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by Stuart Haggas

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From the queer cool of Chueca to the graffiti glamour of Malasaña, from the manicured streets of Salamanca to the bargain buzz of El Rastro flea market, fashion is never more than a footstep away in Madrid. It may be a minnow compared to big fish like New York, Paris, and Milan, but the Spanish capital still causes ripples that impact the whole world of fashion.

Cibeles Madrid Fashion Week made history in 2006 by announcing that excessively skinny models would be banned, with organizers saying they wanted to project an image of beauty and health, not a waif-like heroin chic look. This move, the world's first ban on overly thin models at a top-level fashion event, made headlines across the globe. Although it was a trend that didn't catch on in other fashion capitals, it nonetheless raised awareness of the pressures on models to be rail-thin and the unhealthy influence this can have on others. The biannual event continues to reject models with a Body Mass Index below 18, and to date, over a dozen models have been dismissed.

Madrid, however, is more than fashion's moral compass; it's a covert fashion capital that already has a huge influence on what we have hanging in our closets. Spanish fashion chains like Zara, Mango, and Springfield currently enjoy huge international success. Indeed, Zara has expanded so rapidly in recent years that in 2008 it overtook American rival Gap to become the world's largest clothing retailer—an impressive achievement for a company founded in 1963 in the bedroom of chairman Amancio Ortega's home in Galicia in rural northwest Spain.

The son of a railway worker with no formal education, Amancio Ortega is now Spain's richest man, with Forbes ranking him in 2011 as the world's seventh richest man. This is a genuine rags-to-riches story: from zero to Zara.

Today, Zara has a host of stylish siblings, including the more upmarket Massimo Dutti, young and casual Pull & Bear, youthful fashion brand Bershka, cutting edge Stradivarius, lingerie line Oysho, accessories chain Uterqüe, and Zara's home furnishings offshoot Zara Home. If these brands aren't represented in your local mall yet, chances are they soon will be. Until then, you should check out their Madrid motherships.

Another Spanish company with a nose for fashion is Puig. Although its main focus is fragrance (producing perfumes for labels like Prada and Comme des Garçons), it owns international fashion houses Carolina Herrera, Paco Rabanne, and Nina Ricci. In May 2011 Puig announced it was buying a controlling 60% stake in Jean Paul Gaultier from Hermès, so now something as quintessentially French as Monsieur Gaultier is almost completely Spanish owned.

Spanish fashion is as much about hemlines as headlines, and that includes hot independent designers, as well as huge international deals. Right now, one of Madrid's most popular designers is David Delfín.

A fine, young artist, David Delfín unintentionally entered the world of fashion in 1999. Rejecting conventional material like paper, canvas, and cardboard, he began experimenting with second-hand military clothes as an artistic tool. His reworking of worn military shirts, pants, underwear, shoes, and belts gained so much attention from fashion editors that in 2001, he established the fashion label davidelfín with a group of friends, including his photographer partner Gorka Postigo and model and singer Bimba Bosé. He's since won awards from GQ, Men's Health, and Marie Claire, and has been named "Best Spanish Designer" by gay magazine Shangay on three occasions. In 2006, Spain's second largest national newspaper, El Mundo, named him one of the 25 most influential gay men in the country, alongside film director Pedro Almodóvar, TV presenter Jorge Javier Vázquez, and Axel Hotel entrepreneur Juan P. Juliá.


The signature davidelfín look is simple, sleek, and androgynous with a hint of S&M, and his runway shows are a highlight of Cibeles Madrid Fashion Week. Since 2009, he's also shown at New York Fashion Week, a move that signifies this is a label with big ambitions. "What is exciting about Spanish fashion right now," he says, "is the big effort that designers are making to succeed internationally."

Despite international ambitions, it's the extremes and dreams of Madrid that remain a key inspiration. "All the emotions of the city which I have chosen as my home," he says inspire him. "The center of the city and the periphery. Everything that is waiting to be done and still to be built."

If you'd like Madrid to be your creative muse too, then David suggests you visit some of his favorite places, particularly the world-renowned Museo del Prado, with a must-see collection including Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez's famous painting of the young Infanta Margarita with her entourage, as well as breathtaking masterpieces by Goya, Titian, and Rubens. For inspiration of a more eclectic kind, David recommends El Rastro, one of Europe's oldest and biggest flea markets. Taking place every Sunday morning between 9 A.M. and 2 P.M., it comprises up to 3,500 stalls selling everything from antiques and bric-a-brac to handicrafts and paintings to old sheet music and magazines. Certain areas are associated with particular types of merchandise, with Plaza de Cascorro being particularly good for sourcing second-hand clothes and accessories. It's also a popular spot to grab a drink and some tapas. Finally, to turn your creativity upside down, he prescribes a visit to Parque de Atracciones, Madrid's urban amusement park with rollercoasters and other thrilling rides.

David Delfín is one of many Spanish designers to be inspired by the country's fiery culture and deep-rooted traditions. One of the world's most acclaimed haute couturiers, Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in Spain's Basque region in 1895. The son of a seamstress who became a tailor's apprentice, he was sent to Madrid for formal training by a wealthy benefactor. With members of Spain's royal family and aristocracy becoming clients, he opened boutiques in Madrid, Barcelona, and San Sebastián. In 1937, the Spanish Civil War forced him to move to Paris. Here he joined the likes of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli in making a global impact with new clients including America's first lady Jackie Kennedy and socialite Gloria Guinness, but Spanish culture and history continued to have an enduring influence on his work. Today, the house of Balenciaga is part of Gucci Group, owned by luxury French holding company PPF.

Although based in London since 1968, shoe maestro Manolo Blahnik is another name from Spain's fashion hall of fame; how would a fashionista survive without his coveted heels?

One of Spain's most prestigious brands is Loewe, which has specialized in best quality leather bags and accessories since 1846. Although today the brand is part of international luxury goods consortium LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Loewe remains based in Madrid and rooted in Spain. Loewe currently uses smoldering Madrid-born matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez as the face of their men's accessories and fragrances. Their latest fragrance "7 Loewe" comes in a brilliant blue glass bottle, inspired by the colors of a matador's costume: the traje de luces or "suit of light."

Loewe's most emblematic product is the chic and boxy Amazona bag. The classic version is made of supple golden suede, said to represent the color of Spanish soil, finished in chocolate calf leather and discreetly stamped with the Loewe anagram. First introduced in the 1970s, it's unlined to indicate a more informal attitude toward fashion and indeed toward life itself. In fact, during the 70s, many Spanish women saw it as a symbol of freedom and a breaking down of constraints and barriers.

With no lining to hide behind, each Amazona bag openly displays the exceptional craftsmanship that's required to make it, a task that's said to take over ten hours. Like freedom and liberation, such craftsmanship doesn't come cheap (prices start at €990), but despite the steep price tag, it remains a bestseller. It's available in two handbag sizes: in an extravagantly large and masculine weekender version and as a briefcase in matte black calf leather. Nowadays, it's also reinvented each season in limited edition colors and finishes, and graces the shoulder of celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Alba, and Kylie Minogue.

The oldest surviving Loewe store has occupied a prime spot on Gran Vía since 1939 and many original features, including chandeliers and wooden paneling, are retained. Sometimes referred to as Madrid's Broadway, Gran Vía is lined with regal buildings dating to the early 20th-century. Landmarks include the frivolous beaux-arts style Edificio Metrópolis, crowned with a 24-carat gold dome, and the dominating Edificio Telefónica, a Manhattan-inspired building that, when completed in 1929, was Europe's first skyscraper. When Madrid celebrates gay pride, known as Fiestas Del Orgullo Gay, Gran Vía becomes an avenue of diversity and tolerance, a grand parade of barely dressed Spanish hunks and luscious lesbians making sexy fashion statements.

Madrid is a collection of diverse neighborhoods with individual personalities. There is no one ruling style; everything is mixed, from high fashion to hipster and indie to streetwear. Just north of Gran Vía is Madrid's gay district Chueca and trendy Malasaña. Dividing these two neighborhoods is Calle Fuencarral, a tree-lined, pedestrian-only street where hipsters and gay fashion addicts meet to shop. Here, you'll find Catalan designer Custo Dalmau's flagship Custo Barcelona store, famous for a striking use of patterns and prints often with crazy cartoon-like imagery, and the more affordable chain Desigual, known for a mix of patchwork and splashy graphic motifs. Some smaller independent stores have been pushed aside by international brands including Diesel, Energie, Kiehl's, and adidas, so it's worth scouring the side streets too.

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can't agree more about the roommate chain of hotels in Spain and in New York for that matter. Stayed with them in Valencia in early 2008 for His Majesty King Juan Carlos's birthday, very well satisfied.
- CD in DC , Washington DC

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