• From the print edition of the May-August 2013 issue of Chicago Gallery News
Designs by 2012 Eunice W. Johnson Fellowship winner Alex Ulichny (BFA 2012) at THE WALK 2012 fashion benefit gala. Photo by Sara Condo
BY MARY DE YOE
On May 3 in Millennium Park, the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) will present
THE WALK. This 79 year-old fashion show and benefit will present, on the catwalk, the latest designs by SAIC students, and, in the audience, Chicago’s best dressed. Chicago is known for many things, but as a fashion capital it is still not quite New York or L.A. Quoted recently in Crains’ Chicago Business, Greg Cameron, Chief Operating Officer of WTTW and SAIC Fashion Committee member for 10 years said of THE WALK, “It’s one of the most exciting events of the year….[The Gala guests] are beautiful and glamorous—it’s when you see a little bit of New York in Chicago.” He meant it as a compliment, of course, but is it really fair to continuously view Chicago only in so far as it relates to New York, when it in fact does stand on its own?
Chicago’s fashion and art worlds may not have the resources or market presence that cities like L.A. and New York do, but what they lack in manufacturers or collectors they make up for in ingenuity and creativity. There is nothing revolutionary in saying that art and fashion are inextricably linked—they are derived from the same impulse to express oneself or an idea visually. But in Chicago the two worlds, perhaps out of necessity, often act in tandem and bolster one another.
“It is difficult to keep talent in Chicago,” said Cheryl Pope, SAIC Faculty in the Fashion, Contemporary Practices, and Continuing Studies Departments. Pope also received a Masters in Fashion from SAIC in 2010. “The resources and materials just aren’t here. I often tell students that they need to take trips to New York to buy fabric. With fabric stores like Mood, they are really able to see what’s available.” That said, while Pope encourages students to leave the city for fabric, she does not encourage them to relocate. “In Chicago [with affordable rents] you can find amazing studio space. To have the space to work is invaluable,” said Pope. She added that, “Chicago is hungry for a shift.”
RSVP Gallery in Bucktown is helping to pave that way. Part high-end boutique, part art gallery, RSVP offers visitors more than a shopping experience. A highly-curated and very “cool” selection of luxury items like a 3.1 Philip Lim rabbit fur iPad case in “absinthe green” or a hoodie with a print inspired by engines and cables by London-based designer Christopher Kane set the tone for the unique space. Whether it’s your taste or not, nearly everything at RSVP is a conversation starter. “We need places like this,” said Pope, “places that blur the lines between art, fashion, and lifestyle. The more places we have like this, the more people will choose to stay.”
Ikram Goldman, owner of the luxury boutique in River North that bears her name and Chicago’s doyenne of fashion, is another great supporter of Chicago’s art scene. When Goldman, in 2011, moved her boutique to its new location on East Huron—a literal beacon for fashion with its bright red facade—she incorporated an art gallery. Showing work by Chicago artists, the exhibitions rotate throughout the year. Past exhibitions featured work by graphic designer Jason Pickleman, and drew on similarities between the processes of fashion designers and of artists. About his exhibition, Typeballs, Pickleman said, “I love tearing apart letters and making new forms. I think the way I’m handling language is similar to the way some fashion designers, such as Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons, handle hems and seams—tearing them apart, cutting at odd angles and letting threads hang loose, all in an effort to create new images with new meanings.”
When at Ikram, as is the case at RSVP, you are not just shopping. You’re engaged in a discourse about visual culture (whether you’re aware of it or not.)
It is important to have people who support these art forms, and who are working in Chicago. Nick Cave, whose celebrated Soundsuits blur the lines of fashion, sculpture, and performance, is a fantastic example of Chicago’s ability to push the envelop in the field. A professor at SAIC, Cave has lived and worked in Chicago since 1990. Additionally, the Chicago-based design duo “Creatures of the Wind” was a 2011 Finalist for CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award. The pair continues to work in Chicago, and it is their success (both of the designers, Shane Gabier and Chris Peters, are SAIC graduates) as well as Cave’s success and presence that will encourage other designers to work from Chicago as well.
One of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits displayed with a video installation at the Jack Shainman Gallery booth at the 2013 Armory Show in New York. Photo by CGN
“You still have designers working in Chicago,” said Pope, “who are thinking ‘am I designing for an East Coast market? A West Coast market? Or a European market?’” In other words, the “Chicago market,” while it does exist to some degree, is not large enough to fully support fashion designers. “We need manufacturing companies that support [designers]. Once you build that, they will come,” Goldman said in a recent interview in Michigan Avenue.
In the past decade, several resources have popped up that indicate an interest in making Chicago a greater home for fashion. These include Chicago’s Fashion’s Night Out, October Fashion Focus, and The Chicago Fashion Incubator (CFI). CFI, located in Macy’s on State Street, offers designers workshop space and resources to help them develop necessary business skills. It was established as part of an initiative by Mayor Richard M. Daley to keep graduates from Chicago’s design schools—Columbia College, Illinois Institute of Art, and SAIC, which ranks among the world’s top fashion programs—in the city. These events and programs are small steps, but they are important ones.
Like Chicago’s unique pop-up and apartment galleries, some of Chicago’s most powerful fashion forces are occurring off the grid. “The availability and attention to street-style blogs,” said Pope “has transformed the streets into a runway or potential editorial at any moment. [Chicago youth] are recognizing the power of fashion as a language, as an expression, as a way to be an individual and they are owning it! They are chargingforward with their own brands using online printing and production companies.”
SAIC students experiment with street fashion
It is a risk both for designers and to production companies to stay or operate in Chicago, but Chicago is not a city that typically shies away from risk. Nowhere is that more prevalent this year than in the spectacular exhibition, Inspiring Beauty, at the Chicago History Museum (currently on view through January 2014.) The exhibition presents more than 60 designer garments, by luminaries such as Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Emanuel Ungara, and Missoni—from the Ebony Fashion Fair, a 50 year tradition spearheaded by Eunice Johnson of Chicago-based Johnson Publishing. The traveling fashion shows brought high-fashion, drama, theatricality, and fantasy to communities that did not have access to these styles, but that quickly came to embrace them.
“Eunice Johnson understood the importance and power of fashion as a means to express oneself, to express an identity,” said Joy Bivins, Exhibition Curator. “The Fair was more than just a fashion show, it was a conversation between the runway and the people in the audience. It was an opportunity to show off the fashion on the runway, and for the audience to show off their style.” Keeping in the Fair’s tradition, that sounds a lot like what we can expect to see at Millennium Park this May.
Chicago’s fashion world, like its art world, is not New York, L.A. or Paris. As it turns out, it’s just fine being itself.
SAIC’s 2013 fashion show runs four times on Friday, May 3. Tickets and details at www.saicfashion.org
For more information on the other resources mentioned here, please visit: