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World's Most Fashion-Conscious Cities

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Models work the runway in the Jean Paul Gaultier for Hermes show during Paris Fashion Week last year. (Reuters)

In global cities like New York, Milan, and Paris, fashion is as much a spectator sport as it is a serious industry. It's also a real window into what makes these places unique. 

What's considered minimalist cool in New York or Stockholm, for example, might come off as somewhat flat in a skin-showing, color-pop city like São Paulo. 

For just a couple of weeks every year, these towns put on shows that inform the clothing choices of millions. While most of us won't be cozying up to designers and models at the catwalk events, we still enjoy a little people-watching now and then, and what better time to sit back with a cappuccino and a pair of binoculars than fashion week? We dished with fashion and street photographers around the globe to see where the style set perches their stilettos during fashion week, but we didn't stop there. Each of these spots is the place to be no matter what the season. Let the show begin

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Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York Sept. 8–15, 2011 & Feb. 9–16, 2012
Where to Hang Out: Hotel bars are the best people-watching spots during fashion week, says photographer Timothy Nazzaro, who divides his time between Manhattan and North Adams, Mass. He points to the bars at the Bowery Hotel and the Ace Hotel as sure bets for mingling with that quintessential New York style child, any day of the year.

The Scene: With events in London, Milan, and Paris following hot on its heels, New York's fashion week kicks off the global calendar of glam. The sea of white tents in Lincoln Center are the focus for fashion editors, photographers, journalists, and hangers-on of all stripes, with iconic designers like Carolina Herrera and Michael Kors holding court for the fashion faithful. Off-site venues—most of which aren't announced until the last minute—include hotels and art galleries in Chelsea. Spring 2011's fashion week featured shows on a concourse at Grand Central Station, in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, and even on a pop-up ice-skating rink at the Standard Hotel. Styles come and go in New York, as anywhere, but simple, tailored layers of black are always in fashion in Manhattan (pair with neutral accessories to add some pop).

Cibeles Madrid Fashion Week Sept. 16–20, 2011
Where to Hang Out: Spanish fashion magazines and multinational cosmetics companies host parties everywhere, from rooftop pools to city parks. After the organized events, Madrid fashion photographer Tanya Lacey recommends heading to Museo Chicote—not a museum, but rather a famous cocktail bar on the Gran Via where Ava Gardner used to sit around looking beautiful. With the same 1930s decor, it's a hit with the hip set at any time of year, but especially during fashion week.

The Scene: The diversity of Spanish design gets the spotlight in Madrid during the fall fashion show that preludes the winter, spring, and summer 2012 collections. Known as Cibeles, this is Spain's most important fashion week (the Barcelona event from Jan. 30–Feb. 3, 2012, is a close second), with more than 40 Spanish designers showing such diverse genres as the peasant look, inspired by Spain's countryside, and the beach-chic look of Ibiza. The Cool People event—a catwalk event with models cast from the streets of Madrid—is particularly fun. Davidelfin's styles are always a hit, and look for hip styles by young Valencian designer Elisa Palomino and Spanish bridal-wear guru Hannibal Laguna to make headlines, too. If you want to dress like a Madrid fashionista for the event, think this way: Spanish style is polished but never extravagant. Add a touch of bohemian to the mix, and you're good to go.

London Fashion Week Sept. 16–21, 2011 & Feb. 17–22, 2012
Where to Hang Out: The tony May Fair Hotel fills with fashion types for the week. A bottle-service VIP bar called 150 at the May Fair opened in January 2011 and has been luring the elite ever since, but you can also see the action play out from a more subdued perch at the May Fair Bar, known for its mojitos.

The Scene: One of the first of the big fashion weeks to follow New York's event, London's fall fashion week is considered somewhat less commercial than what goes down in the Big Apple. Iconic British designers such as Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood are present alongside rising talents, like Scottish designer Christopher Kane. Also look for a big buzz around Issa London—the label that rocketed to fame when Kate Middleton sported its sapphire frock upon announcing her engagement. As for London street style, it's all about incorporating a touch of the outlandish (brightly colored trousers are a current trend). Go bold, or go home.

Milan Fashion Week Sept. 21–27, 2011 & Feb. 22–28, 2012
Where to Hang Out: The Principe Bar at the old-world-opulent Hotel Principe di Savoia is always a gathering ground for the stylish. Plus, everyone is better looking surrounded by the Italian marble, precious fabrics, and hand-made velvet decor.

The Scene: Gucci, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, Giorgio Armani, Missoni, Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo. That's just the tip of the Italian-brand name-dropping iceberg at Milan's fashion week. All of Italy's legendary designers hit the country's fashion capital each fall and spring for one of the world's most important fashion events, bringing together 15,000 buyers and thousands of global journalists for more than 200 fashion shows and presentations. Scope out the city's best-dressed people in prime shopping districts such as the Via Monte Napoleone and the pedestrian zone at the Piazza del Duomo, the square around Milan's grand cathedral.

Paris Fashion Week Sept. 27–Oct. 5, 2011
Where to Hang Out: Most of the people that are a part of Paris's fashion week live in a bubble of nonstop events during the week. So if they're out and about outside of the big invitation-only events, it's bound to be somewhere that's iconic yet low-key, like Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Street photographer Eric Kim points to La Vielleuse, near the Belleville Métro exit, as a reliable, year-round people-watching haunt for its eccentric crowd, from the world-mix flowing out of the station to musicians, artists, and models sipping espressos and talking shop.

The Scene: Paris's fall fashion shows, focused on spring/summer 2012 designs, follow just after those in New York, London, and Milan. The latest creations by top design houses like Chanel and Dior draw the fashion world's crème de la crème, with seemingly every Hollywood starlet hopping the pond to see and be seen shopping in the world's fashion capital. Every big name French brand is present, from Miu Miu and Lanvin to Sonia Rykiel, Louis Vuitton, and Jean Paul Gaultier, not to mention the major international couture labels, too. Fashion week in Paris is purely about theater, with nothing too over the top for the runway (buyers are then invited back to showrooms to see more wearable versions of what was on display). More international couturiers are said to attend Paris's fashion week than even those in New York, London, and Milan. And with venues like the Palais-Royal and the Louvre hosting events, everything goes off with typical French flair.

Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo Oct. 16–20, 2011
Where to Hang Out: Tokyo fashion and lifestyle photographer Cassio Macambira says Roppongi Hills will be packed, as usual, during fashion week, but he prefers more chilled-out spots like Casa Nostra, a Mediterranean restaurant in Harajuku that draws the international travel-savvy crowd any day of the year. For serious club-style partying, beautiful faces, and panoramic city views, head to Vanity Lounge in Roppongi, he says.

The Scene: It's been a terrible year for Japan, still very much recovering from the devastating tsunami (spring fashion week was cancelled). But there's good news on the fashion front with Mercedes-Benz's new partnership with Japan fashion week set to play out in Tokyo in October. Japanese designers are far from risk-adverse, and the Japanese public's insatiable thirst for new designs and brands keeps things evolving at lightening pace in Asia's most important fashion capital. Kawaii (Japanese for "cute") style still rules for young women's clothing. Fit in with Tokyo's trendsetters by sporting designs by prêt-à-porter label araisara, which fuses traditional oriental touches with contemporary fashion in the form of kimono-style dress coats and lots of silk. Other top Japanese labels to look out for: Facetasm and Miss Ashida.

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