CHICAGO — If there was any debate over the hippest neighborhood frequented by fashionable young Chicagoans, MTV settled it.
When MTV chose the trendy Bucktown/Wicker Park area to film “Real World” last summer, it made the already popular neighborhood even hotter — so hot, that some neighborhood residents protested outside the “Real World” house, claiming MTV was exploiting the area’s artsy existence.
Nevertheless, all this exposure promises to generate renewed interest in the area’s cutting-edge boutiques and hangouts, especially among the teenage and twentysomething crowd.
Tricia Tunstall, a co-owner of p.45, a boutique just around the corner from the “Real World” house, said her teenage and young-20s clientele is increasing and predicts the surge will grow if her business or merchandise is featured on the MTV show.
“We have a reputation of having the latest styles,” she said of p.45, which is known for showcasing young designers. “We’re seen as a funky store in a funky neighborhood.”
Cara, one of the “Real World” girls, shopped at p.45 last summer with a film crew in tow. She purchased a pair of $110 Seven jeans — there is now a 50-person waiting list for the style — and a $30 tank top.
Most teen shoppers at p.45 follow Cara’s lead, purchasing denim and T-shirts for everyday wear and also buying dresses and accessories for special occasions.
“We just had four 16-year-old girls in here shopping for the same dance,” Tunstall said. “Customers who we’ve had for four years are now bringing their daughters in.”
One girl purchased a $398 black, above-the-knee Catherine Malandrino dress with a scooped neck and floral trim around the hem. Tunstall predicted other dresses by the same designer in black, white, red and slate blue will sell well for upcoming proms.
“Our younger customers are kind of like miniversions of our older customers,” Tunstall said. “They’re very stylish. They read all the magazines. They’re right there [in terms of their look].”
Some college customers use the p.45 Web site during the school year and then come into the store during their breaks. They often buy comfortable, casual items, such as a $105 pair of Susana Monaco drawstring Supplex nylon and Lycra spandex pants in red or black and a $78 Veronica M. stretch polyester and rayon wrap dress.
“They look at lines that aren’t that expensive,” Tunstall said. “They’re looking for stylish trends at a price point they can afford.”
One example would be the New York-based vintage-look line, Whatever Comes Around Goes Around, which features a $78 embroidered peasant top, she said. The peasant/bohemian look, including peasant tops and skirts as well as embroidery, should continue to be popular into summer, she added.
“I think the teen market is really going to pick up on that,” she said.
White, pinstripes and denim also will be in demand, as will Seven jeans, Tunstall said.
“We can’t keep them in the store,” she said. “The fit is what keeps people coming in. They’re stylish and they look great on a person with hips or on one who’s [shape is] straight.”
The store carries more than one Seven style (when they’re in stock), including a traditional five-pocket design and other looks without back pockets.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better model,” Tunstall said of “Real World’s” Cara. “[The show] will give us more exposure. We already have more of that age group coming in, and I definitely see that market increasing.”
Part of that teen-early-20s market is already hanging out around the corner from p.45 at the Local Grind, a casual neighborhood coffee shop. With beat-up comfy couches and occasional entertainment at night, the popular hangout attracted “Real World” participants almost every day.
“They were here quite a bit,” manager Mollie Sullivan said. “Some even performed during an open-mike night before they left.”
Although Sullivan said most customers are age 20 or older, the average age could drop if the shop’s featured on the “Real World.”
In the meantime, Sullivan and other employees enjoy the daily variety of customers and fashion. “We see everything from $4 vintage clothes to Prada,” she said.
They also see a lot of tight novelty T-shirts, glitter, angled skirts, two-tone bowling shoes, pointed-toe boots, rolled-up jeans and Velcro detailing.
Less than a block away, Piece, a seven-month-old New England-style pizza place and microbrewery, has also encountered an increase in teen traffic thanks to “Real World.”
“It’s been really fortunate for us to open across the street [from the “Real World” house],” Piece manager Tripp Hartigan said.
So it should be no surprise that “Real World” participants and its crew were regular customers. Cara and housemate Tonya even worked at the restaurant for a few weeks.
“We had a lot of high school girls coming in,” said Hartigan, noting that people heard the “Real World” crowd worked there and lived across the street. “Some high school kids would come during the day and watch the house.”
The popular nightlife spot attracted a strong crowd when it opened and once they employed “Real World” workers (Cara as a hostess and Tonya as a server), the buzz got even stronger.
Now, Piece offers half-price pizza specials during “Real World” episodes on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Central Time. A word of warning: Piece gets crowded quickly on weekend nights. Patrons should plan to arrive early, as the wait after 8 p.m. has been known to top 90 minutes.
Attire, similar to Local Grind, only more mainstream, runs the gamut from thrift store and punk to hockey shirts and Kate Spade prep. Men in denim and fleece pullovers pass women in halters and clingy pants. Denim and black leather are the fabrics of choice, perfect for moving between the lower-level lounge area and the more casual main room, which is topped with a vaulted, exposed-beam ceiling with a long-running skylight.
Come Tuesday night, everyone is tuned into MTV, hoping for free publicity.
Hartigan said, “It made the city look cool.”