September 4, 2007

Au Contraire: Stick to the States

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Europe is often considered to be the pinnacle and leader of global fashion trends. In the past, Americans would travel to Europe to buy fashion forward items at lower prices. Even terming an item as European would greatly increase its appeal.
Thus, one would think that spending over five months in Europe would be any fashionista’s dream come true. Weekly trips to Harrods, weekends in Paris and flea markets across the continent offer some of the world’s finest shopping options and deals. However, after a semester abroad studying in London and traveling from Dublin to Athens I found European fashion to be quite a disappointment.
English fashion is stereotypically considered to be a sophisticated chic marked by Burberry plaids, Mulberry leather, Paul Smith swirls and Vivienne Westwood panache. Un­fortunately, the actual fashion scene in London is nothing like that idealized image. The famed Top Shop seems like a ridiculously expensive version of Forever 21. Harrods is a luxurious department store turned into an overpriced and overcrowded tourist trap. And Portobello Road Market was once an antique haven but now is filled with vintage- inspired knockoffs and masses of tourists.
The same goes on for many of the infamous shopping streets, stores, centers and markets across mainland Europe. The Champs Elysees is a Parisian Times Square and the world famous Louis Vuitton feels like a museum store. The shopping in Rome at the base of the Spanish Steps is an American luxury mall sprawled across the ideal European cityscape.
However, one cannot underestimate the importance of ambience while shopping. European cities are a fantastic background for serious and not so serious purchases. Cobbled streets, unknown boutiques and colossal markets can lure even the most pathetic shoppers. And there is nothing better than reflecting on an extraordinary semester or vacation every time you wear your European purchases.
Apart from ambience, European shopping seems disappointing relative to its reputation. Yet, there are still many great places to shop for distinctive items, fabulous deals and flawless quality. Markets are a definite must for any international shopper. Haggling is generally acceptable, items are frequently one-of-a-kind and customers often directly interact with the designers. What could beat substantial sterling silver rings for €10 or solid beaded necklaces for €1 each?
Additionally, many items are actually slightly less expensive in Europe than in the States, despite the weak dollar. Vuitton bags are cheapest in Paris (but not by much) and the price increases across mainland Europe, higher in England and then highest in the States. Although prices are often lowest in the country of origin, luxury items like Vuitton bags, are readily available all over the world. The excitement of purchasing Vuitton in Paris, Prada in Milan or Burberry in London has been lost to the expansion of such companies into malls and department stores across the globe. The merchandise is typically consistent regardless of where you buy it, so why not make a more unique purchase while abroad and stick to the usual items back at home.
Kitschy items found in museum shops, markets and tourist stores do not seem so appealing or distinctive while on vacation. However, well designed touristy items are far more appealing when removed from their touristy origins. T-shirts, home accessories, tote bags, pens and other standard touristy items take on a more exclusive feel at home. Just don’t spend your European vacation wearing an assortment of shirts, sweatshirts, scarves, pins, baseball hats and jackets that indicate the variety of cities that you have already visited. Nothing screams tourist louder than the “Ciao Bella” t-shirt that you’ve been wearing for a straight week.
The ultimate perception of fashion may actually come from the native people rather than their stores. This winter and spring, Parisians stuck to dark items and Londoners tended towards neon. It appears that there is no pan-European fashion or trend, as each country or city has a distinct style. Just like national and regional cultural, cuisine or social trends, fashion is often nationally and geographically specific.
Despite the varied trends between countries and cities, my disappointment in European fashion continued as I “people watched” the locals in a variety of locations. The romantic image of a gorgeous, sleek French, English, Spanish or Italian woman was shattered as I noted that Europeans face the same health, beauty and fashion issues as Americans. Obesity and dressing inadequately are international phenomena, not exclusively American afflictions.
I returned to New York realizing that American fashion really is innovative, intriguing and ingenious. There is nothing like shopping in Manhattan; the selection and bargains are tremendous. I guess that returning from Europe isn’t so bad after all.