By  on July 17, 2008

Designer Kate Coxworth admits her New York fashion friends thought she was crazy.
Why would a twentysomething technical designer for Polo Ralph Lauren leave New York to launch a line of tailored women’s shirts in Chicago?

“I thought I had a better chance of making it here,” explained Coxworth, a Chicago native who had read about Mayor Richard Daley launching a series of fashion-related initiatives in 2006.

She was impressed by the fact that Daley created a Mayor’s Fashion Advisory Council, appointed a city director for fashion arts and events and sponsored an annual Chicago Fashion Week. “It sounded like everyone here was trying to help,” she said.

So in November 2006, Coxworth packed up and headed home. Not only did she start her line of shirts called Kate Boggiano — the surname belonging to her paternal grandmother — in the basement of her Chicago home, she found herself taking advantage of one of the mayor’s fashion initiatives.

Coxworth became one of six local designers chosen to participate in the first Chicago Fashion Incubator housed at Macy’s on State Street, where she shares office space and has access to buyers.

Officially launching her wholesale business in April, Coxworth said her Web site generated 52 percent of her first-year sales. Clients can order custom and made-to-measure shirts through the site, and sign up for her blog.

The remaining 48 percent of sales has come through retail events and shows such as Gen Art’s Shop CHICago and the One of a Kind Show and Sale at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

But the designer’s foray into Chicago’s fashion scene presented its fair share of obstacles.

“It was really tough in the beginning,” recalled Coxworth, who designs shirts wholesaling from $58 for a basic button-down to $158 for a silk tunic. “I was royally taken to the cleaners.”

She lost money hiring an Alabama pattern maker who never delivered and has learned to adjust to the city’s particular way of doing business.

In New York, manufacturers possess a sense of urgency, she said, whereas “here you have to check back with the factories to make sure they’re on top of it. You have to really want it because here, you’re pushing the bus.”

And unlike New York’s centralized fashion district, in Chicago, businesses are spread out. Coxworth, for instance, has her sewing done in suburban Cicero and travels to the city’s North Side to obtain buttons.

“It’s like going from [New York’s] Upper West Side to the Lower East Side on a bus in rush hour,” she said. “It’s not the easiest to maneuver.”

Not that Coxworth, whose shirts are carried locally at Floradora and Gray Boutique in both Chicago and suburban Winnetka, is complaining.

“The pond is definitely a lot smaller here,” said Coxworth, who, during the next three years, would like to expand her business to 60 doors with wholesale and retail sales of $1 million. “To get this much attention from people who can help you and want to help you is unlike any other place in the country.”

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