Still in Style: On the eve of its big week, what’s the present and future state of Chicago fashion?

Fashion Focus Chicago, News and Dish Add comments

By Nicole Briese

Monday marks the beginning of local fashion mavens’ favorite time of the year: Fashion Focus Chicago. While the Second City’s version of fashion week may not boast the allure of similarly dedicated weeks in New York, Paris or Milan, Chicago’s efforts to bring fashion to the forefront of the community have definitely become a highlight in recent years. Exciting shows from known and up-and-coming designers alike combined with shopping events and seminars designed to celebrate the industry have given us something to look forward to mid-October for the last five years running.

But changes wrought by the economy and even bigger uncertainty about the city’s future political lineup beg the question: what will become of Chicago’s fashion scene? With the demise of Gen Art in May, along with the city’s well-publicized economic woes, rumors started circulating that Fashion Focus Chicago might not even take place this year. After all, Gen Art sponsored one of the event’s most anticipated shows with Fresh Faces in Fashion Chicago; who would be there to take their place in the lineup? The rumor mill churned again when Chicago’s first and only director of Fashion Arts & Events, Melissa Gamble stepped down not long after. But the city’s fashion imperative has been a pet project of Mayor Daley, so when he surprised everyone by announcing that his current term, ending in 2011, would be his last, questions about the future came into stark relief. And what about the loss of some of the city’s most renowned names in retail and design? The doors to high-profile gems like Maria Pinto, Ultimo and Jake began to close as economic casualties in the last year, leaving in their wake the question: was Chicago’s nascent fashion industry fashion doomed before it could ever reach its full potential?

“I don’t know if we’re going to reach our goal of becoming the next New York or [Los Angeles] if these positions leave,” Kristen Amato says regarding the end of the Gamble and Daley regimes. “But I don’t know if that was happening when they were here.” As current president of the Chicago Fashion Foundation, which provides academic scholarships to local students majoring in fashion-related studies, as well as owner and designer of K.Amato, a local jewelry and accessories collection, Amato has a unique perspective. “I don’t really think it’s going to affect me that much,” she says of the changes. “We have fashion week, but it’s not as though fashion week was bringing in buyers or doing anything to truly assist with business,” she says. And for Amato and other local designers, it’s the business that counts. While she says the city’s efforts in prior years have certainly helped to promote the names of up-and-comers in Chicago’s fashion realm, she didn’t see designers profiting as a direct result. “My goal for the Mayor’s Fashion Council [an advisory board set up to help develop the city’s nascent industry] was to get buyers here to really start promoting small businesses,” she says. “That wasn’t really happening.”

While Gamble, who has moved on to a position as a lecturer in the Department of Fashion Studies at Columbia College, is unsure of the impact the last year’s changes will ultimately have on the city’s involvement with fashion, she certainly doesn’t see the scene disappearing entirely. “I think to a certain extent, it’s stayed the same because the industry is still here,” she says. “The designers are still here, the retailers are still here. I think that there will be other designers and other retailers who will take [the place of the Maria Pintos] that will grow their businesses and make their own mark on the industry. There are designers that have businesses that are still growing and doing well.”

She concedes that the mayor’s presence will certainly be missed, but does not see it as an end-all and be-all. “There’s no question that Mayor Daley has been an enormous advocate for the arts,” she says. “In terms of where it goes from here, there’s no way to know. I think that’ll take some time to develop, but I think there’s some great organizations in the city that are continuing to work and a lot that will continue to develop in terms of them stepping out or taking on certain roles,” she says.

Organizations such as Chicago Fashion Foundation, Fashion Group International, Macy’s Chicago Fashion Incubator and the Apparel Industry Board, just to name a few. It is the combined efforts of organizations like these that seem to be picking up any slack 2010 might have left in its wake.

In the past, “the city has really been the leader in marketing and promoting the shows,” Kiran Advani, spokesperson for all of the city’s fashion initiatives, says. It is Advani who handles all programming, events and media relations for the Chicago Office of Tourism in Gamble’s absence. “Now, it’s more of a partnership,” she continues. “There isn’t necessarily one overlying producer for all the fashion shows, but the city is still coordinating all efforts.”

Featuring four different shows produced by the likes of Macy’s, Mario Tricoci, Columbia College and StyleChicago, Advani says this year’s Fashion Focus Chicago may be different, but far from disappointing. “I think we’re seeing a great cross-section of the industry coming together,” she says. “You’ve got a major retailer, you’ve got a nonprofit, a large beauty brand and a really innovative online media partner. It’s been really exciting to see everyone want to participate and expand their participation and fashion focus,” she says.

Amato agrees. “I think that everybody that’s involved is really excited, because everyone’s really hands-on this year,” she says. “Everybody’s working together, which is kind of nice. I think it’s great that numerous groups are coming together for one purpose.”

It’s exactly this type of joint effort that many believe will save Chicago’s fashion front as a whole. “I think there’s a lot of really nice people here that can learn a lot from each other. I’ve always found the fashion community to be very warm and very easy to talk to. I’ve always had a good situation here,” Amato says.

The trend of collaborative fashion has even trickled over to the retail side of things. Where other doors have closed, new stores have opened in their place, and many are placing a huge emphasis on local design. “Retailers here have been carrying Chicago designers for years,” Advani says. “But more and more, you’re seeing them carrying them in larger quantities.”

Tracey Glibowski is the owner of one such boutique. Opening Cerato on Southport back in May, she has built her store and the majority of its stock around local design. “Everyone in the fashion community knows about these designers,” she says. “The consumers, they don’t know about them. It’s good to have a brick and mortar store to expose them. I think the city and the arts community beyond the fashion community have really started to embrace local designers,” she says. “My store opening was the first step in that.” With other local boutiques like Krista K. taking note and stocking their shelves with more local designs and the addition of similar concept stores like Local Lookbook popping up, it’s a formula that seems to be working. “I think it’s going really well,” Glibowski says. “I was able to pick up three new designers for fall.” She says her customers are definitely on board: “They think it’s beautiful, they love the clothing. And when they find out they’re local designers, they’re even more excited.”

“Consumers here really love supporting local people,” Amato says. It’s a fact she thinks may even make Chicago more attractive to a new designer than the fashion capitals it is consistently compared to. “I think it’s almost easier to be a big fish in a small pond, per se, versus starting in New York, where there are millions of designers. It’s a little bit easier to get noticed here and take it to the next level.” While she admits that there are certainly more resources to be had in New York, she believes a designer in this day and age can really get their start anywhere. “Everything is done so offsite now,” she says. “Even myself. I just started working with a consul in L.A. who’s helping me to do some manufacturing in Hong Kong. As long as there’s internet, phones… I don’t think it’s a downfall to start a business in Chicago. You can get things done in New York and live here—it’s totally fine. It’s a quick flight.”

The downfall therein lies, she says, more with the tendency of Chicago designers to allow themselves to be pigeonholed as such. People say, ” ‘Oh, I’m a Chicago designer.’ Yes, you are, but you’re a designer, period. If you’re selling your designs anywhere outside of Chicago, you’re just a designer. A lot of designers here are selling all over the world.”

Designers like current Chicago Fashion Incubator resident Christina Fan of C/Fan, for example. “I do feel that Chicago can compete on a bigger scale in fashion,” Glibowski says. As a carrier of C/Fan, Glibowski, for one, is excited to see the line taking off. “She has had some exposure nationally, and that is just a tremendous thing, to see our designers here in the city get that national exposure. That’s what it’s gonna take.”

Gamble believes her prior efforts with the Office of Tourism helped propel such exposure: “I think we certainly elevated the visibility of the fashion industry here in Chicago to people nationally and to a certain extent, internationally,” she says.

So will her absence, combined with Daley’s, Gen Art’s, and the boutiques we’ve lost to the recession take us back to where we were before the initiative and Fashion Focus began in 2006? It’s hard to say. Gamble’s not going to be replaced; her position has been split up between existing staff members at the Office of Tourism and Department of Cultural Affairs. “None of us sort of know what’s going to be happening,” Advani says. “But we are moving forward with all of the fashion initiatives.”

“I think everyone’s just going to end up working together,” Amato says. And supporters like Gamble and Glibowski are still extremely excited to see what Chicago has in store next week. “I think it’ll be great,” Gamble says. “I think they have a strong lineup of shows and there’s still some independent designers that are doing shows—there’s still an industry. In a big way it’s very similar to what it’s been in the past and it will continue to be a great showcase,” she says.

“I think early on there was a lot of question as to whether it would even happen, and, if it did, what would it be like?” Glibowski says. But having gotten the inside scoop from some of her designers, who will be featured in some of the shows, she, for one, is not of the cynical mind. “Everyone’s rallied together,” she says “It’s going to be a great event.”

“Everyone is going to see,” Advani adds confidently. “This is going to be fantastic.”

See the complete Fashion Focus Chicago schedule here.

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