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South by Southwest: Trending Toward Fashion

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It's the week of South by Southwest which means music festival season is fully upon us and tour schedules are being booked by the hour. This brings to mind a shift that has been happening in the music industry for the last half-decade if not longer: fewer and fewer arena-level touring acts and more and more club-level acts. For every Kanye West or Lady Gaga, there are three bands with the buzz and critical acclaim of The National or The Black Keys or The Roots. In fact, most of the arena acts are much older than Gaga and Kanye... they're the Bruce Springsteens, Paul McCartneys and Rolling Stones.

In thinking about the intersection between music and style, look no further than the way this trend is being paralleled across the country in America's major cities. The major corporate department stores are few and far between, being outnumbered now more than ever by locally-owned boutiques that cater to younger shoppers and downtown tourists.

In Austin, for example, as SXSW celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, the few attendees who were there in that inaugural year will realize quite a change to Austin's landscape since 1987. The change I speak of may be more significant than the 1994 addition of film and interactive segments or the massive expansion of the music festival, going from less than 200 performers to more than 2,000.

Over the last quarter century, Austin has quietly become an incredibly stylish city. Sure, there are still the cowboy boots and hats along with the jeans and flip-flops, but there's also noteworthy women's shops like By George and denim house HEM Jeans that point to the undertow of fashion that has swept the city over the last half-decade. In just five years, Austin has added a number of boutiques that tap into the city's long-standing "buy local" culture and the city's newly-found interest in fashion.

The Second Street District, highlighted by the recently-opened W Hotel and Austin's tallest skyscraper and condo tower The Austonian, includes nearly a dozen clothing and accessories shops. These shops indicate both a price-conscious audience and a brand-label shopper with boutiques ranging from Estilo, a cross-gender shop that houses everything from Hugo Boss suits to Nicole Miller dresses, to Plain Ivey Jane, a closeout-couture shop started by a 20-somethings woman who left a job in J. Crew's New York offices to start her own business.

There is further evidence on South Congress Avenue, the main cultural thoroughfare of the city with iconic live music venue Continental Club and outdoor food trailers like Hey Cupcake! On this lively street, menswear shop Stag opened in 2009 and has drawn favorable comparisons to shops like Odin in New York by carrying both emerging and classic brands like UK-based Universal Works and Hamilton Shirts, a Texas brand dating back to 1883, the same year the University of Texas was founded.

And for those looking for Austin's urban side, look no further than the campus area just north of downtown where Complete Clothing resides. Complete is the classic streetwear shop that every major city has to have to be considered "legit" by hip-hop fans both young and old. With popular brands like The Hundreds, G-Shock and Stussy, Complete caters to the fans of artists like Kanye, The Clipse and The Cool Kids. It just so happens that the shop's owner, Zaul Zamora, has been successful in recruiting these rappers to his shop.

Of course, the occasional Kanye appearance can be phenomenal for business, and so can a globally-known event like SXSW. But the truth is that shops like Complete Clothing, Stag, Estilo and Plain Ivey Jane are a sign of things to come when it comes to fashion and shopping in America not only because Austin seems to be a place where young, affluent and stylish people are moving, although that has proven true in recent years.

No, this is primarily true because with the decline of the arena- or mall-sized acts... the Dillard's and Macy's of the retail universe... plenty of room is left for some savvy and nimble business owners who take cues from the music stages that Austin is so well known for.