By Jennifer Berg
Like any business—besides undertaking, perhaps—the boutique business is a fickle one. Storefronts come and go with astounding quickness, and favorite boutiques become mere memories—or worse, bank branches—in a matter of months.
Luckily, Wicker Park is no stranger to great boutiques that seem to have staying power, and North Avenue holds its own in the indie shoppers’ gold mine. At City Soles, in business since 1991 (2001 West North), cutting-edge kicks from around the globe are sold alongside artsy accessories from local designers. Silver Moon (1755 West North) is a must-stop shop for stars like Dita Von Teese, who makes a North Avenue pilgrimage when she’s in town to rifle through mint-condition vintage gear and new threads from Vivienne Westwood. Just down the road, ultra-hip men’s store TK Men (open since 2006, at 1909 West North) is stocked with clothing and accessories that meet the approval of owner Lindsay McKay, who’s worked as a stylist for Dave Navarro.
But there’s nothing to compare to the Akira phenomenon. On a recent midsummer night, girls clad in bikinis and roller skates swirled around the entrance of Akira Women (1814 West North), which was celebrating its fifth anniversary with a seventies-influenced bang. “We had strobe lights, gold and silver confetti, big wigs, roller skates—you name it,” remembers Jon Cotay, who owns Akira along with partners Eric Hsueh and Erikka Wang. “It seriously felt like Studio 54,” he continues. “We had body painters, people in drag, magicians and even a masseuse.” Of course, the party wouldn’t have been complete without an in-store fog machine. Lured by the fanfare and special party discounts, shoppers waited in a line the length of the store to check out with their purchases.
But despite all the glittery gimmicks, Cotay says the most memorable part of the affair was “our regular customers and friends coming up to us and congratulating us on our success. [They were] really happy for us.”
After all, five boutique years is about seventy human years. “Navigating the fashion world and the boutique industry hasn’t been easy,” Hsueh says. “There are a lot of boutiques, and it’s hard to stand out from all the others, and of course customers and fashion trends are fickle. If you look up and down Milwaukee and Damen, I guarantee a lot of the boutiques you see now will not be there with the same owners five years from now.”
And though merely surviving five years in the biz is a tremendous feat on its own, Akira isn’t content to rest on its trendy laurels. “I haven’t thought that much about our five-year mark, to tell you the truth,” Wang says.
Hsueh adds, “After five years and six stores, I say to myself: ‘That’s it? What’s taking so long?’ I guess, as much as things might appear rosy on the outside, I see all the areas that we can improve in. So in the end, I think five years represents our starting point. We’re not a baby anymore. Now it’s time for kindergarten.”
And to Akira, kindergarten seems to mean rapid expansion. These days, the store seems to be taking over North Avenue with a slew of tomato-red awnings that announce the brand’s shoe shop, accessories shop and men’s and women’s clothing stores. There’s another Akira women’s store in Lincoln Park, and a large Akira shoe outpost recently set up shop in the Loop on State Street.
The whole enterprise “was actually Erikka’s idea,” Cotay says, describing the genesis of the rapidly evolving chain. “She was living in L.A. at the time, pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, and…she met different clothing designers that she really admired.” Armed with an epiphany—“They don’t make clothes like this in Chicago”—Wang put in a phone call to her college pals Cotay and Hsueh, who were both living in Chicago. (The three met as students at University of Illinois in Champaign, Wang’s hometown. Cotay grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Hsueh was raised in Springfield, Illinois.) “She asked us if we were interested in opening a clothing boutique,” Cotay says. “Of course, our initial reaction was: ‘Are you crazy? Heck no.’”
Needless to say, Wang, whom Cotay describes as “a business pit bull,” convinced the guys to give it a go. “That was probably the scariest moment,” Cotay says. “When talking became walking and there was no turning back. It was exciting and scary at the same time.” None of the three friends had any retail experience at the time, but this ultimately worked to their advantage. “You could say we were inspired by the fear of failure,” Cotay explains. “I think as an entrepreneur, you need to…want to take a risk, and almost be dumb enough not to think about the downside. You’ve just got to go for it, and we did.”
From its first location, which was a small women’s boutique at 1837 West North—which now serves as the Akira office—the brand took off in a completely organic way. “We never really had a master plan and we still don’t,” Cotay insists. “In Bucktown, after our first women’s clothing store, our customers were really asking for shoes. So we thought we should open a women’s shoe store next door. It would be complementary, easy to manage, and it wouldn’t cannibalize sales. And it actually worked. And then we added a men’s store.”
And so on. “It’s been a case of, when the opportunity knocks, you better be ready to answer the door,” Cotay says.
Of course, Akira’s evolution wasn’t all smooth sailing. The notoriously exclusive fashion world isn’t always kind to a group of enterprising college buddies. “Starting out, I remember knocking on the doors of the top designers in the country, trying to get their products on our shelves,” Cotay recalls. “They wouldn’t even give us the time of day. Now, we’re probably those same designers’ biggest independent client in the Midwest.”
Wang adds, “One thing I look at all the time is the lines that we carry now versus what we started out in. When we first started out, we had probably less than ten lines that no one had ever heard of. Now we have our own Akira clothing and footwear lines that are doing phenomenal. We also carry Vera Wang, Rock & Republic, Anna Sui, Jill Stuart, Moschino, Just Cavalli and just about every other line that our customers want…I think more and more we’re the place where up-and-coming designers want to be.”
But even with the hard-won respect of top designers, the Akira team still has to work hard to stock their shelves with the hottest current styles. To keep on top of trends, the Akira team constantly travels from coast to coast and back again. When asked about the buying process, Cotay responds “Ha! Process? I wouldn’t call it a process.” The whole non-process is more of a way of life, and a precise way of observing different cultures. “I’m probably in New York and L.A. three-to-four times a month,” he elaborates. “You have to keep looking and looking and looking. What are people wearing at the clubs? On the streets? At school? In New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Brazil? We read a lot of magazines, too. You basically have to compile a lot of data.”
Buying also involves what Cotay describes as “making bets.” By way of example, he asks: “How far can this high-waisted trend go? It’s hot in New York, but will people in Chicago follow suit? And are the seventies back?” And of course, there’s always good-old-fashioned trusting-your-gut. “A lot of times,” he says, “you have to filter out the noise. Magazines and celebrities do have a lot of clout, no doubt. But…believe it or not, celebrities aren’t always fashion gods. Yes, if Jennifer Aniston or Paris Hilton is wearing something, it adds to the appeal. But we think, in the end, our customers are knowledgeable enough [to develop their own sense of style].” Still, diehard celebrity fans will find something at Akira to make them feel A-list. “Johnny Drama on ‘Entourage’ wears a lot of stuff that we carry,” Cotay concedes.
Despite the gambling aspect of buying, the Akira team has a pretty developed style forecast for seasons to come. Come fall, the store’s famously vast jeans selection will benefit from thoughtful buys. “Everyone is looking at denim and trying to figure out where it’s going,” Cotay says. “My thinking is, ‘It’s going everywhere.’ There’s not one single trend that everyone is going towards, and that’s the beauty of it. For fall, I think wide-leg trousers [for women] are going to be very popular. And in Chicago, boot-cuts are always [well-received]. But colored denim is also on the rise. Not just different variations of blue denim, but also red, green and yellow.” For men, Cotay predicts that embroidered denim will be big.
Other trends the Akira triumvirate predicts for fall—for women, the season will bring tunics over jeans, big accessories like oversized sunglasses, “gaudy watches” and patent-leather handbags. Men should prepare to stock up on designer tees, fitted jackets and gym passes. “Thin is in and I don’t see the baggy look coming back anytime soon,” Cotay cautions. Sneakers “with an urban flair” are primed to be the big thing in men’s footwear. “It’s about street wear as opposed to the whole track thing,” he says. “We’re seeing an explosion in brands such as Creative Recreation, while running and casual shoes seem to be losing a little steam.”
Of course, reading about the upcoming trends has little on seeing them strut down the runway, and an Akira fashion show taking place this week (August 9; see Style listings for complete details) will give a vivid preview of fall fashion. “We’ve never been the types to just sit there and wait for people to walk through our doors,” Cotay says. “We believe wholeheartedly in bringing people to us. So we go out there, have fashion shows and try to draw people to us.”
Although Wang jokes that, after five years in business, “I don’t have to take the trash out and mop the floors as much anymore,” the Akira crew’s aversion to “just sitting there” plays out in their day-to-day running of the business. “[All the owners] work six or seven days a week, twelve-to-seventeen hours a day,” Cotay says. “We try to be in the store as much as possible. We’re definitely not out golfing or sitting up high in an ivory tower.”
The company that started out with three employees now has a staff of a hundred. “It’s not about us anymore,” Cotay says. “It’s about them. Your employees don’t treat your customers any better than you treat them.” Still, he admits, “Working at Akira is hard. It’s rigorous. It takes a lot to get hired. It takes a lot not to get fired.”
With plans to expand the men’s store to five times it size, open a men’s shoe store, launch online shopping and lease another space for a new store (details are still mum), there’s no end in sight to the seventeen-hour days. “It’s not easy,” Cotay says. “But we wake up with a smile every day, and we can’t wait to get to work.”