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“She looks that way at the car pool, you know.” Through the bottlenecked main hall of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), at its 50th annual Art Ball, the whispers are leading to the museum’s director, Maxwell Anderson, and his on-and-off-and-now-on-again wife, Jacqueline. Since arriving in the city with Anderson three years ago, the Ohio-born actress has been profiled and gawked at, objectified and adored, and photographed from ankle to ear. Jacqueline, 40, is exactly what comes to mind at the mention of “a Dallas woman.” Which is to say, she’s blonde and statuesque. She stacks up firmly in the lineage of other legendary Texas It Girls, from Lynn Wyatt to Lucy Ewing. There’s the impossibly tiny waist and God-blessed bosom. Legs drop long and supple, suggesting a past involving toe-touches on the 50-yard line. On this April night, she’s wearing a poured-on twinkling gown with all the subtlety of a flaming baton. Her bleached-yet-not-brassy hair is actually sold as “Dallas Blonde” at the salon.

Dallas is a town where each September, a local charity organization anoints the Ten Best Dressed Women of Dallas at the 101-year-old Neiman Marcus downtown, with each designer-clad woman identified only by her husband’s name. So on this night especially, Jacqueline is Mrs. Maxwell L. Anderson. Yet, by the time the night (and this story) is over, she will be pushed aside.

There’s something going on in Dallas. The north Texas city has long been both celebrated
 and lampooned for its indomitable notions of bigger, breastier, and blonder. Almost every article about its culture—this one included—brings up the ’80s TV show. Today, though, the city of 1.2 million has started to shake those celluloid handcuffs, exposing a more diverse and three-dimensional culture. Dallas, where I lived for seven years, now boasts cutting-edge architecture in the revitalized downtown Arts District—the largest performing-and-visual arts district in the country. It’s home to some of the world’s biggest contemporary-art collectors, such as Deedie Rose and Howard Rachofsky, making it a regular stop on the international contemporary fine-art circuit. Locals may still mourn the loss of Barneys New York in 2013, but glossy shopping bags are full again, with a major new collection of boutiques in Highland Park Village, including Céline, Balenciaga, and Tom Ford. Meanwhile, the soaring chalk-white Santiago Calatrava–designed bridge over the Trinity River modernizes the skyline. And then there’s been a surprising shake-up in the social order, with Russian street-style star Nasiba Adilova and New York fashion favorite and NBA basketball wife Kimberly Chandler charging in and playing by their own rules. So did Dallas get cool? Or are we just now realizing that Dallas is cool?

Dallas has always struggled for respect, suffering under tiresome clichés. Top model and hometown hero Erin Wasson was back in town in April for the weekend of the Dallas Art Fair—an around-the-clock art Coachella of sorts—with four major events to attend: the fair; MTV’s Re:Define benefit; the DMA Art Ball; and the Eye Ball, the fair’s celebration party. Wasson, who started her career in Dallas at a local contest, says that when she began walking the runways in New York and Europe, “people always assumed I rolled around with tumbleweeds.”

Hell, even when Karl Lagerfeld brought Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show to Dallas in 2013, the designer cranked out cowboy boots and fringe on fringe on fringe. “If he had wanted to do a show about ranching, he should have gone somewhere else,” says boutique owner Brian Bolke, politely adding that the production values were flawless. “It was really more Santa Fe.” Bolke, who can’t remember the last time he saw a client wearing cowboy boots in an unironic way, runs the designer emporium Forty Five Ten. (Wasson, who walked in the show and is a favorite of Lagerfeld’s, describes it as a “cheeky taste of Texas.”)

Still, Bolke knows that when Lagerfeld and photographers Mario Testino and Juergen Teller come to Dallas for events and art shows and play to stereotypes—Teller photographed the biggest-haired socialites while in town—it only raises his hometown’s profile. “We’ve always been a lot chicer than what the world gives us credit for,” Bolke says. “The TV show hangs over our head. People come here from L.A., New York, and Chicago, and they think it’s going to be a cultural wasteland.”

To be fair, there is a lot of concrete in Dallas. But right in the middle of the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex—a sprawling 12-county hydra—is a lush island of sorts, which includes the tony township Highland Park, the gritty-cool new-cuisine neighborhood of Oak Cliff, and the gleaming downtown Arts District. But each year, the beast grows, spawning more gated communities, more apartment communities, and more mixed-use communities.

This was the Dallas that Adilova knew of when she arrived in 2012. The international style star and front-row regular rose up the fashion-blog ranks with her print-mixing comrades, the designer Ulyana Sergeenko and Miroslava Duma, founder of the very popular lifestyle site Büro 24/7, to which Adilova also contributes. So when not partying with Pharrell Williams, posing in Rodarte at the Met Ball, or hanging out at Diane Von Furstenberg’s Paris apartment, Adilova is another Highland Park stay-at-home mom. She met her husband, Thomas Hartland-Mackie (the president of an international electric-supply company), in St. Barths. She recalls, “Thomas said, ‘I want to marry you and start a family with you, but I need you to move to Dallas.’” Adilova says some of her next thoughts involved oh and gosh. Turns out, she had been to Dallas before. Adilova had moved from war-torn Dagestan to Oklahoma for college and had visited north Texas on a school trip to a Six Flags amusement park. “I remember Dallas being freeways,” she says.

Now around 36 years old (depending on whom you ask), she has a different window seat. Commandeering a 12-person chocolate-brown alligator-skin dining room table in a 13,000-square-foot home (where the first season of Dallas was filmed, Adilova claims) in Volk Estates—the most expensive quadrant inside the most expensive neighborhood in all of Texas—Adilova is 6,000 miles from Russia and a lifetime away from that bus. “I am super impressed with Dallas,” she says in a Slavic-tinged baby whisper. “I think it’s like a hidden gem.”

Dallas has been good to her. Since arriving, Adilova has, in quick succession, purchased a fully furnished home (down to some art and Baccarat crystal—for a rumored $26 million), had a son, gotten married, located Nobu (“cliché but always fresh”), and become a reliable $35,000 for charity tables. The five-foot-two Instagram star also continues to do what international style stars do: attend fashion shows and parties (on this day, she’s prepping for the Louis Vuitton resort show in Palm Springs), host store openings, and, of course, have her assistant snap her outfit on the circular drive or in the maze of shrubbery.

Adilova is at once new and old Dallas. “I am PR for Dallas,” she says, with such righteous authority that I nod along. “A perception is that it’s like the TV series.” Instead, she proclaims, the town is “a mix of Russia and the Middle East.”

A mutual friend of ours, Jessica Nowitzki (wife of Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki), served as the director of the Goss Michael Foundation, a British contemporary fine-art institution that was founded by the pop star George Michael and Texas native Kenny Goss and came of age during Dallas’s art-and-style evolution. “Nasiba is attracting so many people and companies here,” Nowitzki says. “Also, she’s not Southern. When she wants to have an event, she has an event. She doesn’t wait for permission. That’s a different way of doing things, and, yes, that can rub some people the wrong way.” While at the foundation, Nowitzki chaired many events and founded the MTV Re:Define gala. “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go the last 10 years,” she says. “Some people come in strong, and then one day, you’re like, ‘Hey, whatever happened to...’ ”

One business owner is pretty cut and dry about the town’s new faces: As long as the check clears, we’ll let you pretend you discovered our cute little town. “Look, this is Dallas, Texas. We don’t care. We’ll take your money.”

Adilova is blunt about her goals. “I am not here just to be this Miss Russian Style star or go to social events and sip on cocktails, you know?” she says with stereotypical Russian bluster. “I want to make a difference.” Stylish Russians add cachet and value to a clubby city like Dallas, but what adds dollars is buzz. People are moving to Dallas in droves—it’s experiencing the third-largest population growth in the country, behind Houston and Austin, reports Forbes magazine.

Neiman Marcus senior vice president and fashion director Ken Downing relocated from Beverly Hills 18 years ago. “Back then, Dallas was so insular. And, yes, there actually was big hair,” he says with a laugh. “That nomenclature came from somewhere. People here look great at all times, whether jogging or at a ball. And people want to be around that. I’m sick of all the highways being under construction.”

The growth is spotlighting what a town with some 20 billionaires, more than in most cities in the world, doesn’t have: a vibrant downtown. “You can’t have a great city without one,” says Dallas-based oil and natural-gas billionaire Tim Headington. In 2008 Headington opened the swank Joule Hotel, on Main Street, in a neo-Gothic high-rise that once housed the Dallas National Bank. At the time, downtown was on a ventilator, a clunky Chinese tangram of one-way streets, ’70s-era apartment rentals, vacant buildings, skeevy nightclubs, and any number of day-drinking establishments claiming that Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby drank there. “I was born here,” says the notoriously private Headington, 65, via e-mail. “I have vivid memories of coming downtown as a boy and experiencing the vitality of a thriving city. But over the years, downtown lost some of that vitality.”

Dallas has always liked shiny and new. When the high-end NorthPark Center mall opened about seven miles north of downtown in 1965 with the town’s other Neiman Marcus, the enclave of Preston Hollow expanded nearby. In the mid-’80s, as people moved 12 miles farther north toward Plano (home to yet another Neiman’s), downtown continued to lose relevance.

Today, on the edge of downtown stand gleaming structures surrounding the Dallas Museum of Art: the I.M. Pei–designed Meyerson Symphony Hall and the Renzo Piano–designed Nasher Sculpture Center. (The Nashers are major art collectors and own the NorthPark Center.) A little more than 30 years after the DMA relocated downtown, the Arts District now includes 13 facilities and organizations, including the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House and the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre (designed by Rem Koolhaas).

Headington deserves a lot of credit. At just seven years old, the Joule has already undergone an expansion costing more than $78 million. He now owns an additional 20 properties in downtown, for a total investment of around $225 million. Sculptor Brad Oldham (brother to designer Todd) moved his studio and store downtown, and soon another glittery neighbor will arrive. By this time next year, Neiman Marcus will have to contend with Bolke’s Forty Five Ten across the street in a space that will be four times its current square footage. (The last competitor to Neiman Marcus here was the Sanger-Harris department store, which closed in 1987.) Headington is behind the move and has angered historic preservationists with a teardown to make room for Bolke’s new store.

The beauty of Dallas, Wasson says, “is that we know the clichés.” But to really enjoy Dallas, Wasson advises looking past all that: “You need someone to help you navigate.”

Kimberly Chandler might be that person. She certainly knows about defying clichés. The wife of an NBA player... Well, that brings to mind a certain type of woman. But Chandler, 33, is the kind of woman who has been profiled by Vogue and has a new line of sunglasses with Selima Optique. “Stereotypes are dangerous,” she says.

I dropped by Chandler’s tan columned house, behind imperious gates guarding a black Range Rover and a white Ferrari, a few hours before the Art Ball. Like Adilova’s, her home is enormous enough to warrant a doorbell that patches one through to a cell phone. Unlike Adilova, Chandler constantly uses the word blessed to describe her life and hugs a lot. She moved back to Dallas a few months ago, when her husband, Tyson Chandler, returned to the Mavericks. He first played for the team in 2010, but Chandler says she didn’t do much back then because she had three kids under the age of five. “When I came back, I was shocked,” she says, sitting in an overstuffed armchair, her cropped hair swooshed above her forehead. “The fashion aspect that Dallas is thriving off of right now—when did this happen? I was like, Okay, I can work with this.”

“She completely dove in,” says jeweler Sue Gragg, who is something of an Obi-Wan figure to Adilova and Chandler. A Mississippi native who has lived in Dallas for 35 years, Gragg is as known for her—wait for it—big diamonds as for her big personality. She points out that Dallas does not provide an easy entrée. Both Adilova and Chandler worked hard to be so firmly entrenched. “They got into everything that was good to get into,” Gragg says. “Art and fashion is everything in Dallas right now.
 Adilova and Chandler, who previously knew each other only through fashion shows, are everywhere. Every store and institution wants to partner with them. Chandler, in fact, launched her sunglasses line at Forty Five Ten and just hosted a shopping event for Stella McCartney.

Downing also points out that the inherent intimacy of Chandler’s and Adilova’s social-media fame is changing the Dallas social order. “Many of the velvet ropes in Dallas have dropped,” he says—but don’t forget the forebears: “While the new generation may not know the social women of another era, you can’t forget the grandes dames of Dallas that defined gracious entertaining and their tireless commitment to philanthropy. They put Dallas on the map.”

Later that night at the Art Ball, former It Girls and current It Girls hit what can be society’s great, if awkward, equalizer: the dance floor. Solange Knowles spins ’90s hip-hop, and museum director Maxwell Anderson and his wife, Jacqueline, lock together. As TLC’s “Creep” fills the tent, a cheer erupts and bold-faced names wave their jeweled minaudières in the air like they just don’t care. Chandler fist-pumps through the room, grinning from ear to ear, her Juan Carlos Obando print dress as counterintuitive as her moves. A circle forms around her. Bolke blows her kisses from across the room. Adilova grins and bounces at the Veuve Clicquot bar. More and more people are sucked into Chandler’s orbit until there’s no more room on the dance floor. The Andersons retreat to the sidelines. By the time the crowd breaks into the Electric Slide, Chandler doesn’t even notice that she isn’t the life of the party—she is the party. And Dallas is cool enough to let it happen.

Image Credits: Dina Litovsky

For more on Dallas, see our city guide for where to sleep, shop, dine, drink, see art, and more »


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