In 1988, after casual research, USA Today labeled Durango the “least fashion conscious” city in America. This strange factoid, 29 years later, still gets dropped into conversations with certitude, as if it were a verifiable fact (and not a flimsy opinion).
There’s a lot to unpack in a statement that calls out any populace as stylistically ignorant. To start with, what is Durango’s style? Does it matter that we don’t fit with national trends? How does function influence fashion? Is Durango’s fashion sense that different than other smallish American towns?
DGO was full of Big Feelings about Durango’s street style. We deliberated on the fashion past and present of our southwestern corner of Colorado with four fabulously thoughtful, stylish locals: Dr. Paige Gray, a visiting professor of English at Fort Lewis College who has been in town a year and a half; Zack Angulo, who works in management, is a 22-year Durango transplant from Houston; artist George Schmidt, who has been in Durango for eight years; and real estate broker Amber Johnson, a lifer who grew up in Durango.
What do you think of Durango being called the “least fashion conscious” city in America?
Paige Gray: I’ve never heard this rumor before … I think that is completely off-base because we are one of the more creative places around. We aren’t super high-end, but we have an eclectic population. We have a student population and students are resourceful and curious in terms of how they dress and put things together. We also have the ski and snowboard culture and that has its own aesthetic.
Zack Angulo: For a while we kinda were, but that was like over 20 to 30 years ago. When I first moved here, it was different, coming from a city. I lived in Houston. The women dressed up. The men dressed up. I came here and there was none of that.
In the last 10 years, there’s so much more diversity, fashion-wise. Everyone wears whatever they want. There’s a lot of cool stuff. It’s a global market now.
George Schmidt: When that was written, there was a particularly awkward convergence of outdoor gear and grunge going on that wasn’t really a successfull merging.
Amber Johnson: It was a combo of a rejection of getting ready and outdoor gear … There’s a way that Durango has a rejection of the values of getting ready in the morning because they are here to go outside and get dirty.
I think at the time when that was written, in Durango, we didn’t have a lot of shopping. You had to drive to Albuquerque. We had JC Penny. Dillards might have been in Farmington. People here, people with means or otherwise, did not have access to fashion. They had catalog shopping.
What is Durango’s style?
Gray: I feel like the people in Durango are creative. You have artists, people that go for comfort but what’s appropriate for hiking and biking. There’s a personal feel because this is a smaller community that has tourists coming in; it is a big small-town feel. People have a sense of comfort. There’s not a lot of pretension and peoples’ selves really come through.
Schmidt: There are people in Durango who reject that image-matters lifestyle or professional work lifestyle.
Johnson: Yeah, there are people who come here and then “Eddie (Bauer)-out.”
Schmidt: Ski bums, rock climbing types … The fleece hat and Carhartts, that’s still here and hasn’t changed for 25 years.
The rugged-cowboy-guy look is a thing. There is a belief in this country that we were all rugged individualists and each of us created our lives all on our own and that we aren’t a collective. That everything we’ve achieved is on our own strength of character as individuals. It’s a pervasive American myth. I think dressing like a cowboy is part and parcel of that idea.
Angulo: But, you can tell the real ones. I’ll see some old crusty dudes out there and I’ll know that old boy is just getting off the field.
If Durango were “badly dressed” who is receiving that judgment?
Gray: I think it is interesting, this idea of Durango being worst dressed. So much of what people are seeing are tourists anyway. They’re not going up to the college. They’re not getting off Main Ave.
How is Durango’s fashion sense uniquely Durango?
Schmidt: It’s not an easy place to dress for. The temperature swings 40 degrees in a 24-hour period almost all year long. Depending on what elevation you’re at, it could be even more extreme.
Johnson: Aside from higher thinking about fashion, there’s a practical way to dress in Durango. It gets dirty and dusty and you might go for a hike after work, but you can get dirty even getting in and out of your car.
I grew up on a ranch and my family looks like that. My dad is not going to change to come to town. He’s gonna get in his truck and come to town. For me, as a professional in Durango, I’ve never worn a full suit and never would. It doesn’t match here.
Gray: The thing I love about Durango is that it’s a real liminal space … I think of Colorado in blues and greens and New Mexico in purples and oranges … Here you get both. You have the iconic New Mexico mesa spaces, but you also have the stereotypical forms of Colorado that bleed into the aesthetic of fashion here.
How does Durango’s outdoor obsession infiltrate its fashion sense?
Angulo: Almost everything here, you need what you wear: To keep you warm, to function, to adventure.
Schmidt: It’s possible that the moniker of Worst Dressed Town in America is an early manifestation of a normcore concept. Maybe. I dunno. The utilitarian aspect style is definitely at the forefront here. Not only can you go to work dressed casually, but you can get in your pickup truck after work and go backpacking at the drop of a hat.
Fashion as function but also fashion as projection of values. It’s saying, not only am I the type of person who lives in Durango, but I’m the type of person who values this freedom of going backpacking, or whatever other adventure, immediately.
Johnson: That is a huge part of Durango. People are ready … People come to Durango to do the outdoor lifestyle. People have a copious amount of nylon and technical fabrics in their closet.
Gray: You have the flowy, patterned clothes and fabrics. I’m thinking of that Georgia O’Keeffe feel, but then you also have Patagonia-everything and this idea of being prepped and ready.
I think there is a real hybrid between style and substance – functionality and form. People want that idea of functionality because, “Oh, I’m going hiking that day.” But there is a sense of, “How does this look?”
We have a large rural outdoor community. What people wear to facilitate that isn’t high fashion but it is fashion. It’s for different purpose and works to our community. It might not be the same as what people are wearing out in Denver or Chicago or New York, but it can be just as representative to a unique identity.
How do you think about your own sense of style?
Johnson: For me, it is finding out what is comfortable and deciding what is rough and ready, yet polished. I think a lot of people in Durango try to walk that line. I try to keep my routine to 10 to 15 minutes.
Gray: I’m always thinking about, how does this make me feel? Am I comfortable? Is there a piece of me in this? Even when I’m wearing something that’s a sweatshirt, it’s because it makes me happy. Usually, if I am putting on a sweatshirt and jeans I put on a necklace I got in Taos or something that brings a memory or color or something. That tells a story. Every day, I’m trying to tell a story.
Angulo: I would probably say I’m, in a weird kind of way, I’m a product of the ’60s and ’70s even though the ’80s is more of my generation. I’ve gravitated towards surf, skate, hotrod, and motorcycle culture. My uncles were all into cars, trucks and motorcycles and vans – huge fan of vans.
There is a standard uniform for any city. I try not to wear that uniform … I try not to fall into the hole of not trying. I wear what makes me feel good, what’s comfortable.How do you think people in Durango think about fashion?
Angulo: I think a lot of people in this town seem to say they aren’t concerned about (fashion). The reality is that they are. Everyone and their mother out there is wearing the latest puffy jacket; they saw it somewhere – Outside, another magazine, or in media outlets that perpetrate outdoor fashion. There may be function to it, but at the same time, for people to say they don’t care how it looks, I call bullshit on that. In summertime, everyone is in the same outdoor brand-name shorts and plaid shirt.
Gray: There are people who say, “I don’t think about fashion at all,” but they do. They think about it in terms of, “This makes me feel good,” or, “This makes me happy.” People connote the word fashion with a runway or a department store. There’s baggage around the word instead of thinking about it as an expression of self. People’s association with fashion might be big names like Louis Vuitton or Calvin Klein, but how you present yourself to the world is more than brand names.
They might think, “I don’t try to impress other people,” so they don’t think they think about fashion, but they are thinking about their likes and their comfort. You feel like you today – what makes you feel like you? In Durango, comfort is important but there is a connection with the environment and outdoors. Clothing is used as a way to cement that relationship between the environment, athleticism, and experience.
Do you think Durango has a comparable fashion sense as similar-sized American towns?
Schmidt: Most of us do a lot of our shipping online now, we aren’t just going to JC Penny and the thrift store. Our horizons are whatever we want, but mediocrity in fashion is everywhere now.
Gray: I’m wondering who is saying that we have bad fashion. Is it people who live here or people who are coming in from other big cities making judgments? You go in any medium-sized town anywhere and you have people that are average people with average incomes. You can go into any community and find awesome things and some crap. In a smaller populace the concentration of fashion-focus is smaller and not everywhere, but the voices are still there.
Does class come into play?
Angulo: I don’t know. I don’t live in that world. I will say money can neither buy taste nor character. Right? We’ve all seen it.
Gray: It feels like a classist thing, this fashion judgment. Durango is a Colorado ski town, but it is not Aspen or Telluride, so is it that we have the ski lifestyle on a more affordable budget that people are judging? Is it that people think others don’t have style because they don’t have money? I wonder.
I think that people lazily think that areas that are more moneyed or elite have a higher fashion sense or style, but that’s not the case. It only means they have more money.
Schmidt: (Fashion) has always had an element of class … It’s only within the last 150 years that that has changed. Fashion may be a slightly more level playing field now, but America is relying on the labor of people thousands of miles away in giant sweatshops for that. It’s a messy business, fashion.
Johnson: And now, there’s this renaissance of “workwear.” What does it say about us as a people that there are catalogs that display what steelworkers or lumberjacks wear at a high-end cost?
Schmidt: I was reading a biography of Goya, the painter, by Robert Hughes, and he talks about how Goya painted scenes of regular people. There was a hipster type around 1805-ish, and they would dress up like Spanish peasants – trying to have a nationalist mode of dressing that rejected the other hipster mode of fashion which was effete, costly, and very “feminine” with wigs, heels, silk stockings, everything impractical and powdered. The peasant-wear was a rejection of the posh politically and symbolically. It is the same thing we see now where a wealthy person will dress in an outfit that runs into the thousands of dollars for what amounts to workwear – waxed canvas jacket and lumberjack shirt and $250 jeans. A search for authenticity.
Even if Durango had “lazy” fashion, what does that even mean?
Gray: When you don’t try you are still telling a story. It’s a T-shirt or sweater that says something about you that day. It says, “Today, I’m all about comfort or security.” I think there are days people have a louder story to tell.
Interviews edited and condensed for clarity.Patty Templeton