Fashion Reflected- Fashion gets a lift from the Mayor's Office and I got to witness it all.

  • By Faith Bowman
  • January 06, 2006 @ 3:21 PM
It finally happened- Chicago got it's own fashion week. As a native New Yorker the hum and bustle of the fashion business is in my blood. You can't go anywhare without being reminded that New York is ne plus ultra in Amarerican fashion. It's the place where European classicism meets Japanese minimalism, meets African patterning- all in the same outfit.Every day is a chance to recreate onself conceptually and culturally as you pick from items bought in Chinatown, Harlem, or in Soho. High and low, haute or cheap New Yorkers mix and match with whatever comes to hand to create the character that they need to be to cope with whatever might happen once you leave home. That's the real secret to New York style, you know: not the clothes themselves? But the secret knowledge that our real self is locked securely behind police locks in our miniscule apartments. The people on the streets are characters made up to be part of the Big Apple fantasy. They are each their own superhero...but I digress.This is about Chicago.

After living in Chicago for 5 years, I've both mocked and admired Chicago style. Mocked the doughty suburbanites in their tatty khaki's and t's and admired those Chi-towners that most resembled what I would see back home. But over the course of the last 3 years I've noticed a change. A change that culminated in the two week Chicago style extravaganza that was fashion Focus Chicago. The change is this- Chicagoans are getting 'it'. Mixing it up with bravado and taking it to the streets in bold patterns and shapes. Hmmm. I decided to attend as many events as I could handle to see what was going on. Most of the fashion scene has been unfolding in clubs; midnight runway shows that leave you bleary-eyed the next day, and which must leave the clothing in no state to be sold. Yes, there are events like AIBI's 'Chicago is Red Hot', and Glamorama done by Marshall Field's ( Macy's), as well as the student shows at SAIC and Columbia College Chicago. But there is nothing here that rivals the hysteria and flat out trendsetting assault of the New York fashion Week. Fashion Focus, with an assist from the Mayor's Office of Special Events was about to change that.

The first event that I attended was a panel discussion on Wednesday September 21st featuring designers Erika and Monika Simmons of Doublestitch, Roger Price and Tommy Walton of Price Walton Couture lab, Doug and Allie Adams of Doris Ruth, and Lauren Lein- Santos at the W hotel at 172 W. Adams. These were the 'Red Hot Designers' according to the Apparel Industry Board Inc (AIBI), and they talked about the realities of starting a fashion business in Chicago. I loved hearing Tommy Price's stories about the industry- but when I tried taking a photo of a couture glove, I was hissed at by an AIBI staffer. Goth designer Lein- Santos jauntily modeled one of her Victorian inspired cocktail gowns and encouraged us to network with each other. I came to see the fruits of her advice as the week went on: I saw the same people EVERYwhere.

The next night found me back at the W for a "Colorful Evening with Margaret Walch'. I hadn't bothered to bring my camera after nearly getting kicked out the AIBI event, but I saw flashes popping allaround me and I resolved to have more courage next time. Ms. Walch is a color forecaster. Along with a bevy of well co-ordinated fashionistas in New York. She and the Color Association of the US lay down the law about what colors we will be wearing and decorating with. But don't worry; what you have now won't be out of style for another 2-5 years. My fave though from this eminar was that fashion trickles down to affect other industries. So there- it's not silly or frivolous after all. Fashion affects everyone, no matter how we try to pretend it doesn't.

Well, I was out the NEXT night too...getting a little tired, but still game. Anything for fashion, right? I passed on the AIBI fabric and trim sale, and on the 'Happy Hour' at Marshall Field's ( oh crap, MACY'S!) Beauty bar to rest up for the big one. That's right- Gen Art Shop CHICago. This time I had an in: I answered a call for volunteers and ended up sitting at the check-in desk, the best place for a nosey chick like me. EVERYbody was there: people from the mayor's office, all the local media was accounted for, models, designers, and generally fabulous people looking for free drinks and bargains. It was all there and all happening at what? The W hotel. There was a generous open bar and free cocktail shakers from American Express's In:Chicago card, the big time sponsor of the night and a lot of the week. Vendors like Doris Ruth, The Denim Lounge, Eurotrash, Lra Miller, and Calvin Tran represented to fashion savvy shoppers while Beauty on Call provided makeovers. It was madness! There was an after party at Le Passage, but even my Gen Art staffer status coudn't get me in- my lowheeled mary janes from Payless just didn't make the grade. Oh meant that I could go home and rest!

The Second Week...

By September 27th I was on pins and needles, twitching from fashion withdrawal. I ran out of the house at break-neck speed to get to the Cultural Center for the panel discussion on Insider Tips on Running a Creative Business'. I took a couple of snaps of the panel and then settled back to listen and take notes. Broadcast journalist Victoria Lautman questioning the likes of Mary Gelhar (Gelhar is Fashion Director of GenArt and has just written a book called the Fashion Designer's Survival Guide.), Amy Tara Koch who is RedEye's stylephile, The Price Wlton duo, and laura Stufen whi si the Senior Women's Buyer for Marshall F...Macy's! (Personally? I don't think that they should have changed the name. I live in Chicago and I shop at Field's - why the change?). The panel was tough and sassy and answered questions with aplomb; and with respect. While tackling such issus as the worst experience ever and how to deal with buyers the panel proceeded to sing Chicago's praises and make everyone feel as if they had a chance. It was fun, but without the barbed cattiness that infuses so much of what passes for communication in the real fashion world.

The 28th was a double whammy as I hit the ground running to cover the 'Street Beat' fashion event on State Street. The Chicago Loop Alliancecreated a space for all the local design schools ( International Academy of Design & Technology, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, and The Illinois Institute of Art -Chicago) to showcase the talent of their student designers. It was amazing! Right there between Washington and Madison models sauntered down a red carpet catwalk and struck poses on platforms erected on each corner. The clothing was more fantasy fashion than wearable- lot of evening looks, but there was a variety of it and the four schools were well represented. The moset exciting things was the success of this geurrilla fashion attack right out in the heart of the shopping area, rivaled only by Marshall Field's (Macy's ) vertical catwalk the year before.

I went home and took a nap before attending the next event at (can you guess?) the W Hotel at 172 W. Adams. Alexander julian, the designer behind the breakout 'Coulours by Alexander Julian' line of the 80's was going to speak about fashion, textile design, and where the hell he's ben for the last 20 years! From 6-8pm Mr. Julian regaled us with tales of his southern childhood, his adventures in furniture design, his inspirations, and his success ( he was so hot that he landed a bit part in 'The Player', Robert Altman's subtly hilarious send-up of the Hollywood game. he also designed everyone's costumes.). So what happened? His accountant ran away with it all. Luckily, while Mr. Julian was absent, his ideas have continued to affect our lives. From Tommy Hilfiger to Joseph Abboud and Perry Ellis- the easy elegance and attention to detail that began with 'Coulours' has continued. Mr. Julian will be launching his lates line Private Reserve, and also still has his family's haberdashery in Chapel Hill North Carolina. last event happened on September 29th. I volunteered to work backstage for the GenArt Fresh Faces in fashion show in Millenium Park. This was the big time! I helped wrap tables in snowy white linen to prepare for the open air cocktail event and then just hung around, waiting. I got the plum assignment of backstage dresser, but there was nothing to do until showtime. I took my only runway shot of the night of a model practicing her walk, waering her own clothes. Backstage models lounged and roamed, waiting. Designers roamed around, waiting. The dressers roamed around, waiting. Rehearsal, wait, makeup, rehearsal, hair, rehearsal, decisions about who's wearing what, rehearsal... and then showtime!The place went from zero to sixty on the excitement meter once things actually started happening. I dressed two models in two outfits by two designers. Allie from Doris Ruth had props to go with her fizzy, girly outfits and Lara Miller's models had specially choreographed moves to show the morphing ability of her pieces. During the show I was able to peek at Orlando Espinoza's fluid Art Deco inspired designs and fell in love with his silver and black tulip dress. Shane garbier's deconstructivist take on womenswear had a delicate strength that stood out from all the other designers.

All the dressers (and some of the designers) dropped everything to watch Kent Nielsen's sexy male models get dressed for their turn on the catwalk. You could have heard a pin drop- and they knew it. I almost feared for the boys' lives as they were ogled from every angle by man-hungry women. They also got the most requests for amateur photos- seems everyone had a digicam in ther pocket and just had to have the photos taken...My two favorites were Portugese Luca who is also a photographer and zOur own local boy- the dreamy Michael Ariano. I do have to admit that I have worked with Mikey twice, so I might be biased. The Kent Nielsen showing could be called the most popular cuz the place went BALLISTIC when those guys started walking.They lapped up all the love and threw it back model style- winks, nods, little dance moves- the boys had the power to twist the whole room round their elegant fingers. All I can say is ...Chicago designers? More men's fashion, ok? Please?

When it was all over; after meeting the mayor (thanks Chery Hughes!) and getting photographed with him, after scarfing down my first hamburger in 6 months (you try to resist mini burgers with goat cheeses dressing and gourmet buns.), and after downing 3 x-rated fusions and listening to a set by Chicago alt-star Liz Phair ( umm, yeah, there were free cd's given out. you got a problem with that?), i drifted home in a fog. I leafed through the free copy of Chicago magazine's special fashion issue (which ROCKED so hard) and wondered if maybe, just maybe, I could stop looking forward to leaving here to have a career in fashion. Maybe, just maybe, I could have it all right here in Chicago. Maybe.