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Jim Wetzel (left) and Lance Lawson behind the glass of their new venture, space519, at 900 North Michigan Avenue
Taking the stage two years ago in a ballroom of the Peninsula Chicago, Jim Wetzel and Lance Lawson certainly looked the part of ground-breaking fashion retailers. Wetzel wore a Band of Outsiders windowpane blazer and a Martin Margiela shirt, and Lawson sported a Tim Hamilton scarf. The proud owners of the Jake boutiques, they were there to be honored as pacesetters by the Fashion Group International of Chicago. In four years, Wetzel and Lawson had turned Jake into one of the most fashion-forward operations in the city, courting and selling up-and-coming American designers, such as Phillip Lim and Doo-Ri Chung, and earning front-row seats at the New York shows. The partners—in business and in life—had made a national name for themselves and in the process defied conventional wisdom about Midwestern fashion sense.
Acknowledging the crowd of industry insiders gathered that June evening, the two thanked their employees, the city, and their customers—whose taste, they declared, was foolishly underestimated. “No one recognized the savvy that was here,” Lawson said. It should have been a triumphant moment in their rocketing careers. But secretly they were fighting back dread. As Wetzel got dressed that night, he had to remind himself, “You deserve this,” he recalls. Lawson remembers, “We’re going to be celebrated for being these visionaries. I was sick to my stomach.”
Unknown to all but the two partners, the three-store Jake empire was floundering. A few hours earlier, Wetzel and Lawson had learned that a potentially rescuing investment deal had fallen through. “We pulled it together,” Lawson says about the awards dinner and impromptu postparty celebration with employees at Le Colonial. The couple forced themselves to think, Let’s relish tonight. Tomorrow’s another day.
A year later, the secret was out. A New York Times story detailed unpaid bills and a string of designers furious with “the hot young retailer of the Midwest.” Still, Wetzel and Lawson used their reputation, charm, and will to keep the business afloat until they filed for bankruptcy last March, in the process accumulating unpaid bills with yet more up-and-coming designers. “In the end, they just flipped a switch,” says the Chicago designer Agga Raya, creator of the line Agga B. “They kind of showed their true colors.”
After the bankruptcy filing, Jake shuttered its operations within weeks. A retinue of designers remains unpaid and bitter, several feeling betrayed by men they thought were friends. Though Wetzel, 41, and Lawson, 39, have opened a new project, “a refined general store,” as they put it, called space519 at 900 North Michigan Avenue, that venture amounts to an abrupt reinvention for a partnership that once promised to take Chicago fashion in a new direction.
“It’s very unfortunate what happened to Jake,” says Melissa Gamble, Chicago’s former director of fashion, arts, and events, who left the post at the end of June. Not only were local designers damaged, but the city’s reputation took a hit as well. “It has the potential effect of negating all the good things that are happening here.”
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Photograph: Nathan Kirkman