There’s a fascinating episode of the podcast Radiolab that investigates the history and science of color. One segment of that show, “Why Isn't the Sky Blue?,” explores the research Lazarus Geiger, a German philologist who, building upon the work of William Gladstone, discovered that as languages mature, words for distinct colors emerge in the same order every time.
Studying the texts from many ancient cultures, Geiger found that after the words for black and white, the color terms emerge, practically without exception, in this order: first red, then yellow, green and finally blue.
I’ve wondered how Geiger’s discovery about linguistic evolution might have parallels in other areas. Children develop motor skills in similar sequences; many people experience distinct stages of grief in a common order. Might there be some kind of pattern that cities follow, too? Is there an order in which specific cultural components (art, food, fashion, philanthropy, etc.) of vibrant urban areas evolve?
For a local example, let’s talk food. Call me biased, but I think the culinary scene has become the primary object of our collective cultural obsession right now in San Antonio. We’ve got celebuchefs launching new ventures right and left from historic buildings, trucks and shipping containers, and folks shelling out $100+ without blinking an eye for exclusive pop-up dinners. Plus, it’s hard to argue with Texas Monthly, which just gave nods to The Granary Cue and Brew, Arcade Midtown Kitchen and Barbaro in its 2014 best new restaurants and bars list.
As the gastronomic ecosystem stands now, there’s a broad spectrum available, from cheap to pricy and generic to totally unique. If you want to spend less, you can opt for chain (no disrespect, but think California Pizza Kitchen, Chipotle, Starbucks) or local (Main Street, The Station Café, Local Coffee) restaurants and cafes. If you want to spend more, options range from known national brands (Fogo de Chau, The Palm, Perry’s) to SA stand-alones and stand-outs (Bakery Lorraine, Restaurant Gwendolyn, Minnie’s, Bliss, Cured).
Returning to Geiger’s framework of linguistic development, let’s transpose the hierarchy of color words onto the food scene. Let’s say that affordable, local restaurants, which we’ll equate to red, preceded bargain national chains – yellow. Then came high-end nationals, green; and last, most recently, the market has welcomed a building, critical mass of high-end local restaurants – blue.
Now, let’s put that same framework into another field entirely, one far less established in SA: fashion.
In San Antonio, we’ve got plenty of local, affordable consignment shops—we’ll call those red. Look around North Star Mall or La Cantera for abundant national options, both lower and higher end—yellow and green. But what about blue; the Restaurant Gwendolyns of wearable style? I’d propose that blue may not yet be a part of SA’s fashion lexicon.
I started thinking about fashion while talking with Shawn Rhoder, 31, the owner of S.C.R. (Style Comfort Relativity), a men’s boutique on Broadway.
S.C.R. set up shop in May 2013, first carrying labels such as Filson, Hudson’s Bay and Grenson, and now selling their own products, designed by Rhoder and manufactured in the industrial city of Vernon, Calif., where clothing is created for the likes of BCBG, Rogue Territory and Joe’s Jeans.
Rhoder called S.C.R.’s initial reception in the city as “not even lukewarm; no one knew who I was.”
He didn’t launch a massive marketing campaign from the outset, instead opting for an organic, show/tell/let-customers-spread-the-word strategy. (I’ll take this opportunity to spread the word to you: S.R.C. is hosting a launch party in the store on Saturday, 2/22; more on Facebook.)
“The response has been different than I expected,” he said. “You have a group of people who like what we’re doing and then some that don’t.”
Sales of the very same products Rhoder sells in his San Antonio stores, such as a jacket created through a collaboration with Golden Bear Sportswear, have been much more robust in Houston and Dallas.
“If it just doesn’t work here,” said Rhoder, who has called San Antonio home since the age of 12, “I may have to leave and try somewhere else.”
Additionally, Rhoder explained, “it’s a disadvantage to be one of the only stores (of this kind).” He described the fashion world as collaborative, and competing stores as complementary to one another.
“In Vernon, you have all these segments of the industry that rely on each other; everything is a derivative and it all works together. We’re lacking components here [in San Antonio] to make it work. We need a real small business district.”
In a San Antonio Current article discussing the recent proliferation of Asian fusion joints, restaurateur Chad Carey described the healthy competition with this pithy—and true, in my opinion—remark: “If a city of 2.3 million people can’t support Tuk Tuk, Kimura, Hot Joy and Umai Mi, then f--- us, what are we doing?”
In that same vein, if a city our size can’t support more than, what, three high-end, high quality clothiers for women and two for men, what does that say? Do we care? If operating in San Antonio is a struggle for a store like S.C.R., one that’s doing something unique and innovative that would catch like wildfire in Houston or Dallas, what’s the solution? Do we, as consumers, want or need to start demanding the same quality craftsmanship of the things we put on our bodies as the things we put in them?
“It’s been a learning experience,” Rhoder told me. “You can’t change people that don’t want to be changed. They have to want you.”
So, what do you want? Do you want to stop, for now, at green, or aim for blue?
*Featured/top photo: high-end, designer clothing at Sloan Hall. From www.sloanhall.com.