By  on November 17, 2009

CHICAGO — What a difference a year makes.

Chicago’s eight-day Fashion Focus event last year packed a bit of star power, launched by Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, who sat front row alongside wife Ashlee Simpson-Wentz. It drew record crowds and featured some of the area’s best-known designers, including Maria Pinto, and five runway shows.

This year’s pared-down, celebrity-free affair appeared more subdued in comparison, but it may have been more productive for some designers and visitors.

Organizers reduced the number of headlining multiple-designer runway shows to three, encouraging more designers to stage their own events and conducting more shopping promotions, trunk shows and fashion installations during the day.

“I received a lot of positive feedback on the condensed calendar,” said Melissa Gamble, the city’s director of fashion arts and events, noting runway shows averaged 900 people, down slightly from last year. “People enjoyed having a selection of events over a long weekend and the ability to go from one thing to another.”

The shift also allowed designers to express more of their own vision and personality. A highlight of the fashion fest, held from Oct. 22 to 25, occurred when School of the Art Institute graduate Abigail Glaum-Lathbury showed why she won the Fashion Group International of Chicago’s Rising Star Award and has been named one of the city’s best new designers by local press.

In her intimate presentation at Prairie Productions, Glaum-Lathbury played to her strengths, showing interesting, well-crafted, conceptual pieces bridging the gap between art and fashion. With wholesale prices ranging from $100 for a cotton top to around $175 for embroidered jackets or dresses, the collection — inspired by electricity — appeared on models stopping and turning under overhead spotlights. Many wore the same design in different shade gradations from black and gray to light gray, allowing the audience to fully absorb the details.

“I didn’t want to do a standard runway show in a tent,” Glaum-Lathbury said. “I’m disinterested in that. If you have the ability to not do a standard format, why would you?”

Fashion Focus provides the perfect testing ground, she said. “Chicago’s fashion week is different than other places. It’s just smaller and newer. There’s a lot of room to play here because of that. I personally find it very exciting. I hear a lot about it [being in Chicago] as a detriment. But there’s more freedom, and I can afford to do a show here. There’s not like a scene here. There’s not a formula. I don’t like being pigeonholed into something, and that’s not here and I find that wonderful.”

Glaum-Lathbury’s event followed Macy’s Presents the Designers of Chicago, which started Fashion Focus on Oct. 22. The Macy’s show at Millennium Park featured some better-known Chicago lines, including Lara Miller and Blake Standard, which are sold at Macy’s on State Street, as well as emerging designers such as Nora Del Busto and Jess Audey, who participate in the Chicago Fashion Incubator at Macy’s.

Top design students from the School of the Art Institute, Columbia College, The Illinois Institute of Art and The International Academy of Design & Technology took to the stage for “Dress Code” on Oct. 23 — and on the next night, Gen Art’s Fresh Faces in Fashion drew about 1,000 people to Millennium Park, representing the best-attended Fashion Focus event.

Highlights included a vibrant red silk gown by Red Doll, designed by Tatyana Merenyuk, which bore similarities to the white Bottega Veneta dress donned by “Gossip Girl” star Leighton Meester at the 2009 Emmys. Meanwhile, Frei Designs and Mountains of the Moon garnered attention at Vert Couture, an eco-friendly fashion show, produced by Conscious Planet Media, which closed fashion week.



Seeking to draw more visitors from outside the city, organizers publicized hotel packages, solicited more media and buyers and, perhaps most importantly, overlapped with Stylemax, the Midwest’s largest women’s apparel market.

Results were mixed. Although the number of bloggers attending Fashion Focus grew, most traditional media remained local. Roughly a dozen buyers attended the shows, a handful of hotel packages were used and there was little crossover from Stylemax to Fashion Focus.

“Not enough people knew about it at the Mart,” said Michelle Vella, owner of 212 Showroom NYC, who attended Stylemax. Vella, who recommended organizers provide a shuttle bus from the market to fashion events, did hear about Fashion Focus and attended three events.

“Developing the trade aspect is hard,” Gamble said. “We’ve known that every year. We’ll look at that question: ‘Does it make sense to develop a trade aspect or to develop other resources and continue to keep it a consumer event?’”

Overall, however, Vella was struck by the local work showcased.

“I was really impressed,” she said. “The talent is unbelievable.”

Vella said she hopes to strike deals with two Chicago area businesses, 5p1t, an apparel line featured at the Macy’s show and sold at the State Street store, and a jewelry line from Julie Lui of Tzen Boutique in suburban Northbrook. “That’s the first time I’ve felt good about taking on a jewelry collection,” Vella said.

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