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Importing Style: What Does Boston's International Population Mean For The City's Style?

Importing Style: What Does Boston's International Population Mean For The City's Style?

Image - Tommy Ton for

          A DRIZZLY SPRING afternoon sees Newbury Street grow slick with rain under the well-heeled feet of retail devotees. Hoping to keep the spree going, they reroute to Copley Place, one of Boston's upscale malls. The varied crowd – a mix of students, tourists, and residents from North and South America, Asia, and Europe – could just as easily have been plucked from an international airport. 

Boston and its neighboring suburbs are made up of an incredibly diverse population, thanks to the huge draw of its many colleges and universities and the increasingly attractive work opportunities here in technology, finance, and now, fashion that have rendered the city a global force.

Today, 27% of Boston’s population is foreign born - more than twice the national percentage of 13% and nearly double Massachusetts’ 15%, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority/Research Division. While historically the city drew immigrants from Italy and Ireland, now the majority of the approximately 165,394 foreign-born residents hail from Latin America (35%) and Asia (28.7%).

With new populations seeking style, the city's fashion and retail landscapes have shifted to accommodate them, and changes are evident in both street-style and brick-and-mortar developments alike.

          BOSTON WAS CROWNED the Worst Dressed City in America by GQ Magazine in 2011, but the city’s archetypal uniform of comfort-driven boots, leggings, and sweatshirts has steadily given way to a more formal dress code. Underneath the requisite weather-ready garb - almost invariably a Northface jacket or a Burberry trench coat - lies an aesthetic that is distinctly Bostonian: a worldly mix of colors, fearless prints, and structural designer pieces.  

Changes in the way Bostonians style themselves could be attributed to the tendency of new waves of Latin American and Asian consumers, especially college students and young professionals of means, to dress up rather than down.

"Asian style is often dressier, tighter, and less about comfort," explains Sara Yang, a wealthy Chinese-born resident who has settled in Boston after initially moving here for college eight years ago. "Most Chinese people would have been surprised to see leggings on the street. To a Chinese person, it would be like walking around in your underwear!" 

And other aspects of Asian style are also beginning to take root locally, Yang says. "You may notice that Asian women will add vividly colored accents to their outfits, like an eye-catching pair of pink shoes, which you’re beginning to elements of on locals, as well. A lot of the nail trends like diamond accents are also trickling in." 

Boston's style scene has been impacted by other foreign markets, as well. Love them or hate them, Uggs, which originated with 1970s Australian surf culture, are now a nation-wide phenomenon, but ask anyone in town to describe Boston fashion in one word and "Uggs" is likely to come tumbling out (with a requisite eye-roll).

Demand for high-street, fast-fashion purveyors that are ubiquitous abroad have facilitated the success of iconic Spanish label Zara and, more recently, Uniqlo, a Japanese maker of trendy, inexpensive apparel and outerwear. Massachusetts was the brand’s third US market, after success in New York and then California. 

And while Brits make up only a small percentage of the city's total foreign-born population, Boston's deep-rooted history with the UK is evidenced by the successful tenure of Newbury Street mainstays Burberry, Reiss, Ted Baker, and Barbour, to name a few.

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          IF BOSTON'S RETAIL scene is an empire, Newbury Street is its Nile River, coursing through the city’s heartland and nourishing stylish settlements that radiate from it. As such, it’s constantly in a state of metamorphosis, and a look at comings and goings on Newbury Street can provide a forecast for what’s in store, so to speak, for the rest of town. A growing range of luxury brands and high street retailers that years earlier would have required a passport to visit continue to spring up and flourish. New openings in the past year alone include Bottega Veneta, Dolce and Gabbana, and a second Tiffany & Co., not to mention newly made-over incarnations of Chanel and H&M.

“Newbury Street has changed dramatically in the past few decades.” recalls Tom Brennan, a real estate broker with C. Talanian for over 30 years. “Years ago it was mom and pop shops - about 80%, with just 20% large national chains. Now, there are international stores like Chanel, Loro Piana, Valentino, and lower-priced chains like Jack Wills.  

The plethora of international retailers on Newbury Street makes it one of the only shopping areas of its kind in or around New England. “Where else is there on the East Coast, besides Greenwich, Connecticut or New York City, where you can shop stores like Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, and Cartier?” Brennan points out. “Retailers want to be here, and foreigners like coming here, because people here are educated, open-minded, and more accepting to different people and different cultures. It makes visitors feel comfortable and makes them want to stay.”

For many style-seekers, the convenience of countless high-end brands within walking distance of each other (and, not coincidentally, some of the city’s top hotels) is an attractive reason to make a stop in Boston. So, aside from permanent and semi-permanent foreign residents like students, the city plays host to waves of tourists who come for the history, the sightseeing, and invariably, the shopping.

“The grouping of all these luxury stores in a few blocks is creating a destination,” explains Megan Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. “Plus, some foreign exchange rates are a huge benefit for luxury brands in Boston. Based on what languages you hear while walking down Newbury Street or in Copley Square, you can tell which economy is on an upswing.”

Customer service practices have shifted to adapt to the new clientele, offering up retail with a concierge-like twist. “I’ve seen some of our retailers become much more aggressive in terms of impeccable customer service,” says Mainzer-Cohen. 

This, too, could have roots in Chinese shopping sensibilities. “In China, shopping in a store is a one-on-one experience,” explains Sara Yang. “Sometimes there are even two or more clerks helping one customer. And in luxury stores, it’s even more.”

An atypical - and not particularly stylish - scene on Newbury Street: The Running of the Santas

          DON'T EXPECT THE retail globalization to slow down anytime soon. Within months of taking office last January, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh outlined plans to continue to attract international tourism and business as a significant part of an effort to grow local economy. He’s also made efforts to streamline and speed up the process of obtaining business permits and licenses, which is surely attractive to companies based abroad, where red-tape can sideline new openings for years.

The BRA predicts 2015 will be an even bigger year than last, which was already record-breaking in terms of development. The city is slated to continue to attract a diverse population, necessitating and propagating an even more diverse portfolio of style on offer at brick and mortar locations, and on the streets.

Translation? World, hold on; Boston is ready for its close-up.

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