Daniel Rubin: Fashion in Philly? It's no sweat

A colleague was showing off Philadelphia to her future daughter-in-law a few years ago when the visitor looked around the Italian Market and came to the sort of realization that makes marketers a fortune.

"This," Kara Wiegand said, "has got to be the sweat-suit capital of the world."

There were big men in random tops and bottoms and skinny women whose ensembles matched their shoes. The Coloradan even saw her first dress-up sweat suits.

"There seemed to be a sweat suit for every occasion," she recalls.

I can't vouch for the whole world, but I can speak for Philadelphia: This is the sweat suit capital of America.

And we've got the figures (literally) to prove it. I called John Fetto, of Simmons research in New York, asking him to pull some purchasing data for the largest U.S. media markets and found that, indeed, people bought more sweats last year in this metropolitan area, per capita, than in any other place in the country.

Another championship.

By an extra-wide margin.

One out of every three adults here purchased sweats, from nappy Eagles greens to pink Juicy Couture track suits. The closest contenders in comfort-wear consumption were New York and San Francisco, where only one in four adults bought sweats.

"Maybe it has something to do with Rocky," Fetto offered. "Wasn't he always in sweats?"

Stats in hand, I called Lorraine Brita, who 10 years ago co-wrote the pilot for a soap opera based on her old neighborhood called South Philly in which a character named Joey Bags owned a $300 sweat suit.

Which he had dry-cleaned.

Her reaction to the news?

"Gee, isn't that great - and we just got off the fattest list," she sighed. She was in Cape May, savoring a long weekend. "In fact," she said, "I'm wearing sweats right now."

So, she was exercising?

"No, sweat is not the intention of sweat pants."

What, then?

"It's all about comfort, but you have to look good. You have to style up."

Word of the region's record for sartorial laxness made Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner think of something he'd read during I. Lewis Libby's trial in Washington. Court watchers sensed the jury had a verdict the day its members dressed up.

"That wouldn't happen here," the judge said. "Not in this court. You watch everybody line up in the morning at the Criminal Justice Center - witnesses, complainants, defendants, family members - and you'd think these are people who are coming to watch their kids play Little League ball."

So why do we see sweat suit-swaddled couples at the Academy of Music, and lovers spooning at Vetri Ristorante in matching terry?

("I don't kick them out," concedes Jeff Benjamin, co-owner of the Center City four-star eatery and a man partial to three-piece suits. "It's a personal thing. I personally don't think I would feel comfortable in a sweat suit.")

Why do we dress like cuddle toys in clothes that suggest fitness but happen to hide our dumpling shapes?

Here I'm tempted to quote Seinfeld - seeing pal George wearing sweats once again, Jerry says, "You're telling the world, 'I give up.' "

Then I see Lisa Bono, 44, of Limerick. It was just after 11 a.m. at the Friendly's counter in the King of Prussia mall.

She was wearing the Full Philadelphia:

Matching top and bottom sweats, pale gray, with Eagles emblems all around.

She took the day off from her work at an auto parts company and was heading to the doctor's. The sweats make it easier to get her knee checked, she said.

"When it's your time, you want to be in what you like, not what an office dictates of you," she said. "After all, Philly is freedom and a dictatorship is not the system I want any part of."

With that, she grabbed her Vanilla Fribble shake and took a defiant sip.

 


 


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/daniel_rubin.