CHICAGO — Fashion is the latest budget cut made by the fiscally challenged City of Chicago.
Starting this year, the city will no longer sponsor Fashion Focus Chicago, its version of fashion week, which marked its 10-year anniversary last October.
The budget cuts also included the elimination of Tonya Gross’ position as program director for fashion and culinary, creative arts and industries at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, or DCASE. Her last day on the job was Dec. 31.
Gross, a milliner by trade with a background in financial services, assumed the director role in September 2013 and was instrumental in promoting local fashion and supporting independent designers — she introduced a fashion component at Taste of Chicago, via the Made in Chicago selling market, developed the fashion programming for the inaugural Lake FX Summit and Expo and brokered a visit by representatives of the Council of Fashion Designers of America during the last rendition of Fashion Focus Chicago.
Since 2005, Gross was the third person to serve as the city’s fashion director following Kiran Advani and Melissa Gamble.
“I can only speculate why it was that Fashion Focus Chicago and my position were eliminated. It was shocking to hear. The city needs to get healthy and budget cuts need to happen,” Gross said. “The city and its agency were acting as a stopgap where agency organizations weren’t necessarily available to support fashion entrepreneurs. We were creating these platforms because they didn’t exist in an organized way. For me, in the end, I don’t know that it’s the city’s responsibility to do that.”
Gross said she thinks there’s still a great opportunity in the city to help support fashion projects via economic development, job training and funding.
“Assistance is still needed. I don’t think it’s needed within the city agency,” she said. “We need to continue to develop relationships with national organizations outside of Chicago such as the CFDA for Chicago entrepreneurs. I’m not ready to make any announcements, but I’m actively pursuing that and I’m excited to talk about what’s next. I don’t know what that entity is going to look like. I’ve had the full support of DCASE. I ran into the mayor and the mayor said, ‘Stay in contact and tell me what you need.’ No one wanted to see it go. There’s too much we’ve done together.”
In 2015, the city’s fashion programming budget, with the majority of funds spent on Fashion Week, totaled $71,500. This was in addition to salary and benefits totaling about $120,000.
For 2013 and 2014, the city budgeted $142,000 for fashion programming—in sharp contrast to its pre-recession budget, which averaged about $500,000 a year from 2005 to 2010.
Richard Dayhoff, a Chicago-based fashion designer since 1984 and member of the Mayor’s Fashion Council, whose mission is to create opportunities for the fashion designers who work in the city, said the problem with Fashion Focus is that it lacks consistency.
“You have a new person in this [fashion director] role every year-and-a-half to two years, so what happens is Fashion Focus becomes ‘Fashion Unfocused,’” Dayhoff said. “Each person comes in with a new idea and the fashion week changes. Chicago has to be an event that’s the same event every year and then people will go to it. If you had been to Taste of Chicago and knew about it, and then the next year, it was Taste of Asia, you would be like, ‘Come on. What are you doing?’”
At a time when the city’s financial troubles have raised comparisons to bankrupt Detroit, the industry wasn’t surprised at the decision to stop funding fashion.
“The city has financial problems, something has to be cut,” designer Maria Pinto said. “It wasn’t a sizable amount to be impactful so what’s the point? It would be lovely if there were benefactors in this city who would support the fashion industry, but it’s not there.”
The city declined to comment on the budget cuts, but Jamey Lundblad, director of marketing and communications at DCASE, released this statement:
“DCASE will not produce fashion events in 2016, but we will continue to support the industry in other ways — including (but not limited to) the city’s workforce development grant to The Apparel Industry Board Inc. and DCASE programs such as the Lake FX Summit and Expo for creatives and entrepreneurs. Additionally, we will convene the Mayor’s Fashion Council and other key stakeholders to determine how we can best support the fashion community with our remaining resources in 2016.”