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Melissa Gamble, Chicago’s director of fashion arts and events, admits some people raised an eyebrow or worse when she assumed the new salaried city post in 2006.
“People smirked when I told them my title,” said Gamble, a former lawyer and fashion/marketing graduate. “They would question Chicago and fashion, and say that those two don’t go together.”
Today, Gamble said she is received differently. “Now they say, ‘I’ve heard of that. I’ve been to a boutique in Chicago. I’ve heard of a designer from Chicago.’ People are becoming more aware of the city overall.”
Chicago, in general, seems to be grabbing more of the spotlight with restaurants and chefs winning national acclaim, Chicagoan Sen. Barack Obama fighting for the Democratic nomination for president and the city campaigning for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Meanwhile, Gamble and a 20-member fashion council appointed in 2006 by Mayor Richard M. Daley continue to grow Chicago’s annual fashion week, expand the scope of its fashion Web site, chicagofashionresource.com, and provide young designers with access to buyers and workspace in the form of a fashion incubator at Macy’s on State Street.
And as Chicago enjoys its moment in the spotlight, retail activity remains surprisingly strong, given the economy and a recently approved sales tax hike.
“Everyone is talking about a recession, but it has not affected luxury retailers from wanting to position themselves in Chicago,” said Jeffrey Shapack, president of M Development in Chicago, which is developing and leasing real estate in some of the city’s hottest retail areas including the Gold Coast’s Oak Street, Bucktown’s Damen Avenue and Lincoln Park’s Armitage Avenue.
Along Oak Street, a side street to Michigan Avenue housing brands such as Hermès, Harry Winston and Yves Saint Laurent, retailers wait years for the right location. Now, new projects, such as the redevelopment of the Esquire Theater and Barneys New York doubling its square footage in a new flagship, are creating numerous retail opportunities the likes of which haven’t been seen on the street in over a decade.
“It’s like the gold rush,” said Shapack, who corresponds monthly with 30 to 40 luxury retailers seeking initial or additional retail space in Chicago. “If they [retailers] don’t position themselves now it may be years before space becomes available.
“They’re recognizing how much wealth is in Chicago and how much wholesale business they already do here,” he added. “Chicago provides them opportunity for growth.”
Lorraine Adney, who represented Marc Jacobs in opening a boutique this year on Damen Avenue, confirms the increased interest in Chicago.
“There’s a huge amount of activity in Chicago,” said Adney, vice president of the McDevitt Co. “There is a huge amount of retailers looking in the city, looking in every neighborhood, and they’re looking at the highest rents we’ve seen in a long time.”
Although many design houses used to scoff at leasing space beyond the Magnificent Mile, Oak Street or maybe Lincoln Park’s Armitage Avenue, the city’s retail landscape has changed. More national and international retailers are selecting seemingly off-the-beaten-path locations in increasingly affluent neighborhoods that in recent years have enjoyed a surge in restaurants and residential and retail development.
Designers, meanwhile, also recognize Chicago as an important stop for personal appearances and fashion shows.
“Chicago is a fashion town and it shows,” said Zac Posen, who noted his sales in Chicago are among the strongest in the country, second only to New York. Posen, who plans a trip to the Windy City April 9 and 10 for a fashion show, party and Saks Fifth Avenue trunk show, said his Chicago customers possess a sophisticated eye and confidence illustrated in both their appearance and homes. “Her shoe collection rivals her art collection,” Posen joked about his Windy City clients.
SALES TAX HIKE, STORE CLOSINGS
But not all signs are rosy for retail or fashion.
This July, Chicago’s sales tax will rise to 10.25 percent, from 9 percent, making it one of the highest in the country. David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said the measure will undoubtedly hurt the local retail community.
“This new sales tax increase will have an impact,” he said. “I have a great fear that we will have hit the tipping point and that customers will make their decisions based on tax.”
Vite said consumers may choose to shop at stores outside Chicago and encompassing Cook County or just buy online.
Even Adney admits she may rethink paying a 10 percent-plus tax on a pricy designer bag.
Vite takes issue with the Cook County Board’s timing. To approve a sales tax hike at a time when the federal government is talking about economic stimulus measures is ridiculous, he said.
At the same time, some local retailers are already feeling the pinch due to Chicago’s wicked winter and changes in the economy.
In the city’s trendy Bucktown neighborhood, three women’s specialty stores, Jade, Raizy and Language, announced store closings. Along Wells Street, where Nicole Miller relocated her Chicago store in 2007, Josephine, an upscale footwear destination, plans to close in April. And along Armitage Avenue, Active Endeavors shut down its bilevel store just doors down from Intermix, which opened last year.
Overall, Chicago has fared better than some other areas in the residential real estate slowdown and related retail fallout.
“There’s still a considerable amount of retail growth in the city that’s not happening in other parts of the country,” Gamble said. “We’re doing pretty well and I think we’ll weather it [the economic downturn] well.”
Adney agreed. “Chicago hasn’t been hit as hard as other parts of the country with the housing crisis,” she said. “Texas, Florida and California are really getting nailed. People in Chicago seem…[somewhat] optimistic.”