The most stylish state in the U.S. is …

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Welcome to the most stylish state in the Union.

Yes, you read correctly. It’s Kentucky, according to Esquire magazine.

Certainly, on Derby Day Saturday there may be few more stylish places on the planet than Louisville’s Churchill Downs. America’s answer to England’s Royal Ascot, the annual “Run for the Roses” is a fabulous festival of fancy dresses, fancier hats and, of course, julep fanciers.

“When they’re stylish, they’re very stylish,” said Stan Thom, 75, who sells Turkish carpets out of a 19th-century house in Covington, a fast-gentrifying town on the Ohio River.

But, Derby Day only comes once a year. With its horse farms and Appalachian hills and hollows, the home of “My Old Kentucky Home” would seem to be in a quite different neighborhood than such voguish venues as Miami’s South Beach, Manhattan’s SoHo or Colorado’s Aspen.

Yet, the trend-spotting trendsetters at Esquire magazine assessed all 50 states in their March issue and concluded: “The most stylish state in America is … Kentucky. The bluegrass state has cranked out nine major style icons with a modest population of four million people. Beat that, New York!”

“You’re kidding,” said Bret Schulte, 32, a waiter at the Cock and Bull English Pub in a trendy section of Covington.

“Amazed is hardly the word. Unbelieving is in there too,” said Sue Wylie, a longtime Lexington television and radio personality.

“I cannot believe it,” said Lalie Dick, who, with her husband and former CBS News correspondent David Dick, has co-authored several books on Kentucky from their rural home in Bourbon County.

“When you tell other people, they think you’re kidding, but it’s true,” said Christopher Berend, the Esquire senior associate editor responsible for the selection.

But, he admitted, at first he couldn’t believe it either.

“We were surprised, but once you start looking at it,” he said, “it begins to make sense.” After compiling the list of the 50 states’ “style resumes,” he said he went over it repeatedly, but Kentucky still won by far more than a nose.

“It’s one of those things that when we looked at every single state, it kept jumping out at us,” said Berend. “As we stated in the issue, it’s not necessarily the number of style icons that they have or iconic traditions like the Derby. It’s really about the fact that the individuals that have come out of that state, whether by coincidence or not, have become style touchstones for a lot of men.”

According to Esquire, those touchstones are: Lexington-born actor George Clooney, nephew of Maysville-born singer Rosemary and son of Nick, a former TV anchor and current columnist for the Cincinnati Post and Kentucky Post; the country-rock group My Morning Jacket from Louisville; the Kentucky Derby; Louisville-born heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali; actor Johnny Depp from Owensboro; so-called Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson from Louisville; retired New York Knicks guard Allan Houston from Louisville; game-show host Chuck Woolery from Ashland and Col. Harland Sanders, founder of the Louisville-based Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Esquire lists nine, but that’s just the beginning. Other influential Kentuckians: “Good Morning America” co-anchor Diane Sawyer, actress Ashley Judd, movie director Gus Van Sant, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren and Pulitzer-winning playwright John Patrick. The list goes on and on – not to mention Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin near Hodgenville.

Why didn’t Lincoln make the Esquire list? “We were going to put him on there, but we thought he was more associated with Illinois,” said Berend.

David Dick pointed out that Jefferson Davis, father of the Confederacy, also was born in Kentucky. “We seem comfortable with these, if you will, stylish people. They are part of a broad and binding community. We’re probably overstating the case, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” said Dick, who recently co-authored “Kentucky: A State of Mind” with his wife.

To Wylie, Kentucky style is very much associated with horse country. “I think there is something about the entire thoroughbred world that is extremely stylish. The flecks of manure dried on the boots, the khakis and the sleeves rolled up on the shirts. It’s very patrician, rather genteel, shabby-patrician-looking,” she said.

Indeed, the horse farms in the bluegrass country around Lexington, with their august names and grand mansions behind old stone walls, speak of a quiet, gracious, Southern style.

But, Kentucky style is not just for the rich. Several people mentioned the lack of pretense among Kentuckians, the warmth and the honesty that some attributed to lingering rural values. “I think it’s a unique state. A lot of people think we’re all hillbillies – and we kind of are – and we’re behind the times, so we’re kind of retro,” said Bret Schulte, the waiter. “Kentucky style? I think it’s a lot of character.”

Restaurateur Jimmy Gilliece, owner of Chez Nora in Covington, was one of the few Kentuckians not taken aback by the state’s stylish designation. “We’ve had a legacy of stylistic issues for some time, whether they be thoroughbreds or bourbon. We’ve always had a certain cachet. We’re neither the North or the South. No one claims us. We’re sort of a bastard child of a bastard child,” he said.

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