- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

For years — generations, even — fashion in Washington meant a navy suit and a charcoal suit. The power corridor from Capitol Hill to K Street dictated a look that was buttoned-up, boring and beside the point when who you are is more important than who you wear.

Not so anymore as the nation’s capital welcomes a slew of stores that are inching us into a fashion league with New York and Los Angeles. Yes, we have miles to go before we have a lineup as impressive as Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive, but now we have $500 Jimmy Choo shoes to help us make up the ground.

Jimmy Choo, a luxury shoe designer, is one of the tenants of the Collection at Chevy Chase, a strip of fancy stores that opened recently on Wisconsin Avenue. The store’s neighbors include Barneys Co-op, Ralph Lauren, Dior, Bulgari, Tiffany’s, Louis Vuitton and Gucci, breathing new life into the shopping options for the area’s fashion-conscious.

Some of those stores moved from across the street into bigger spaces. Others, such as Barneys and Dior, are new to Washington.

“When we were developing the Collection, we knew we had the perfect spot between Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus,” says Edward Asher, president and chief operating officer of the Chevy Chase Land Co., developer of the Collection at Chevy Chase. “We want to make it the Rodeo Drive of the East. Many of the top-tier retailers said they had a huge customer list — people who flew up to New York often to shop.”

Customers like 28-year-old Alexis, who declined to give her last name as she picked out two pairs of $450 strappy sandals at Jimmy Choo on a recent weekday morning.

“There is definitely more money in New York,” she says, “but there is enough money here so the stores will not go out of business. I’m glad people are finally catching on to high-end retail in the city. I used to have to go to Rockville to go shopping.”

Is there enough money for shoppers to drop $388 on a little Diane von Furstenberg blazer at Barneys? Anyone for a $2,000 suitcase at Vuitton? How about a gorgeous leather jacket for $2,298 at Ralph Lauren?

The Ralph Lauren store itself promotes sort of a moneyed fantasy. The Chevy Chase store is a smaller version of the Fifth Avenue store in New York, and that store re-creates an old-money mansion, complete with paintings of ancestors and dark-wood paneling.

Kate Gibbs, editor of Capitol File magazine, the glossy monthly that highlights and chronicles Washington’s social elite, says the money absolutely is here now.

“Washington has always been a smart city,” she says, “but to have fashion that is sexy and of-the-moment is very welcome now. The amount of choices we have now — including the enormous spread of price points — speaks to wealth that has always been here and the money that is now here from technology. … Money in Washington was traditionally tied to K Street and the Hill. Now it comes with a different liberty.”

Nationwide, the number of U.S. households with a net worth of $1 million or more rose to an all-time high of 8.3 million in 2005, says the Spectrem Group, a consulting firm that analyzes the luxury market.

The Washington area reflects that affluence as well, reports the market research firm Claritas. Claritas research shows 20 percent of households in the District earn $100,000 or more annually. In nearby Montgomery and Fairfax counties, the average household income is about $110,000 and $115,000, respectively. That is well above the national average of $65,849.

That means there is lots of money around here for cashmere throw blankets and bejeweled dog sweaters.

Tara Weinritt, co-owner with Yolande Fidellow of Two Fashionistas, a personal shopping service, says fashion expectations have changed in Washington as new faces have entered the public eye.

“People here are caring more about fashion,” she says. “They are talking about who was wearing what at a gala or what kind of jewelry Condoleezza Rice had on.”

The evolution of fashion — and the expectation that D.C. stores should carry what the ladies on “Sex and the City” or “The OC” are wearing — has trickled down to younger, hipper Washington. Take the Bush twins, for instance. Their fashion choices — usually young, trendy and expensive — often are featured in gossip columns and fashion magazines.

Clearly, there is a market here for $200 low-rise jeans and adorable, flimsy and awfully expensive camisoles. The past few years have seen an influx of boutique stores in the District. In fact, Wisconsin Avenue above Georgetown — home to boutiques Urban Chic, Sugar and the newly opened Valise — has become a power shopping spot for the twentysomething set.

Lindsay Buscher, 28, opened Urban Chic 2 years ago when she was frustrated by her own lack of chic shopping choices. Business is so good that Ms. Buscher recently opened a second store in the Maryland suburbs.

Scores of young women come to Urban Chic and other trendy boutiques to pick up Dior sunglasses, Juicy Couture sweats and pricey Paper Denim & Cloth jeans.

“Is the money here? Yes,” Ms. Buscher says. “People really underestimate the D.C. girl. She has great style.”

A few doors down, Mary Beth Metery, 24, is hoping for the same success at her tiny but tony shop, Valise.

Valise’s specialty is dresses. The store carries Nicole Miller, Vera Wang and other top designers.

“Shopping in D.C. has gotten so much better in the last three years,” Miss Metery says. “Business is great. There are lots of people willing to spend $450 on a dress.”

No question, youth and money can be found here in abundance, says Ms. Weinritt. The new wealth in Washington, combined with the public’s obsession with celebrities, means there are plenty of young women willing to buy the same jeans Cameron Diaz was photographed wearing or whatever designer handbag Lindsay Lohan was seen carrying.

“You’ve got a lot of money here with Georgetown and George Washington students,” Ms. Weinritt says. “We’ve gotten a fair amount of calls from five or six college students who want to hire us as their personal shopper.”

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