By  on December 27, 2004

MILWAUKEE — Elissa Elser remembers driving two to six hours from here to the suburbs of Chicago or Detroit for trendy, brand-name shopping. A decade later, Elser, now the owner of Hers boutique in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward warehouse district, can’t keep designer Louis Verdad’s clothing in stock.

“I only ordered a few things when we opened last April, because I wasn’t sure if Milwaukee would understand the line,” she said of the designer’s linen jacket with princess sleeves and black cotton skirt with ivory petticoat, which sell for $250 and $300, respectively. “But they were the first to go.”

Hers boutique represents part of the city’s transition from its blue-collar roots, epitomized in that television ode to the 1950s, “Laverne and Shirley,” to a hip metropolis that has been receiving more attention for architect Santiago Calatrava’s $100 million addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum than the city’s breweries and cheesehead hats.

“It’s not so much about having a negative image as having no image now,” said Bret Mayborne, economic research director for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC). “We’re in the process of producing what that will be, like — today’s promotional materials start with the museum instead of a brewery.”

Milwaukee has been synonymous with an industrious spirit since its origins as an Indian settlement. The city’s name is derived from an Indian term for “gathering place,” and in the 19th century European immigrants developed it into a bustling trade region. The city claimed four major breweries in its heyday, and its economy helped build strong ethnic neighborhoods, ornate architecture, and a thriving cultural and entertainment scene. 

Milwaukee’s manufacturing jobs sector, about 17 percent of the city’s employment picture in 2003, according to the MMAC, rates higher than the national average of 11.2 percent for U.S. metropolitan areas. Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Briggs & Stratton, a producer of small gasoline engines, still serve as pillars of Milwaukee manufacturing. But much like the rest of the nation, there’s a shift toward service-based companies, such as Kohl’s Department Stores, headquartered in the suburb of Menomonee Falls, Wis., and Northwestern Mutual, a Milwaukee-based insurance and financial services provider.

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