By Brian Hieggelke
Opening night of the Democratic National Convention, and Michelle Obama is scheduled to speak. Pundits are in a tizzy: will she be able to convince middle America that she’s one of them, that she loves her country, her family and her god enough to earn their votes? By the time she’s finished, even the skeptical have been sold. She’s answered every lingering question except one: where did she get that fabulous dress?
Of course, it was already well-publicized that the would-be future First Lady was a fan of Chicago designer Maria Pinto, and that alone, given the extraordinary national obsession with all things Obama, gave a priceless boost to Chicago’s fashion culture. After all, Obama obviously had the means to buy from just about any designer she wanted; the fact that she chose Pinto as her style muse sent a clear signal that you don’t have to hail from New York to get attention. Not since Oleg Cassini helped shape the Jackie Kennedy style had a designer and (potential) First Lady been so closely connected.
“Contrary to popular belief, Chicagoans are highly attuned with the fashion world.”—Sheri Roney, SoKo Fashion
At the beginning of this month, more than a thousand apparel buyers, designers, media types and all-round fashionistas each day gathered for five nights inside a tent in Millennium Park to watch runway fashion shows that comprised the cornerstone of Chicago’s four-year-old version of fashion week, called Fashion Focus Chicago. Set against the backdrop of unprecedented carnage in global financial markets, the events couldn’t avoid a bit of an “end-of-empire” air—and we’re not talking about the empire waist, which seems to be doing just fine.
Dying economy or not, there’s no denying the excitement that large-scale fashion shows bring, with their bright lights, booming beats and models strutting down runways. Spend nearly a week watching show after show and it’s hard not to feel like something’s happening here. But is it? I decided to ask the question. In addition to a lengthy conversation with Melissa Gamble, the director of fashion arts and events for the city (often described as the mayor’s “fashion czar”), I sent a short email survey to nearly 200 local boutique owners and managers, as well as thirty or so local designers, most of them past winners of the “Fresh Faces in Fashion” designation awarded by GenArt, one of the marquee events during Fashion Focus Chicago. The consensus? Progress has been made, but there is still much to be done. Read the rest of this entry »