By  on October 9, 2008

Jason Gallen, vice president of retail for Original Penguin, is one of the lucky ones.

His 2,300-square-foot store at the corner of Delaware and Rush streets in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood has been seemingly exempt from any retail letdown during this economic crisis.

In fact, his Chicago store, which opened this summer, has become the sportswear company’s best-performing location, exceeding sales expectations by 25 percent each month.

“It’s our number-one store, out of the six stores we have open,” said Gallen. The company also operates locations in New York, Miami and Dallas.

And while Gallen’s story may be rare because the local retail climate is undeniably difficult, more retailers are eyeing Chicago as an untapped market, entering the city with gusto and at times scouting and opening more than one location. For example:

• Looking to make the most of property available in these tough times, Vancouver-based Aritzia, which caters to affluent 15- to 35-year-old women seeking designer labels, opened its largest U.S. location at 4,300 square feet in the city’s Water Tower Place this summer, followed by a second, smaller location in Northbrook Court this fall.

• DNA 2050, a multibrand denim-based concept for women and men, also launched a Windy City location on Lincoln Park’s Halsted Street this summer while continuing to scout a second downtown site.

• Club Monaco, meanwhile, renovated its Michigan Avenue store, added a Damen Avenue address to its three Chicagoland stores this summer and spied space along State Street for a possible fifth store.

• Fast-fashion retailer Zara came to the area with its first store at the Old Orchard shopping center in suburban Skokie, and with the Spanish company looking to venture within city limits with potential sites on Michigan Avenue and at State and Randolph Streets as part of the Block 37 project.

• Los Angeles-based premium denim brand Joe’s Jeans chose Damen Avenue to launch its first retail concept, unveiling its modern, nearly 2,000-square-foot shop last week.

For Iraklis Karabassis, whose company IK Retail Group owns DNA 2050, skimping in Chicago, troubled economy or not, is short-sighted.

Karabassis said his aim was to look for two store locations in each of his target cities — Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington. “The economy is stressful all over the U.S. at the moment, but time will tell that we have made the correct decisions. We plan to stick to our expansion plan.”

Melissa Gamble, the city’s director of fashion arts and events, said Chicago remains one of the most valuable retail marketplaces. “It’s a matter of retailers surviving through a tough economy,” she said. “There’s just no way around it — it’s rough out there.”

And while the mad rush to grab retail space along trendy Damen Avenue may be slowing, State Street is enjoying a resurgence of activity. Rents are up and vacancies are down along the historic thoroughfare that once emptied when the estimated daily 650,000 workers in Chicago’s Loop returned home each night.

Now, nightlife thrives with a number of theaters housing such productions as “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys,” and many of the once-vacant office buildings were replaced with residential developments or are being utilized by colleges offering classes in the area, said Ty Tabing, executive director of the Chicago Loop Alliance. Construction of nearby Millennium Park and progress on the much-maligned Block 37 project, one of the most prominent vacant lots in the country, has further boosted interest in the area, which is home to Nordstrom Rack, Loehmann’s, Macy’s and H&M, he noted.

In the meantime, Ulta is slated to open its largest — and its first urban — location in a three-level, 18,000-square-foot space along State Street this month while Crocs and Aerosoles recently unveiled stores nearby, Tabing said.

Tabing predicts about 20 new retailers will bow along State Street or in the East Loop neighborhood by summer of 2009.

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