion item

cities are now part of the fashion parade. Fashionability is used by cities as a global positioning tool in their attempt to anchor or shift their identity. But being fashionable is almost by definition unsustainable and on its own is incapable of achieving long-term recognition. Fashion can take on a life of its own that can send cities on a trajectory on which they do not want to be. Avoiding this fate is therefore of paramount importance. A city's resilience needs to reinforced and buttressed by 'real' economic drivers, such as what wealth it is creating, what it is producing, its research and development capacity, its generation of employment, and how open its investment environment is. Nevertheless, image and fashion is both an industry in its own right that may be significant for a city and also a means of putting the icing on the cake to reinforce its attractiveness to other investors in its industries, from car manufacturing to IT and finance. What cities look for is to lodge in assets that are difficult to dislodge, such as a stock exchange or major university. It is unlikely that the New York exchange will locate elsewhere or that Harvard will move from greater Boston. Having the right image strengthens the image of a city's assets. It has a psychological effect on residents too. Being deemed to be part of a 'cool city' gives people confidence and in turn makes the city cooler, thus creating greater desirability in a virtuous circle.

The principle of fashion is changeability, always transforming, always moving, departing before it arrives. Most of us are living a step or two behind. Only a few urban fashionistas can stay close to the pace. Driven by the trend industry and travel market, cities move in and out of fashion and only a few keep up with the pace for the long term as, for example, New York, London and Amsterdam have managed to do. Others, through historical accident, fall off the radar screen, as happened to Berlin and Vienna in the Cold War, to Barcelona under Franco and to Shanghai when China was a more closed society. Yet with their intrinsic substance and their cultural resources, from heritage and museums to political power, they have the assets to re-emerge and create a global resonance to attract attention. 'Move over London - Berlin is coming up the slipstream,' a headline might read. 'Shanghai, the Paris of the East, is coming back with a vengeance.' 'Barcelona, the designer capital of Europe is the essence of urban chic.' 'Relive Eastern grandeur in St Petersburg.' 'Vienna is the gateway to the East; more to the city than waltzing, Lipizzaner horses and Sacher Torte.' These cities were dormant giants whose energies were suppressed by conflict. When a resolution was found, a burst of creativity expressed itself in relief.

Visibility comes to capitals of countries or regions as they inevitably draw the power brokers to themselves: politicians, investors and cultural types. The interplay of economic opportunity, construction possibilities, a position in the world of arts and heritage, a reputation for trendsetting, and the lure for tourists reinforces their position as hubs.

As the world production centre inexorably shifts east, a raft of places are 'rediscovered'. Once cities reach a certain level of development they begin to shift towards service industries and their capacity to consume, especially of clothes, entertainment and travel, increases. The international movement of ideas and people goes with it and the fashion media industries play a strong role. Places like Hong Kong and Taipei, once seen as low-grade production centres for textiles, inevitably seek to move up the value chain. Rather than buying into Western design aesthetics, the large Eastern production empires hired in-house Western designers. Yet as places gained confidence, rather than borrowing from elsewhere, they found their own voice and Eastern designers began to make their own name: Vivienne Tam, Lu Lu Cheung, Harrison Wong, David Tang, Sophie Wong. In the process of fostering its own, indigenous fashion designers, the city itself becomes fashionable because it is part of the media whirlwind. Behind this lies a mighty economic infrastructure of market intelligence, major production, finance houses and, at the apex, catwalks. The aim is to make the city a world centre of fashion. The association of fashion is partly how Paris and Milan built a core aspect of their image and reputation.

Already, Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou are being advised to rethink their role and to allow a move of their industrial facilities to second-tier areas like Hefei, Nanjing and Wuxi. Soon, with this refocus, the names of Beijing and Shanghai designers will be on everyone's lips. Both already have their Fashion Weeks. As China Daily noted in 2003, 'to create Shanghai with an image of world metropolis, and to promote export and import in the fashionable fields ... we are going to organize [the] second Shanghai Fashion Week.'19 This is part of Shanghai's strategy to play on a bigger stage. It was disappointed it could not get the Olympics, which went to its main competitor, Beijing, and so took the consolation prize of the World Expo 2010 instead.

Two decades before, the same process happened in Japan, especially in Tokyo. Japanese design first made a real impression on the fashion world back in 1982, when 12 designers showed their collections in Paris at the ready-to-wear shows. Already known at home, Issey Miyake, Kenzo, Yoji Yamamoto, Kawakubo Rei of Comme des Garcons and Hanae Mori shot into world consciousness. Since then, a few such as Keita Maruyama have been added to this established list. This shifted focus on to things Japanese, with Tokyo as its hub. In terms of global awareness, it is street fashion that leads the way, and the Harajuku crowd in Tokyo are as hip as their contemporaries anywhere in the world.

The fashion focus shapes the physical environment as the big bosses of fashion are 'now competing for high profile architects to create the ultimate accessory - extravagant buildings designed to impress'. The drive to redefine fashion as 'art, removed from commerce and something more than mere clothing, is reinforced by such shopping temples'.20

Fashion and art live together in an odd symbiosis: art contributes to fashion's cutting-edge feel and fashion helps art's fashionability. Both are part of the repertoire for cities to grab attention for themselves and project distinction and distinctiveness:

I think it's going to happen here... I'll be surprised if in five to ten years Taipei is not considered one of the great cities of the world for doing contemporary art... I've been struck by the youthful, vibrant art talent here. And unlike New York, London and Paris, Taipei is relatively affordable for young artists from Taiwan and abroad. Most importantly, Taipei enjoys an unselfconscious and freewheeling city life that lends itself to an explosion in the arts.21

As a city's fashion status increases, the advantages of cheapness disappear. Taipei, once 'the ugliest city of the planet',22 suddenly becomes a hive for the hip where trends are made; Hong Kong is the safe starting point to get a glimpse of the Chinese miracle. Mumbai is the city to experience urban India and Bollywood films help keep the media profile in view. As the urban fashionistas scour the world for new hip places, Bollywood's popularity in the West has grown exponentially, and with that comes Indian music, design and fashion.

And so it moves around. The new disposable income of the new middle classes provides the opportunity once a certain stage of development has been reached. The international executives, with their demand for international-level services, drive the consumption patterns on and the battle of the brands keeps attention focused. What will be the next stop on the fashionable city treadmill? Anywhere is fair game. Accra briefly appeared for a moment, linked to an ethnic look and shabby chic: the chic of poverty and the unknown. It was an ugly, downplayed chic. Then its Western protagonists out-shabbied themselves and had to back-pedal so that the clothing could be universally appealing. Having gone out on a limb, they had to coil back and so Accra was less in the limelight. Will Lagos make its star turn or Johannesburg? Buenos Aires and Rio are due for a comeback.

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