Whether it’s an avy pack for backcountry skiing or a difficult-to-find whiskey, here’s what Coloradans have anointed the coolest of the cool.
—Illustration by Jon Contino
It starts early...the craving for approval, the need to show others we are smart, on trend, of means. One might even call this desire for status, or cachet, inherently human: In elementary school, kids compare video game consoles, which are ranked hierarchically based on any number of variables. (Parents take note: The Xbox One is a winner.) In high school, status can come from both belonging to a certain clique and picking up on your peer group’s sometimes arcane signs and signifiers. And although we grow up and, in theory, shed the insecurities of youth, that fundamental desire still resides within us, for we are human beings, and human beings are social animals. (How many followers do you have on Instagram? How many people liked your last Facebook post?)
Even here in Denver—in laid-back Colorado—where we supposedly have no need to affect the same overt status-seeking as other cities around the world, cachet is something many people seek. We may not be driving Bentleys (we prefer vehicles that can handle some snow, thank you very much) or broadcasting our tony addresses, but that’s not because we don’t have our own measures of prestige. We do—they just happen to be a little more subtle.
Oh yeah, we’re headed up to our mountain home for the long weekend.
Dude, you won’t believe my new Arc’teryx jacket—it’s waterproof and windproof, and it breathes too, bro!
Check out my custom Alchemy road bike: It’s got extra carbon fiber at the bottom bracket for better acceleration, but the seat stays are super compliant.
This beer? It’s a Crooked Stave limited-edition wild ale that’s aged with blackberries in oak barrels. Super rare.
Yes, cool is a little different here in the thin air, and as chroniclers of the Mile High City and the state of Colorado, we are in a unique position to identify what is currently in vogue. But we also asked those who know better than us about specific subcultures (e.g., the beer geeks, the bike freaks, the potheads) and how status is conveyed in those circles. The result is something of an education in social mores—and a voyeuristic look into what the people of Denver consider to be cool circa 2016.
What's Cool in Denver in 2016:
United Kingdom–based Rapha may only be 12 years old, but its (very) spendy gear has garnered a dedicated cult following. Says Boulder-based Neal Rogers of the Global Cycling Network: “Rapha has become the ultimate status symbol in the cycling world. It’s expensive, but man, their stuff is nice!” With prices that run to $700-plus for the Pro Team Shadow jersey and bib shorts (which protect you from wind and rain and are also breathable), wearing Rapha certainly makes a statement about one’s resources—and that statement is, “I can spend a small fortune on my cycling kit.”
The (Seasoned) Stoner’s Paraphernalia
A modified concentrate rig
Smoking joints is old-school; heck, even edibles aren’t a novelty anymore. Today, serious cannabis consumers go for “dabbing,” a process in which a THC concentrate is heated and the resulting smoke is inhaled, typically using a device called a rig. “We created the Spoony-G Dab Kit,” says Tres Morley of Lotus Medical, a Denver pot purveyor, “which allows the user to control the size of the hit. Beware: This is not for rookies.”
The License Plate
You know the one—the Colorado plate with the green mountains and white sky, which was discontinued in 2000 in favor of the white-mountain, green-sky version. Translation: If you don’t have one, you can’t get one the next time you’re at the DMV. If you do have one, it shows two things: First, you’ve been here longer than the other Johnnies-come-lately, and second, you recognized the Centennial State’s charms long before it was trendy to live here—and weren’t foolish enough to give up this ultimate bit of Colorado cachet.
Liberty Boot Co.
The cowboy boots for women
What do Taylor Swift, Madonna, and Jessica Biel all have in common? An affinity for Liberty Boots. And Denver women seem to like them, too. “I’m a boot snob because I’ve been wearing them my whole life,” says Roxanne Thurman, owner of Cry Baby Ranch in Larimer Square, which sells Liberty. “I can look at someone’s feet and tell what they’re wearing right away, and Liberty are just really cool and have been for a long time.” The boots are all handmade and run from understated to, well, not-so-understated (showy skulls and teal leather, anyone?). Liberty Boots start at $600, and, says Thurman: “This won’t be your only pair.”
Lamy Fountain Pens
The writing implement of the Denver literary set
“We’re all into the Lamy fountain pens,” says Andrea Dupree, program director for Lighthouse Writers Workshop in City Park West. “So much of the conventional wisdom about being a writer today centers on tweeting and Facebooking. But really, most of the time, the computer is associated with lost time, and many of us struggle with using the same instrument to attempt our fiction or other writing. Writing with an old-fashioned fountain pen reminds you that this is an ancient art. Something about scratching away on paper takes me closer to what I think writing is really about—a mind alone with an idea, tunneling as deep as it can. And these Lamys are the right price—like $26 or so, and a dollar each for the refills.”
Avalanche Airbag Safety Unit & Backpack
The backcountry powderhound’s must-have gear
“You pull the ripcord on one of these if you get in a slide,” says Dougald MacDonald, executive editor of the American Alpine Club and 5280 contributor, “and the air pillow keeps you on the surface. They really work (they’ve saved a number of lives), and they are used by a lot of serious skiers—and, of course, by a lot of posers.” The Kode ABS Compatible pack, from Cortez-based Osprey Packs, will set you back $220 at REI; the ABS unit that fits inside the pack runs $950 at backcountry.com .
Custom Knife Bags & Aprons
The accessory for chefs
“Custom knife bags, aprons, and even hats are all the rage right now,” says Troy Guard, chef and owner of TAG Restaurant Group. “In particular, the knife bags [a collaboration with Winter Session] at Berkeley Supply on Tennyson, custom aprons from Hedley & Bennett, and fitted trucker ball caps. They’re all things you can show off that are badass and that someone will look at and want.”
The beer geek’s companion
“The stigma used to be that you couldn’t get good beer in a can, but now Coloradans understand that cans do a great job of preserving the flavor—and that pouring your beer into a glass is actually what will make the biggest difference in your sensory experience,” says Shannon Berner, marketing manager at Great Divide Brewing Company. “People who genuinely care about getting the most out of beer are passionate about drinking it out of the recommended glass. Spiegelau has style-specific glasses and has done collaborations with some American breweries. I can’t tell you how often I see people compliment others for using a proper glass when they post pictures of our beer on Instagram. The hashtag #properglassware has over 105,000 posts on Instagram.”
Lululemon & Prana
The zip-code specific, figure-enhancing yoga pant
Just as there is a natural progression in yoga from beginner-friendly downward dog to the don’t-try-this-if-you-have-a-spine formidable face pose, so, too, there is a progression of what Coloradans wear to class. Specifically, once you’ve mastered warrior III, you’ll need to upgrade your Target yoga pants to Lululemon, whose outrageously expensive magic fabric has been improving rear ends from Cherry Creek to LoHi since the Cherry Creek North store debuted a decade ago. Yogis from Boulder, though, tend to get their flow on sporting Prana leggings which come with a near-equal derrière-improvement feature (and a similar price tag) but are also earth-friendly—and can double as climbing duds.
Líllébaby Tokidoki Carrier
The baby carrier
You may be wearing ratty sweats and have dark circles under your eyes, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have discerning taste. Fortunately for new moms and dads, an entire industry now caters to parents’ desire to show that they’re still cool—even if they have spit-up on their jeans. “Some parents like onesies for their kids that read ‘My dad’s a geek!’ (because geeks are ‘in’ now) or pacifiers with mustaches on them,” says John Horan, owner of Real Baby on Tennyson Street. “But the hottest things around—and they’re very hard to get—are the limited-edition Líllébaby Tokidoki carriers. Everyone’s asking for them.”
The preferred method for transporting your expensive outdoor gear
Do you use a ski and/or bike rack or roof box (you’ll see all manner of Thule, Yakima, and Boulder’s own Rocky Mounts around town), or do you (lamely) stash your prized gear in the back of your Subaru Outback?
The sturdy mechanical watch for men
There may not be an ocean anywhere near sunny Denver, but that doesn’t stop the men of the Mile High City—who have a tendency to live (very) active lives, or at least consider themselves hardy individuals—from making their go-to wristwear a borderline bombproof diver’s watch. “The choice of the Colorado man is the Rolex steel professional series watches, which are rugged tool watches with elegant finishes—especially the Submariner with the date,” says Josh Nigut, Hyde Park Jewelers’ watch sales manager. “Guys in Colorado want watches they can wear all the time and through everything they can throw at them.”
The wedding dress
The wedding dress may be one of the most obvious ways of showing off one’s taste and the dollar signs you’re willing to spend to display it: You spend X number of dollars on your gown, wear it for several hours, and then stick it in a box for the rest of your life. Colorado women are typically (and stereotypically) known as no-nonsense, independent, and adventurous. They’re also—again, we’re generalizing here—a little less “done-up” than their coastal counterparts, typically preferring the girl-next-door appearance for their everyday looks. But a woman’s wedding day isn’t an everyday kind of day, and Colorado women are choosing a designer who agrees. “Some women come in here and don’t know the names of any designers,” says Jessica Wickett, senior stylist at Anna Bé, a bridal store in LoHi. “But others come in and they really want a Berta dress. They start at $8,000, and people from all over the country call us for them because they’re not sold at a lot of places. It’s still a little surprising to me that they’re so popular with women in Colorado because they’re actually sort of scandalous!”
A Rescue Dog
A walk in any Denver park will reveal the wide variety of furry friends who call the Mile High City home. And though it’s safe to say few of them will be taking home the Best in Show award at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, that’s OK—and a point of pride for many local dog owners. “In Denver, we are very supportive of pet adoption, and we see adopters across all demographics,” says Megan Rees, public relations manager for the Dumb Friends League, a local organization dedicated to rescuing and protecting pets from hamsters to horses. “Colorado is one of the national leaders in adoption, and over the years we’ve seen a shift to adoption rather than people buying from breeders.”
Timbuk2 Messenger Bag
The hip(ster) bag
Like so many functional items, messenger bags evolved from being used by actual, you know, bike messengers in New York City to being coveted by the laptop-wielding masses headed to their cushy tech jobs. The bags from this San Francisco company (which has a store in Larimer Square) are known for their rugged construction and myriad color options and say, “I ride a fixie”—even if you don’t happen to be on a single-speed at that exact moment.
Between The World And Me and Citizen
The buzz-worthy books
With the Black Lives Matter movement bringing ongoing issues of racial inequality to the fore(both here in Denver and around the country), perhaps it’s not surprising that two nonfiction books on race in America have been the talk of literary circles in the Mile High City. “Many of the book-ish conversations I’ve had of late have been about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Citizen by Claudia Rankine,” says Michael Henry, executive director of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. “They’re both beautiful—and important, I think—books.”
Pappy Van Winkle
There’s some pretty darn good whiskey made in this state, but it turns out that the one that will earn you plaudits from your friends is a Kentucky import. “I get four bottles a year, and if you get your hands on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 year ($250), you have bragging rights for the next five years,” says Dave Moore, owner of Divino Wine & Spirits. “It’s not really about how much it costs; it’s about who you know and whether or not you can get it. I hate stuff like that, so we’ll just open up two bottles for a Saturday tasting sometime and let everyone try it.”
The rock climber’s home practice gear
If Apple designed climbing equipment, this is the iHangboard it’d come up with. Made from sustainably sourced wood, the Denver-born Bäm! board is as pretty as it is functional and screams, “I’m such a badass that I train at home, too.” Besides being handsome enough to double as home decor, the pint-sized Bäm! is one of the only home boards that lets you adjust the angle of the board (up to 30 degrees) and depth of the holds, so you can train on edges and pockets ranging from .5 to three centimeters deep, depending on your ability (read: pain tolerance). Released in 2015, the boards sold out quickly and only became available again last month. Lesson: Get yours—fast.
The top three Denver neighborhoods in which everyone wants to live, work, and play (ranked via an unscientific poll of 5280’s
Home to the Source marketplace, hip live-music venues, of-the-moment restaurants, and funky office spaces, RiNo has become Denver’s hottest neighborhood over the past year but has also (thankfully) retained much of its rugged, urban charm.
Parts of northwest Denver (like Highlands Square) have begun to feel established and perhaps not as cool as they were 10 years ago. But Highland’s ever-changing restaurant and bar scene and mix of longtime residents, young families, and single millennials makes for an always-interesting area.
3. South Broadway/Baker
Even a few years ago, this south Denver corridor felt dilapidated and a little sketchy. Not anymore, as businesses ranging from precious boutiques to top-tier restaurants have led the charge for South Broadway’s revitalization.
—Photos courtesy of (from top) the Abstract Owl, Wikipedia, Liberty Boot Co., Osprey, Líllébaby Tokidoki, Berta Bridal, Getty Images, Bam Board, River North Arts District