Pittsburgh isn’t called the City of Champions for nothing. We cling to titles and trophies as emphatically as we do our Primanti sandwiches and parking chairs.
So it was a bit of a blow to the ’Burgh’s pride when back in 2011it appeared on GQ’s worst-dressed cities in the U.S. list — landing at No. 3 out of 40. The fashion offense that locals are most guilty of committing, the monthly men’s magazine claimed, is donning too much “Game Day Casual,” including XXXL Steelers jerseys, Converse sneakers, tube socks and saggy jeans (even when it’s not game day).
Even as the city has strived to elevate its flair for fashion in recent years, it hasn’t been able to entirely shake off GQ’s low opinion of its style sense. (Trust me. You have no idea how many press releases I’ve received over the years that start off with something like “Even though GQ listed Pittsburgh as one of the country’s worst-dressed cities, you can find insert-fashion-pitch-here in Pittsburgh.)
But could GQ be changing its tune? For its September issue, it ran a story about why “you’re gonna love Pittsburgh.” It focuses on the city’s flourishing food scene and outlines “where to eat, drink and stuff your face with charcuterie,” with nods to Bar Marco, Draai Laag, Cure, Apteka and the Ace Hotel in East Liberty — “the ultimate seal in Official Coolness,” according to author Benjy Hansen-Bundy. An “up-and-coming creative class” is another reason why Pittsburgh has managed to rise above its underdog status, he writes, with a shout-out to art destinations like the Mattress Factory museum on the North Side.
Among all this talk of cocktails and cured meats, he slips in a reference to what he calls “Pittsburgh’s sartorial advancement” and some praise for Mello & Sons, a treasure trove of vintage finds, such as designer denim, Nike T-shirts from the ’70s, made-in-America clothing and the occasional rare find from the ’40s or ’50s. Neal Mello opened the shop last year at 4405 Butler St., in Lawrenceville.
Here’s more of what GQ had to say on the subject:
Mello & Sons is the perfect place to “take home some gear fit for a 1972 United Steelworkers Union meeting (think overalls and denim jackets). A cynic might say that store captures this town in a nutshell: a shop transplanted from Williamsburg to Lawrenceville, the hippest neighborhood in Pittsburgh, selling vintage workwear to the techies who replaced the steelworkers. We’d respond by saying, ‘That’s exactly right!’ The city’s economic comeback is so robust the place is eating its own tail.”
It’s great to get credit where credit is due; Pittsburgh has definitely seen many a sartorial advancement since 2011, with more homegrown shops (for women and men), fashion events and high-profile exhibitions (“Killer Heels” at The Frick Pittsburgh, Iris van Herpen at the Carnegie Museum of Art, etc.) popping up across the city. It’s also attracted the attention of retail tech darlings such as Bonobos and Warby Parker, both of which opened their first Pittsburgh storefronts in East Liberty this summer.
Mr. Hansen-Bundy also makes a passing reference to gentrification — a significant issue in some of Pittsburgh’s burgeoning style neighborhoods like East Liberty. These parts of Pittsburgh have their own rich histories, diverse roots and longtime mom-and-pop shops, and it’s insensitive for the mainstream media and the public, in general, to now call them “cool,” just because an Ace Hotel or a couple of popular brands decided to move in. (More on this in another column another day.)
Beyond that, though, the author’s words carry some condescension. The New Pittsburgh isn’t just techies dressing up as steelworkers, or vice versa. The city has tried to figure out how to respect its blue-collar past yet broaden its horizons beyond steel with investments in technology, education, medicine and the arts to help pave the way for longterm viability. You can see signs of that harmony in some of its fashions, too.
Take Brookline native James Houk, a fashion designer whose work has made American Eagle, Barney’s NY and Saks Fifth Avenue take notice. Hardware for his Big Chief denim line was made from materials harvested from local steel mills as a tribute to Pittsburgh’s steel heritage. In men’s retailers such as Social Status, Trim Pittsburgh, Vestis and Commonwealth Proper, it’s not uncommon to see some casual tees, belts or socks inspired by the city’s history alongside contemporary brands that could be straight out of GQ. Plus, there are plenty of locally based brands (there’s a whole shop devoted to them now on Mount Washington called Love, Pittsburgh) that honor the past (through local production or using locally sourced materials or designs inspired by Pittsburgh traditions) while making something new. Another strong example is Steel City, a booming apparel business built on Pittsburghers’ love of their city’s sports and stories, which are woven into graphic tees and more in fresh ways.
Once the food coma wears off, GQ should take time to check out those parts of Pittsburgh, too.