Monday, July 02, 2007

In Land of Khakis, a New Focus on High Style

Perhaps one day I can become the Guerilla Shopper Chicago - my 2nd favorite U.S. city. One of my stringers tipped me off to the below article on how the windy city is focusing on growing and keeping fashion designers in town. I suppose if the midwest needed a fashion capital, Chicago would be the obvious choice. I mean better there than Des Moines. ;)

The New York Times
July 2, 2007
In Land of Khakis, a New Focus on High Style

CHICAGO, July 1 — Mayor Richard M. Daley — who moves about town in perfectly nice, but not overly nice suits — is hardly the picture of fashion-forward dress with his blue shirts and the occasional striped tie.
But no matter: Mayor Daley, now serving his sixth term, has made the nurturing of Chicago’s fledgling fashion industry one of his pet projects. He is determined to remake the city as a fashion hub, even though it has often seemed to display a fashion sense that reflects his own, with all the flair of a golf shirt and khakis.
“These are great artists,” Mr. Daley said recently of the young designers whose careers he hopes will take off — and remain — in Chicago. Fashion, the mayor said quite sincerely, “is the heart and soul of the city.”
So, with strong guidance from City Hall, the city has started an ambitious plan to support young fashion designers and to try to prevent them from leaving for the coasts, where design jobs are more plentiful. Some of the 250 or so designers here are in the beginning stages of their careers, sewing samples in their living rooms, while others are more established.
In response to a reporter’s question on Friday, Mr. Daley elaborated on the reasons for his support: “Fashion designers add excitement and flair to the city. They attract attention from around the nation and the world.” “And,” he added, “they create jobs.”
Last year, the mayor created a position in the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs to focus on helping fashion designers and linking them with the local industry they need to thrive. Melissa Turner, a former lawyer turned fashion advocate who took the job, has since become the city government’s official face of fashion.
Ms. Turner plans Fashion Focus, Chicago’s equivalent of Fashion Week. She organizes shopping trips to some of the neighborhood boutiques selling items by emerging designers. Later this summer, she will start a Web site compiling industry and business resources for designers, a must-have in a city with no centralized fashion district, she said.
Ms. Turner acknowledges that the city’s hands-on approach to fashion is unusual. Unlike the established fashion capitals, where the industry is ingrained in the local economy and history, a city like Chicago needs a little more help from local government to get things moving, she said.
“It is a different approach to cultivating artistic talent,” Ms. Turner said. “The goal is definitely to get a very good, solid foundation laid, and then to keep building on that to support the different levels of designers here.”
Though Fashion Focus’s weeklong whirlwind of fashion shows and shopping tours has been well-received since its inception in 2005, its debut in a Midwestern city known for sharp-elbowed politics — but not quite for style — was met with some amusement back East.
“At first there was a sort of snicker,” said Lee Trimble, the fashion director for Gen Art in New York, a group that promotes emerging artists, including fashion designers, and has an office in Chicago. “It seemed an oxymoron for a city in the Midwest to have a fashion week. Not to sound snarky, but honestly, that was the feeling.”
Undeterred, Mr. Daley pressed on. The next year, he appointed Ms. Turner and created the Fashion Advisory Council, a group of designers and industry experts.
The last time a Chicago mayor tried to jump-start the city’s flagging apparel industry, acid-washed jeans and shoulder pads reigned. That was in 1987, when Mayor Harold Washington created a city agency to promote the sewn products industry here. Mr. Daley’s plan “is simply taking Mayor Washington’s vision to the ultimate,” said Dorothy Fuller, the president of the Apparel Industry Board Inc., the agency created by Mr. Washington. “To have a city agency behind you is a great deal of help, and it’s unique.”
Lara Miller is just the kind of designer Mr. Daley hopes will stay in Chicago. Ms. Miller, 27, a native Chicagoan, began selling her free-form hand-loomed garments at local boutiques while still a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Chicago is just part of who I am,” said Ms. Miller, who often listens to Cubs games while working in her studio. “In New York and Los Angeles, it’s a lot more competitive. You’re a little fish in a really, really big sea.”
At Habit, a boutique in the Wicker Park neighborhood that features emerging designers, about half of whom are based in Chicago, the owner, Lindsey Boland, said she was content to market her clothing line, superficial inc., locally.
“I’m not pursuing a national market,” said Ms. Boland, 34, a graduate of Parsons the New School for Design in New York City who grew up near Chicago and moved back here a few years ago. “I’m happy with my Chicago market.”
She welcomes the city’s involvement. “It’s really exciting to feel there are people trying to put programs out there that will help you, give you forums to show your work.”
And though Ms. Miller now sells her clothing line in 16 states, including New York and California, hometown pride keeps her in Chicago.
“I don’t expect it to be glamorous,” Ms. Miller said. “I just want it to be fun.”
As for the mayor, even he says the city has only just begun to perfect its strut down the proverbial catwalk. “We’re going to keep working at it,” Mr. Daley said. “We’re not going to say we’re there yet.”

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