Chicago focuses on fashion

When it comes to the fashion industry in the United States, New York and L.A. have always claimed the most runways and trendy designers. But Chicago is stepping up to its coastal counterparts and carving its niche in the fashion world.

"Chicago has the atmosphere that can really nurture young designers," said Amanda Nosal, director of Gen Art Chicago, a group that helps emerging artists showcase their work.

Gen Art's  runway show, which features ten young Chicago designers, will take place in Millennium Park tonight as part of the city's Fashion Focus Chicago event. 

One of those designers is Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, who has been sewing since she was 11 and recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has costume history books memorized from hours spent poring over them.

"There's nothing I would rather do than eat, sleep and breathe what I do," said the 23-year-old fashion designer. "I love the process. I'm crazy about it," she said.

Her process starts with an illustration. Once she has her concept, she starts working with fabric over a dress form, she said. From that, she gets her first pattern, which are the building blocks of making any garment. She uses the pattern to make her first sample. Once she is satisfied with the way a garment looks she works with a couple of different contractors to produce multiple garments.

Though some of her pieces are based on staples, like black pants and a white shirt, she uses interesting textures and slightly different seam lines to spice them up.

One of the more complicated pieces she will be showing at her first official runway show tonight is a dress with  intricate beadwork she did by hand.

Glaum-Lathbury said working in Chicago has its advantages.

"Chicago is full of people very, very willing to help," she said. "They are excited in a non-jaded way…Nobody's judging you in the same way that might happen in L.A."

She says it's also more affordable to live in Chicago. "It gives me a lot of freedom…it allows you to push yourself further."

Those factors, along with a helpful push from city government, have turned a city once known for its meat-packing plants into a home for rising young designers.

Mayor Richard M. Daley recently hired a full-time director of fashion arts and events, Melissa Gamble, to the Department of Cultural Affairs. Fashion Focus is just one of the department's fashion-oriented programs. Other programs include a mentoring program for young designers with Macy's.

"We are a fashion focused town," said Victoria Sinon, director of Fashion and Accessory Design at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. "We're constantly looking for new talent," she said.

Dieter Kirkwood, one half of Dieter Bennett, who will be showing at the Gen Art show, also lauded Chicago's design environment.

"It's fantastic in the sense that it's a burgeoning scene…We have enough customers that we're not all cutting each other's throats," he said.

While some appreciate Chicago's more welcoming environment, Ryan Dawson, a fashion marketing major at Roosevelt University, says it's not quite the place to be yet.

"We're stuck in a Midwest mentality; jeans and hoodies. But Chicago is growing, it really is."

Heiji Black opened Hejfina in Wicker Park in September 2004. In addition to fashion, Hejfina features installations by Chicago artists and hosts speakers on topics in art and architecture.

"I saw a good opportunity in Chicago because of the design savvy consumers," she said. She says she had seen her store concept appreciated in Paris and Tokyo, but it was "non-existent in Chicago at the time."