Native costume

There’s no question Asheville has a bigger reputation than most towns its size. People all over the world know of us, for better or worse. And because of the proverbial word on the street, Asheville has earned a certain “alternative” image, even with folks who’ve never set foot within our city limits!

Need proof? Once, on a ferry in the Chilean fjords, of all remote places, a young East Berliner told me he’d heard of Asheville from his friends in Europe as “a great place to see all kinds of people.”

As strong as it is, though, Asheville’s reputation is a bit fickle. One week it’s the best town in the country to live in, the next, a crazy, expensive place with a glut on the job market. Indeed, the press is both a blessing and a curse for Asheville. Undoubtedly, however, our town survives economically by the spending money of the more than five million tourists who are drawn here every year. And the number of people who relocate to Asheville grows consistently (more than 300 people request relocation packets from the Chamber of Commerce each week!) because of its natural beauty, its culturally rich lifestyle, and its “top 10″ ratings in periodicals such as Outside Magazine and Modern Maturity.

But often, outsiders’ perceptions are a little skewed by what they read: A Charleston woman, after perusing a recent issue of Rolling Stone (featuring a piece on the infamous “g-string man,” Ukiah Morrison), asked me once in earnest, “Does everyone walk around naked up there?”

Despite the fact that almost every tourist who enters the Asheville’s Visitors’ Center is on their way to the Biltmore Estate, how they perceive Asheville’s “style” usually has little to do with that mansion’s gold fixtures and dazzling tapestries.

“It seems,” said a South Carolina teacher — waiting, in fact, at the Visitors’ Center for directions to the Biltmore House — “that there is an undercurrent here where the youth are a kind of product of the ’60s. When we think of someone from Asheville, we think a little bit counterculture.”

And this is true. Almost everyone knows that Asheville has been dubbed the Paris of the South, the baby San Francisco. It’s an anomaly, really, this pocket of diversity tucked in the Appalachian mountains. Of course, it depends largely on the person visiting as to what his or her perception might be: Some leave with the image of dreadlocked drummers dancing on the square; others remember that the local paper lists five columns’ worth of yoga classes, dream-work seminars, Zen therapy sessions, Wicca circles and meditation groups.

“I love to visit,” a tourist told me outside Beanstreets, “but Asheville is too New-Agey for me to live here.”

And still others recall only the mountain bikers and kayakers, remembering Asheville as a kind of East Coast Boulder.

Besides the Biltmore House, of course, Asheville also has 11 tattoo parlors, more than 30 art galleries, a female mayor, a nudist who ran for City Council, an open community for gays and lesbians, and a center for folk heritage.

“Asheville is rare,” said Marla Tambellini, director of marketing at the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. “People know it has a small-town feeling with big city, sophisticated amenities.”

On the street, the rumor that has these eclectic styles existing in perfect harmony does, most of the time, seem close to true. Our style as a city has a mysterious way of revealing who we are, and Asheville’s image is reflected in the diversity of people’s styles all over town.

A stylish downtown women’s boutique heralds that, in most places, leather is in this year — but we probably won’t see it strolling down Haywood or Lexington. “Asheville’s too real for that,” explained a fashion-conscious store employee (who prefers not to be named). Stiletto heels are an expensive comeback in New York City this year — but the women of Asheville would rather be seen in boots or clogs. And, she asserted, “It’s not because, as you may think, we’re a small town tucked in the hills and behind the times. [It’s because] you can’t walk in those shoes, and nobody in Asheville is jumping in a cab to get home.”

Our spokeswoman tapped her rubber flip-flop against her heel as she showed me a glossy magazine cover.

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