By  on October 25, 2007

CHICAGO — As the fashion world debates the lack of African-American models, Chicago bucked the trend, showcasing both minority models and fashion designers in its recent fashion week finale.

Some 17 African-American models took to the runway along with assorted Latino, Asian and Caucasian models and designers during "The Allure of Couture" final show, which ended the third annual Fashion Focus 2007, a six-day festival that ran Oct. 9-14.

"With all the controversy, it's very timely to show what minorities can do if given the chance," said Barbara Samuels, the fashion show's producer, who is African-American. "Some people feel African-Americans and other minorities don't have 'it' and I think we proved we did."

The spotlight on diversity was one feature of the week, which included industry panels, neighborhood shopping tours, student fashion installations and five Millennium Park runway shows averaging 900-person crowds. The week was aimed at elevating the city's fashion scene and making good on Mayor Richard Daley's commitment to support and promote the local industry.

Stephen Kolb, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, who came into town to kick off the week, along with designer Doo-Ri Chung, liked what he saw.

"In terms of originality, talent and freshness of ideas, there was an abundance of that," said Kolb, who participated in a panel about how to grow a fashion business with James Seuss, chief executive officer of Cole Haan, and Andrew Rosen, president of Theory.

Kolb added that other cities should take note of Chicago's developing fashion Web site,, which includes a listing of local designers and boutiques and is planned to include an industry directory of job postings, manufacturers, stylists and photographers.

Kolb also was impressed with the luncheon honoring Chung hosted by the owners of Jake boutique, Lance Lawson and Jim Wetzel, at the Newberry Library on Oct. 9. "Don't ever underestimate the consumer in Chicago," he said of the 100-plus crowd. "It's a good lesson to designers everywhere. These were very stylish women ready and willing to shop."

The pair of retailers attended the week's first runway show, Gen Art's Fresh Faces in Fashion, which included women's wear designers Dieter Kirkwood and Bennett Cousins, who met as fashion design students at Columbia College in Chicago and formed Dieter Bennet, a line carried by Jake.However, Lawson and Wetzel noticed a key segment missing from the week's fashion shows — local buyers. Tricia Tunstall from Bucktown's p.45, Lindsey Boland of Wicker Park's Habit and Heiji Choy-Black of Wicker Park's Hejfina were spotted at the shows, but other retailers seemed few and far between.

And as the city continues its plan to push Chicago fashion ahead, the week's collective events presented a more condensed, comprehensive view of local talent and made logistical improvements over last year's fashion festival. That said, missteps prevented some runway shows from achieving the level of sophistication they sought. Here's a capsule view of the week's main events:

- Highlights of the fifth-annual Gen Art show included an installation by luxury handbag designer Lisa Kingsley and her collection of exotic skin ostrich, python and cobra bags as well as the neatly tailored women's wear of Dieter Bennet and purchase-worthy pieces from Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and Moire Conroy, both 2006 School of the Art Institute Chicago grads.

- World Fashion Chicago on Oct. 10, where Mayor Daley and his wife Maggie took front-row seats. The show was designed to correlate with Chicago's 27 sister cities and featured fashion from some local designers like Anna Song and Basia Frossard with ties to such regions; ensembles from local retailers such as Bottega Contessa representing different cities, as well as a few international designers such as Dragana Ognjevovic from Serbia, who attended the show along with the country's first lady of Serbia Tatjana Tadic, and Abla Majali, who designs clothing for Queen Noor and Queen Rania of Jordan.

- Chicago is...Red Hot!: The eighth-annual runway show Oct. 11 boasted a roster of almost 50 women's wear, children's and accessory designers. Standouts included the modern, yet feminine apparel by Agga B, a twentysomething designer whose pieces are carried at Gamma Player, one of Wicker Park's priciest boutiques, and the attention-grabbing large leather handbags of Diego Rocha, a designer selling his bags for $700 to $800 at Macy's on State Street.

- Macy's Designers of Chicago: The show, which was the highlight of last year's Fashion Focus, spotlighted some of the city's best designers, including School of the Art Institute Chicago grad Lara Miller and SAIC faculty member Katrin Schnabl, Michelle Tan, Orlando Espinoza, Cyndi Chan, Melanie Nicole and Pamela Vanderlinde. Standout pieces included a white cotton trench and high stand-up collared dress by Schnabl and a floaty black-and-white polkadot gown by Chan. The event highlighted many of the week's strongest fashions either available at Macy's on State Street or through trunk shows.- The Allure of Couture: It was anything but dull, from the strange opening segment involving a model changing gowns on the runway with stylists using palms to shield her body to the vibrant evening gowns of veteran designer James de Colón, the asymmetric elements of Calvin Tran and the final grouping including 2006 SAIC grad Kristina Sparks, who crafted a jacket made of athletic shoes complete with hanging shoestrings. She also made pants from sports jerseys and a full-skirted gown with shoestrings.

In all, city officials deemed the week a success.

"We are seeing results," Mayor Daley said, noting Chicago is now home to more than 250 fashion designers. "While this is generating a lot of excitement, it is also increasing sales of merchandise by local designers and creating jobs."

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