My home city is London. Warts and all, I know it well. What I don’t entirely know though, is why it becomes so much cooler than it really is as soon as you leave it. The cheaply gratifying, unearned cachet that comes with being a Londoner abroad is especially powerful when brandished in the company of those who are into fashion and clothes. In Paris, New York and Milan – my most regularly visited pitstops – I have many local pals who are blurrily convinced that my home city is the ne plus ultra of a unique brand of eccentrically adventurous dandyism.
I try to disabuse them of this notion, insisting that London, like anywhere else, is brimming with unremarkable slobs. Just look at me, I add. Yet when, for instance, I tell Emanuele, an elegant and erudite menswear aficionado based in Milan, that London is not really a city populated by dashing blades who combine the irreverent sartorial verve of Davids Bowie, Beckham and Niven, he appears disinclined to listen. Any protest that Savile Row is no longer what it was – it’s blighted by a branch of Abercrombie & Fitch, for heaven’s sake – or that Carnaby Street is a hopelessly degraded tourist trap is shrugged away. Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss are all very well, I add weakly, but they are ubiquitous only on advertising hoardings.
Such geographically specific style stereotypes are not limited to my home town. By far the most consistently wielded canard in the catalogue – especially by observers in the United States and Britain – is the myth of perfect French femininity.
Entirely ignoring the rest of France, foreign perceptions of that undoubtedly great nation’s gamine chic lazily sketch it as a movie-lot hybrid of Saint Germain populated by clones of Jane Birkin (who’s English) and Saint Tropez graced by gingham-clad simulacra of Brigitte Bardot. Deeper misreadings might factor in Jean Seberg, Coco Chanel, Catherine Deneuve, Loulou de la Falaise, Inès de la Fressange or Audrey Tatou. Following the lead of that masterfully titled epitome of seductive geographical generalisation, the diet-book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” (2004), American style arbiters regularly analyse “French Girl hair”, “French Girl beauty” and “French Girl cool” in a tone of empirical certitude that suggests they are scientists observing a universally recognised natural phenomenon. Now please don’t get me wrong: French women – like all women, and all men too – do succumb, to loose consensus-formed habituation when getting ready in the morning. Some, it’s true, favour Breton stripes, smoky eyes and a (faux) laissez-faire coiffure. But this is a millions-strong community of individuals we’re talking about – not a monolithic offshoot of the Académie Française dedicated to the definition of je ne sais quoi.
The irony of the American-perpetutated French Chic stereotype is that it is reciprocated. In Paris – real Paris, not Saint Birkin – the latest instance of a long-term fixation on the United States as the crucible of cool is a fascination with all things Brooklyn, Williamsburg and hipster. Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and buffalo check are the key aspirational references here.
Meanwhile back on my home turf in Britain – as in many places around the world – Italy remains the home of the projected paradigm of Elegant Man. Undoubtedly the dash of Giorgio Armani, Marcello Mastroianni and Gianni Agnelli have all meaningfully contributed to the legend of Italians as the archetypal examples of hormonally charged, studiedly semi-formal nonchalance. And yet every Italian I know – including Emanuele, who bears a passing resemblance to Paolo Maldini and boasts a wardrobe brimming with the most beautifully cut, gorgeously fabricated garments his home nation has to offer – rejects it. British style, he and his compatriots keep telling me, is l’ultimo. I just think of England – the real England – and sigh.
These seductive but reductive international misconceptions are ripe for retail exploitation. Subject to careful marketing, what seems mundane at home becomes headily exotic once exported. Thus the beauty products of the banal British brand Boots are fetishised in Italy. The excellent shoe company Clark’s is seen as workaday at home but wonderful abroad. The Tommy Hilfiger brand flourished in Europe as a perfect mass-market expression of preppiness, when deeply out of favour in America. Brioni, an Italian tailoring label, was famous for decades across the Atlantic when barely anyone in Italy had heard of it – because the Italians all wanted to buy English-made suits by Chester Barrie.
And so the engine of beguiling balderdash keeps chugging along, whispering as it goes that “cool” is another country – and not just a synonym for recreational desire.