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The Art of Standing Apart

Style is and always has been a highly personal thing, something unique to a particular person. Trendiness, on the other hand, is a wholly different creature.
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Take this advice to heart:

"Don't ever follow the latest trend, because in a short time you will look ridiculous."

The woman who uttered these sage words -- Marlene Dietrich -- was an expert at setting herself apart from the throngs, and setting trends, not following them. When I first read this line years ago, it caused a small revolution in my thinking about how I present myself, and what I buy into and why.

I've always instinctively hated the idea of trendiness. Not that I've proved immune to it, since style and trendiness are distant cousins, and I am very much concerned with the former.

But everyone knows -- or rather, everyone should know -- that they are certainly not the same thing.

Style is and always has been a highly personal thing, something unique to a particular person. Trendiness, on the other hand, is a wholly different creature. And my main objection to the latter is not the prospect of looking ridiculous in a matter of months.

Rather, my objection is this: trendiness is an insidious enemy of individuality.

And I mean trendiness all aspects of our lives: in our dressing, our thinking, our topics of conversation.

All of these things conspire to drown us in a sea of same-iness.

We become more homogenized every day, and the world shrinks as new Gaps and H&Ms open up on distant shores and every street corner.

Every magazine "discerns" the same must-have items. Practically every item of clothing we buy was probably made by one tentacle by the ever-hungry Anne Klein corporation, every wee little cosmetic was probably churned out of Estee Lauder's gazillion factories.

And those seasonal must-have limited-edition luxury items are really not that limited at all (Birkin bag, anyone?): they are designed to drive the demand up to a fever pitch, and then meted out, in various incarnations, to the masses lacking the courage to be seen without.

It's hard to feel any sense of individual agency in that sort of mass-marketplace, in which you have to suspect that even your more offbeat purchases are being subliminally guided by advertisers, PR firms, and focus groups.

You are one in a million, and not in a good way.

And it's even harder to feel unique within that very crowded crowd of trendiness.

Despite the obstacles, I contend that it's still worth the fight to try to stand apart. The pursuit of style, in its purest individualism-producing sense, is always a worthy exercise. And what follows is a suggested list of ways to do away with super-mall values -- high and low -- and distinguish yourself from the crowd.

Please note: I am certainly not suggesting that the following list is a formula of any sort, which would be, well ... trendy. Rather, it is a list designed to promote a certain out-of-the-box way of thinking.

Some of the suggestions are admittedly superficial. But sometimes the superficial has substantive implications -- for the whole point of these lightharded suggestions is to remind you to regard yourself as a unique individual -- and step away from pre-fab purchases, trends, and rituals.

They are small steps in promoting trendiness-busting behavior, and eliminating blend-into-the-crowd tendencies.

More elegantly phrased, they are small steps in the art of standing apart -- which, like so many other arts, is in danger of being lost.

* * *

1. Find an amazing tailor and have him/her construct you a custom-made wardrobe
I know that this sounds incredibly indulgent, but it's actually not. It will force you to evaluate what looks work best for you and will be more cost-effective in the long run. If you invest in a specific look, you'll be less likely to make trendy, impulse purchases. And your wardrobe will truly flatter you, because all of the pieces will be tailored to your body. Start with basics. Patterns are incredibly easy to come by on the internet. Once you have the basics down, have more elaborate pieces made. This approach to dressing is luxurious. Buying mass-market designer pieces: not so much so.

If you live in New York City, Hong Kong Tailor Jack is the best in the business.

Hong Kong Tailor Jack
136 Waverly Place, (212.675.0818)

2. Have an interesting, beautiful calling card made. Nothing is more grim and corporate than giving out your business card for social purposes. In bygone eras, social cards were a high art, with different motifs for different seasons and different borders for different occasions. Being given such a card with one's personal information these days is a lush, tactile treat ... and the recipient will be unlikely to forget you.

Amy Salvini at Greenwich Letterpress does a gorgeous job with such things.

3. Develop an interesting, lively vocabulary. You will distinguish yourself in no time if you have an unusual, creative way of phrasing things.
will send you a daily email with a Word of the Day, and they are always wonderful words. Any list that includes the word bonton is fine with me.

4. Don't talk excessively about yourself at parties and such. Society notable Jessica Mitford was once told by her governess: "You're the least important person in the room and don't forget it." Even if you're just feigning self-effacement, it will serve you well. You'll probably be the only person in the room who follows this rule, and again, you'll be happily remembered for it. And anyway, everyone hates a blowhard.

5. Give unusual gifts. And that means staying away from that hideous Red Envelope website. My favorite gifts of the moment: bird nests with robin eggs or quail eggs nestled inside. Or dried, pressed orchids, which people can include inside cards or letters. Meyer Lemon trees. Those wonderful cactuses that don't need any pots. Another favorite: Diana Vreeland once suggested giving a bolt of beautiful cloth, which could be made into anything from a jacket to a table runner. And a novel idea: write someone a letter instead of giving them a gift, recounting your favorite moments in your friendship.

Kaas Glassware always has the loveliest array of birdnests, among other lovely curiosities.

6. Concern yourself with the art of conversation. So few people do. Small talk gets a bad rap. There's nothing wrong with small talk if it's clever small talk. Steer away from the topical. Ask questions, interesting questions that are designed to get interesting answers. Be provocative. Mix in a dash of the coquette.

7. Concern yourself with the art of listening. This is harder than it sounds. My beloved friend, writer Caitlin Crounse, coined the phrase "eloquent listener." She is exactly that, and it sets her apart and earns her legions of devotees.

8. Wear a daring hat. Preferably a custom-made one, worn at a rakish angle. I have a black felt tri-corner that one wears dipped low over the left eye. Once I wore it to the opera and was literally stopped every 10 feet by admirers. A woman in a such a hat exudes confidence -- and bravery too, since it's not exactly the done thing these days.

Madeline Sharpe of New York City makes such creations, and I am sure that someone in your city does too.

9. Vow not to hold a clichéd event, ever. I am particularly referring to bridal showers and bachelorette parties. Nine times out of 10, these are all highly formulaic, demoralizing affairs -- not to mention by-products of a corny, Hallmark-y wedding industry. Baby showers tend to be fairly putrid too. It's really not that difficult to come up with a creative alternative to name-games, tea parties, and obligatory gift openings. And believe me, not only will such an effort distinguish you from the masses, but the guests be pitifully grateful to you ever after.

10. Make eye contact. Another rare, memorable habit worth developing. Goes hand-in-hand with the art of listening.

11. Once in a while, sit alone in a restaurant. And do not busy yourself with your Blackberry, cellphone, newspaper, etc. Instead, boldly people-watch. Weather stares with dignity. This is an amazing insecurity-banishing exercise, one that will truly make you comfortable with standing out in a crowd. A side note: if you can endure doing this at the Conde Nast cafeteria, you will be strong enough to survive a bullet wound.

12. Jolt your wardrobe with an amazing period piece. Especially with something from the 1920s or 1930s. The Frock is an especially good online source for such things. They even feature clothing that was owned by Old Hollywood starlets ... and those girls wouldn't have been caught dead following the pack. It was their life's business to shine, and so will you.

13. Read National Geographic magazine. I know that this sounds a tad far-fetched, but you'll be instantly fascinating afterwards. This goes along with being an artful conversationalist. You will become an expert in narwhal activities and barracuda habits, and this new expertise will most certainly set you apart.

Plus, it's so divinely Wes-Anderson-ish.

14. Be unjaded.

15. Don't be afraid to make a bold statement. It can always be retracted tomorrow. As Oscar Wilde said: "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative."