By  on January 28, 2008

Call it the Marc effect.

Not unlike when Marc Jacobs set up shop on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and along Bleecker Street in New York, the designer is now drawing other national and international retailers to a new location — Chicago's Damen Avenue, a busy neighborhood street previously dominated by dozens of women's specialty stores, casual cafes and upscale condos.

"Once Marc by Marc Jacobs signed on, it was an absolute snowball effect," said Lorraine Adney, vice president of the McDevitt Co., who represented Marc Jacobs in brokering the deal early last year. "[The neighborhood] has definitely grown up really fast."

Since Marc Jacobs revealed plans to lease space at 1714 North Damen Avenue in the heart of Chicago's trendy Bucktown neighborhood, BCBG, Nanette Lepore and Cynthia Rowley each opened boutiques late last year.

Earlier this month, Marc by Marc Jacobs opened a 4,000-square-foot space, and several more international retailers soon will follow suit, many of which are leasing space just steps away. LeSportsac plans to open a 1,600-square-foot boutique at 1727 North Damen Avenue in the same building as Club Monaco's future 3,500-square-foot space, across the street from Marc by Marc Jacobs. Both stores are set to open this summer.

Jill Stuart also looks to open an almost 2,000-square-foot freestanding boutique at 1239 North Damen in the fall. A spokesperson from Vancouver-based activewear retailer Lululemon Athletica Inc. said the company is in final negotiations to open a store along North Damen Avenue this summer, and sources said Intermix has signed a lease to open within blocks of Marc by Marc Jacobs, but the retailer declined comment.

"Bucktown is what SoHo used to be," said Lindsay Carmer, director of retail for LeSportsac, whose interest in the neighborhood spiked when she heard Marc by Marc Jacobs was opening and read about the artsy affluent enclave. She even called Adney to scout space for LeSportsac. "The fashion-forward lifestyle of the neighborhood is a good fit for us," she noted.

John Mehas, president and chief executive officer of Club Monaco, also liked the neighborhood's distinctive vibe.

"Bucktown is a great area of Chicago that really has developed significantly over recent years," he said. "There is great architecture and art, it has a great downtown energy and the customer there is urban and professional."Adney said she will be curious to see how the neighborhood's new and existing retail will fare in today's economically shaky times.

"It's an interesting time for this neighborhood to take off the way it has," she said. "It appears to be a tough time for some retailers. This will show the depth of the market."

But Jacqueline Hayes, who brokered the BCBG and Jill Stuart deals and has seen rents rise from $6 a square foot 15 years ago to up to $70 a square foot today, said she thinks the neighborhood can support the influx of national and international retail.

"There's a good amount of wealth here," she said. "There's a tremendous amount of disposable income in the neighborhood and this really adds to its glamour."

Bucktown continues to provide a viable alternative for national retailers scouting for sites in Chicago, she said. "Up until now, they saw two options: Michigan Avenue and Oak Street, or Armitage Avenue and Halsted Street."

Designer Cynthia Rowley, who grew up in suburban Barrington and operates a Windy City store along Armitage Avenue, said she began looking for space in Bucktown last fall, opening her second Chicago store at 1653 North Damen Avenue in December.

"I would hang out and shop here," said Rowley, who said she looks for areas that seem somewhat like a small town in the city. "It's a whole community here. It's charming and likeable. People are really hanging out in the neighborhood."

The 700-square-foot space includes her ready-to-wear collection, accessories and dinnerware, and features a range of price points, from books and sparkling tights for $30 and $45, respectively, to a fur coat for $1,450. A Rowley spokeswoman said sales are exceeding expectations.

Meanwhile, Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs, said his connection with Bucktown was immediate.

"I have an emotional feeling about certain areas," he said. "I fell in love with the neighborhood. I'd hang out here and see girls wearing our clothes. I knew this is the area."

And Duffy said he is accustomed to a flock of retail followers. "It always happens," he said citing similar phenomena in Los Angeles and in New York. "At Bleecker Street, we were the only ones when we opened there," he said, "but we're a destination for people."

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