The biggest trend on the Chicago fashion scene, at the start of 2010, was to hang it up.
Oak Street's world-famous boutique Ultimo, which helped launch Marc Jacobs and Peter Soronen, shut down in January after 40 years. Designer
, a campaign-trail favorite of
, closed her design studio and West Loop store in February. Once applauded as a Midwestern mecca for cutting-edge designers, the retailer Jake filed for bankruptcy and vacated its last shop, on Rush Street, in March.
The raveling economy also frayed fashion programs. Melissa Gamble left her position as the city's fashion czar this summer for
. The national organization Gen Art, which presented a headlining runway show at the city's annual fashion week, folded in May. (A city spokesman said the lineup for this fall's Fashion Focus will be announced in August, later than usual.)
Still, Gamble and others who labored to elevate the city's fashion profile say the industry here isn't coming apart at the seams.
"Designers continue to grow their businesses, and new designers and stores are opening in spite of the toughest economy recent generations have ever experienced," Gamble said after her departure was announced. "Fashion is one of the most competitive industries that exist. Even in good times, businesses come and go."
Many surviving designers and retailers are adjusting — their product, their approach, their expectations.
"A year ago I was trying to do everything, but in my first season I've seen my best sellers have been my blouses," said Ashley Zygmunt, who just opened a Lakeview storefront/studio for her line Zamrie. "So from now on, I'm only doing women's blouses and tops. I've become very focused."
Last year, designer Elise Bergman started working one day a week at Roslyn boutique in Bucktown, where her line is carried. She has noticed that her signature silk dresses ($275-$375) are moving into the bridesmaid realm; other shoppers can't spend that much on a single piece. "Separates tend to work better with customers' budgets," she said. So for next season she's doing more of them, some from fabric remnants that render them one-of-a-kind.
Many designers say boutique closings have hurt their sales but not to the point that they are hanging by a thread.
"I actually think that quite a number of Chicago designers are thriving right now," said Lara Miller, director of the Fashion Incubator Program at
on State Street and a member of the Mayor's Fashion Council.
Tennille White's orders have soared since the plus-size end of her range was used on BET's "Rip the Runway" last spring. Women's shirt brand Kate Boggiano was picked up by Mark Shale stores. Blake Standard sells to
Among emerging designers, Jess Audey has developed a strong bridal clientele. Anna Hovet's funky clothes are carried at Chicago retail juggernaut Akira.
The city's fashion "rock stars," Miller said, include veteran talents Cynthia Ashby and Caroline Rose. Both sell their relaxed women's separates at stores across the country — Rose at Nordstrom,
and Neimanmarcus.com; Ashby, at scores of boutiques.
In retail, Stephanie Sack says her 8-year-old plus-size boutique Vive la Femme in Bucktown has experienced record-setting sales for the third year. That's part of the reason she partnered recently with Kathryn Kerrigan, a local designer who specializes in stylish shoes for large feet, to open a Kathryn Kerrigan store nearby at 2031 N. Damen Ave. "My clients love her shoes; her clients love my store," Sack said. "It seemed a perfect fit."
Many more designers and shops, Gamble said, "are maintaining in this environment if not growing."
As for the recession's casualties, reincarnation is sometimes an option.
The former owners of Jake, Lance Lawson and Jim Wetzel, already have resurfaced with Space519, billed as a "refined general store" on the 5th floor of 900 N. Michigan, filled with jewelry, accessories and home goods in a wide range of prices, including $15 nail polish.
In fashion as in life, Lawson said, "there are many times you have to reinvent yourself. There still is a viable fashion community here. We just have to adapt."
The selvage edge
How three designers are guiding their seams around the recession.
— Wendy Donahue
of Kate Boggiano
Despite spending her childhood sewing clothes in her St. Charles home, Kate Coxworth, 29, decided in high school that fashion wasn't a "real career." At
, she pursued a pre-med degree — until the pull of her first love proved too powerful.
Her junior year, she switched to an independent major in fashion design, then headed to
, working in design and merchandising for
. Her creative eye combined with her commercial sense might have been a great fit for the long haul with Lauren.
But once again, her roots — this time the entrepreneurial spirit she inherited from her father — lured her back. She returned to Chicago to launch her luxury shirt brand for women, which she named Kate Boggiano, partly for her paternal grandmother, in 2006.
It wasn't exactly success at first site.
"Starting an Internet company and a brand at the same time equals zero people calling," Coxworth said with a laugh. "Eventually we found a core group of stores who were willing to take a chance on a new designer — and were able to pay their bills. … It's all about business, unfortunately. It's a really cool product. But it's still a widget."
Her business sense has served her well. So far this year, overall sales of her line, ranging from $149 for a sweater up to $429 for a jacket for fall, are up 75 percent over last year's. Retailer Mark Shale has picked up her line.
Last spring she expanded beyond her button-up shirts, shirt-jackets and camisoles into trench coats and a few dresses. All are made in the Chicago area.
"When I first started, I knew I needed to choose a niche," she said. "All of these big fashion houses have everything — bedding, fragrance. In 2006 everything was switching over to comfy casual."
Coxworth banked on that trend reversing.
"The recession hit, and it helped us because people started dressing up more," she said, "to hold onto their jobs."
studio, in a loft building that houses other local designers, Coxworth sells on kateboggiano.com as well as to Florodora in the South Loop and other boutiques. Often compared to French brand Anne Fontaine, Kate Boggiano has become known for curve-conscious fits, carefully chosen fabrics, including washable silks, and feminine details such as ruffles.
About 11 percent of her sales are custom shirts ($249-$279), often for clients with fit challenges such as large chests or long arms.
After a Kate Boggiano shirt appeared on an InStyle magazine page last fall about looks that would suit Michelle Obama, Coxworth sold one to boutique owner and first-lady stylist Ikram Goldman for an unnamed "size 10 client with long arms."
of Blake Standard
Pierre Colorado's decision to transplant to Chicago to start his women's sportswear brand, Blake Standard, never ceases to baffle those who know any page of his history.
He's originally from
, where he attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, whose alumni include Calvin Klein and
. Colorado lived in
and Miami and had worked as a designer for Abercrombie & Fitch, Levi's and Nautica.
"What am I doing here? That's the first thing my friends said," Colorado, 40, said with a relaxed smile from his
Five years ago, he left his job as senior designer for Abercrombie's Hollister brand to go west.
"Doing my research for my company I realized Chicago would be a great base for it; it's cosmopolitan and centrally located," he said. And, pointing out that he can ride his bike to work and go home for lunch, "I saw myself living a great lifestyle here."
With a sportswear background, he wanted to create a brand with that ease, but he also had traveled through Europe and liked "that aesthetic of a little more fashion." He wanted to combine the two. "I didn't feel any brand was doing that, especially at easier price points."
He found his muse in the stylish but pragmatic women on Chicago streets. Customers sometimes confess to him that they wear his softly tailored, machine-washable jackets, often in cotton with Lycra, several days a week, to the office, ferrying children around, traveling, out for dinner. He caps retail prices at about $160 even for his most expensive jackets, trench coats and alpaca sweaters.
That sometimes means scratching a stud, button or zipper treatment that pushes the price too high or requires dry-cleaning.
"Every seam, every pocket, every trim has a cost. At the point of design, I have to start controlling that already," he said. "These days the retailer holds the designer responsible for their sales. If it doesn't sell, the store doesn't say, 'I bought the wrong thing.' The store says, 'You gave me the wrong product.'"
Though a fledgling brand, Blake Standard is made like some of the giants', in factories in Peru, New York and Los Angeles.
"We started a little bit larger because I already had my network in place and had knowledge of how to manufacture the product on a larger scale. I feel one day we'll get there."
Macy's State Street is bringing him a step closer, moving his brand from the Chicago designers section to the premium denim area, "alongside big competitors," Colorado said. That, combined with retailers such as Neiman Marcus Cusp stores' asking him to extend the line, has made him decide to go ahead and start raising capital to do so. "We feel very confident," he said.
Chicago native Tennille White celebrated her 30th birthday this month with three weeks in Europe.
It was another birthday celebration, for a friend during White's senior year at the International Academy of Design & Technology in Chicago, that sketched the outlines for White's eponymous brand of elegant, vibrant women's wear.
Returning from spring break, White already had a job lined up in New York for after graduation. White and her friends were meeting at a restaurant and went to the bar to wait for their table. She sat down on a stool at the end that, unbeknownst to her, was broken.
"BAM! It shattered underneath me. My foot was caught underneath the railing on the bar, to the point where the fire department had to come saw the bar to get my foot out," she said. She graduated on crutches, had surgery to fuse her tarsal and metatarsal bones, and was bedridden.
Forced to forgo the New York job, she took a few pieces she had made to a women's conference at her large church on the
. She sold them all. Word of
took over, particularly among women of a certain age, who wanted figure-flattering sophistication no matter the number on the label.
"Whether you're a little plump, or petite like me, she can tailor-make it to your body," said size 6 client Bernadine McGhee at a recent fitting for a salmon-colored dupioni silk skirt suit and tangerine dress at her Tinley Park home. McGhee, who with her husband pastors a church, met White at a trunk show at Macy's three years ago. "I trust her entirely with my wardrobe," McGhee said.
White won the Rising Star award from the Chicago chapter of Fashion Group International three years ago and is now on the board. That award helped land the plus-size range of her collection in Neiman Marcus' catalogs. Macy's sells her entire size range, with prices ranging from about $159 for pants up to $849 for a gown (tennillewhitechicago.com).
Alongside other African-American designers such as Tracy Reese, White was chosen for BET's "Rip the Runway" fashion show, which first aired in March. She was asked to do the plus-size segment. She figured out that the show aired repeatedly when her cell phone started ringing unrelentingly while she was attending a
"Things were going extremely well before that," she said.
Now? "My parents don't see me anymore."
Pierre Colorado's Blake Standard
His signature look: softly tailored, machine-
washable jackets, like the brown one, above. Also: trench coats, alpaca sweaters, tops, dresses, vests and scarves.
Kate Coxworth of Kate Boggiano
Her signature look: button-up shirts with curve-conscious fits and feminine details. Also: shirt-jackets, camisoles, trench coats and dresses.