City unveils fashion center

Mayor Richard M. Daley yesterday unveiled the Chicago Fashion Incubator, a new workspace at Macy's on State Street, in hopes of nurturing local talent. But young designers say turning the "Hog Butcher for the World" into a glamour capital is going to be an uphill battle.

"If we're going to be a global city, the fashion industry has to be part of that image," said the mayor, conservatively dressed in a black suit, at the opening ceremony.

Lidia Wachowska, one of a half-dozen designers in residence chosen to occupy the workspace during its first year, is ecstatic about her new digs.

"Having a studio is going to help tremendously," said Wachowska, whose "Evil Kitty" clothing features images of cats with attitude.

"Evil Kitty has taken over my whole house," she said. "Right now I don't have space to hire an intern."

Kate Coxworth, another resident designer, said the city's makeover has a long way to go.

"You're going up against everybody thinking Chicago doesn't have any fashion," she said.

In June of 2006 Daley launched the Mayor's Fashion Council, which brainstorms ways to keep local designers from fleeing to the coasts. Exisitng initiatives include the annual Fashion Focus Chicago festival and other showcases for home-grown garments; the incubator is the City' latest style strategy.

The 2,375-square-foot workshop, a former telephone operator's room, is located on the 11th floor of the former Marshall Fields building at 111 N. State. Macy's bought the historic department store in 2005 and changed the name amidst protests from locals. The incubator is part of its campaign to win over alienated Chicagoans.

The fresh-faced fashionistas also include Glen Mallory, Agga Raya, Yana German and Kristin Rosynek Hassan. Three of the six are recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.

They will all have access to industrial-grade sewing machines, state-of-the-art computers and design software, office space and a showroom to display their wares to potential buyers. They will be required to required to complete a curriculum of workshops and seminars on the "economics, marketing and merchandising" of fashion taught by Macy's staff and other industry experts.

The young designers will also be charged $200 a month to help cover the incubator's expenses for the year. "$200 is really reasonable," said Coxworth. "We're right on State Street and it's almost 2,400 square feet."

"It's a great use of the space," said Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, a designer who has hawked her apparel at City-sponsored sales. "The building is fabulous. When you're getting started space to operate is crucial. This is a nice centralized resource."

While several young designers praised the incubator, some feel the mayor's vision of Milan on Lake Michigan might not be all it's cracked up to be.

"I don't see Chicago as a fashion capital now," said Monique Elias, who recently closed her Lincoln Park boutique, Yvette, because it wasn't turning a profit. "New York and LA are both coastal cities where the fashion industry has been established for a long time."

"It's hard for Chicago designers to find what they need," said Elias, explaining that the city doesn't have many places to buy materials to make their creations, showrooms to display them or clothing reps to shill them.

Coxworth, who recently moved back to town after working for Ralph Lauren in Manhattan, agreed that logistics are a problem here. "New York has the Garment District. In Chicago nothing is centralized." She noted that a designer might have to schlep to the far Northwest Side for buttons then travel miles to the South Side for cloth.

One obstacle to creating a vibrant fashion scene may be the Second City complex, according to Glaum-Lathbury. "I'm from the East Coast and it seems like Chicago as a city has low self-esteem, but I think that's changing."

Despite the obstacles, those involved in the incubator are aiming high.

"My hope is we will launch someone equal to Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan right out of this building," added Macy's spokesman Ralph Hughes.

Kimberly Prodan, the incubator's executive director, said that could happen.

"I think it's realistic. We've got great support from the mayor to retain design talent. This next year watching these six people evolve is going to be great."