At home in Wicker Park in an Ann Demeulemeester dress
For the designer and entrepreneur Soo Choi, talking about her identity vis-à-vis her wardrobe feels like old times. When she was a child, she and her older sister, Sang, spent hours pouring through catalogs, dissecting the looks. Just a year apart, Soo says that she and Sang “wanted to be separate entities,” and clothing was the way they distinguished themselves. “I was the tom- boy,” Soo recalls. “I didn’t pick up a dress for years because my sister looked perfect in little dresses.”
Soo’s deep-seated love of detail led her to Belgian designs, where quirky, cerebral touches rule. In her Wicker Park loft, she takes me to the basement; there her ward- robe is hidden behind smart sliding doors. Holding up a Tim Van Steenbergen pleated jacket that looks like a hybrid of a Victorian riding coat and a blue-collar work shirt, Soo shows me the bits of pretty black lace sewn like angel’s wings around the inside tag. “He even puts these amazing details on the inside, where no one can see them,” Soo marvels. “That’s what makes clothing a conversation between you and the world.”
A Gryson bag (above left), vintage briefcase, and Loeffler Randall peep-toe pumps
The daughter of South Korean parents who placed “an importance on putting yourself together,” Soo channeled her love of fashion into a design degree at Columbia College Chicago. She then moved to Antwerp, where she cut patterns for the designer Tim Van Steenbergen, “a hard-working, wonderful soul” with whom she formed a close relationship. The hours were grueling, but she was creatively energized and spent her evenings making jewelry. When she returned to Chicago, she began selling her work—multilayered necklaces strung with chains and beads—to stores like Hejfina. She also wowed audiences in 2007 with her sophisticated fashion collection for Gen Art in Chicago.
Soo stresses that she is a careful shopper. (“You should cherish everything you buy,” she says.) In addition to a few special items from Blake, like the Ann Demeulemeester red dress that Soo bought for her mother’s 60th-birthday party, she scours vintage stores for timeless finds. Favorites include a fur-collared cashmere cardigan lined in tulle (“so beautifully made”), a fur hat, a rust-colored bag with silver studs, boy’s oxford shoes, and her prized Yves Saint Laurent skirt, found for two dollars at Village Thrift.
On the day of our interview, Soo wears a pair of vintage gold brocade heels from the Lake View vintage shop Yellow Jacket. “I do like to look feminine these days,” she admits. But whatever happened to her former tomboy spirit? To Soo, “the tomboy thing just became a love of structure, comfort, functionality, and how it fits.”
Comfort will come in handy. Soo recently opened the Little Branch Café, a stylish organic spot in the South Loop, a project she will work on as she continues designing in her spare time. “I want to get back to designing,” Soo says, “but when I’m ready.” The café is a joint venture with Sang, who moved back to Chicago after working as a photo editor in New York. “We’re each other’s inspiration now,” Soo says. “But we’re still good critics for each other, as well. We both know what looks great.”
Photography: Keith Claunch
Makeup: Eileen McNulty