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In 2006, Mayor Richard Daley announced that he was putting more money and clout behind the city’s fragmented fashion scene. After all, he had done the same for the restaurant business, and it had bloomed. Boosting fashion would enliven the city’s 2016 Olympic bid, too. So he appointed a new city fashion director and named an advisory fashion council.
National press took note—with one eyebrow raised. In June 2006, Time asked, “Can Chicago become a fashion capital?” noting that our town is known more for its frigid winters, fine architecture, and hapless Cubs than high fashion. Undeterred, the city moved forward and, from virtually nothing, produced a week of runway shows that September in Millennium Park. For at least one night, during a Macy’s event that spotlighted some of the city’s most respected designers, the energy and optimism were palpable. “There was a certain excitement,” says the designer Orlando Espinoza, a former cochair of the Mayor’s Fashion Council. “Before, everyone was in their own world. The walls were no longer there.”
Flash-forward two years. As the black-clad, stiletto-enhanced crowd filed out of the last show of fashion week this past fall, the rainy evening seemed almost anticlimactic. After the finale—an eco-friendly segment from Organik Revolution, the night’s highlight—members of the local fashion press seemed to look at one another somewhat nonplused, as if to say, “Okay, I guess that was it.”
For despite posting record attendance (on average, 1,200 people per show) and improving its sophistication and scope (adding industry seminars, an all-student fashion show, and shopping events), the city’s fashion week, which is called Fashion Focus, has become, more than anything, a lively social event. As organizers spend the next few months plotting the initiative’s future, designers Chicago spoke to are calling for more industry oomph and ways to stimulate commerce. “I think we need to re-evaluate Fashion Focus, period,” said Nick Cave, a member of the fashion council and former chairman of the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute.
Espinoza, who did not participate in Fashion Focus in 2008 and has since stepped down from his position on the advisory council, agrees that Chicago’s fashion week needs a makeover. “You need to see progress or it just becomes the same thing year after year,” he says. He adds that he and other designers were disappointed by the lack of buyers, high-end clients, and press. “There was no business that transpired,” he says. “The press was more intrigued by who was attending than who was showing.”
In all fairness, organizers are providing a showcase for designers, most of whom would have no other forum, and have helped unite and elevate an underdog scene. “People in the industry are taking us more seriously,” says Melissa Gamble, the city’s director for fashion arts and events. Hearing her title, “people used to say, ‘You’re doing what?’ with a smirk on their face,” she says. “I don’t encounter that at all now. Before, people didn’t realize there was fashion here.” She adds that a few new designers, such as Kate Coxworth, the name behind the tailored-shirt line Kate Boggiano, have moved to the city based on its growing reputation.
Photography: Courtesy of Fashion Focus