A CLOSE KNIT GROUP
WHEN IT COMES TO QUALITY OF KNITTING AND QUALITY OF LIFE, KNITWEAR DESIGNERS SAY CHICAGO IS THEIR KIND OF TOWN.
Byline: Elaine Glusac
CHICAGO — While ready-to-wear designers in regions outside New York continually feel the pull East, local knitwear designers are quite at home here. In fact, they are flourishing in a solid community of knitting firms with national distribution.
From knit sportswear designers like Maria Rodriguez to hand-knitters like Robin Richman, Chicago’s knitwear community is rich and varied and snugly settled in the Midwest, where sweater-appropriate temperatures, lower cost of living, a ready labor pool and easy communication welcome knitwear businesses, according to their principals.
Part of the rise in knitwear can be attributed to demand, according to Maria Rodriguez.
“There’s been a resurgence in knitwear,” said the designer, who supervises 20 knitters in her factory on the city’s North Side. “Dressing is not structured anymore, and knits are comfortable. They flatter the silhouette. The alternative to the snappy little suit is the fabulous item sweater.”
Rodriguez got her start 15 years ago as a weaver and sold her first shawl within a week of buying a loom. Now she has 11 deliveries a year and sales topping $2 million annually.
“What set us apart was that we were making our own fabric and then taking the same yarns and knitting sweaters with them,” said Rodriguez.
Space-dyes are her hallmark, but “we have a little cleaner look than we have had in the past,” she said. Fall looks from dresses to jackets are heavy on texture, using such fabrics as chenille. Colors include camel, black, white and chocolate. Designed for career or socially active women, the pieces wholesale between $60 and $150, selling to Nordstrom, Marshall Field’s and smaller speciality stores.
Though Rodriguez sources yarns on the East Coast, she sees no benefit in moving her business and lauds the work force available locally.
“I am very happy that there are important knitters coming out of Chicago,” she said. “Chicago has always been a stepsister to New York or Los Angeles, and when you see Chicago knitters being represented everywhere, it’s a positive for our town.”
Susan Hahn, creator of Su-Zen, was one of the first knitwear designers to make her home here. A native of Santa Rosa, Calif., she came to Chicago after leaving New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology to attend the School of the Art Institute. She opened her rtw and knitwear company in 1984 and a store at 2241 North Clybourn.
Her intricate, oversized sweaters comprise about one-third of her collection, according to operations manager Jamie LaPorta, who reps the line in New York at five shows each year. The average wholesale price is $200 for a sweater, and the company racks up nearly $2 million annually.
From a 9,000-square-foot factory on the North Side, Su-Zen knitters weave the multicolored designs that are the line’s hallmark. Buyers select the body color and fiber style; Hahn chooses colors to coordinate with the design, thus retaining creative control of the specialty garments.
A ready market for higher-priced sweaters surprised knitwear designer Denise Allen Robinson of DAR, a sweater resource. Even though she had been teaching knitwear at the School of the Art Institute here since 1981, Robinson nevertheless thought she couldn’t make enough money doing the kind of very special sweaters she liked to do.
But five years ago, a retailer friend asked her to make a few designs for her shop, and DAR was launched.
Robinson started her business at age 36, after having pursued fashion-related careers as a showroom representative, a visual merchandiser for Neiman Marcus and production supervisor for an rtw company.
Today, she has 23 employees working with her in a 7,000-square-foot loft on the North Side. With 400 boutique accounts nationwide, the company sells $1.2 million annually.
Her romantic sweaters, in chenille, mohair, linen or wool, often include chenille crocheted rosettes, antique buttons and scalloped hems priced at $80 to $195. Feminine shapes include flared cardigans and two-ply swing pullovers, and jumpers are the latest line addition.
She said TV stylists have sought out DAR’s unique sweaters for shows like “Friends” and “Caroline in the City.”
Similar television exposure has also earned Norma & Hyla, another home-grown label, a Hollywood following.
The five-year-old company, run by sisters Norma Sabesin Zeiger and Hyla Sabesin Finn, makes sweetly detailed sweaters and dresses that often include knit appliques, ribbon and fabric trim and playful buttons.
When they bought an existing knitwear company and went solo, Zeiger provided the knitting interest and Finn the fashion experience. The result has been volume topping $1 million annually and a specialty store account list that includes Henri Bendel and Nordstrom.
The business is housed in a 3,000-square-foot factory on the North Side and employs 25, and the partners plan to double their space by moving in May.
For fall, Norma & Hyla offers chenille, cotton and silk groups, many with perfume-bottle motifs, flower-shaped wooden buttons and ceramic zipper pulls.
A few years ago, the sisters launched nh2, priced lower — $70 to $90 — to supplement their signature line, which wholesales for $90 to $150.
Though they travel frequently to New York to attend shows, the pair like the noncompetitive atmosphere of Chicago for designing.
“What’s nice about Chicago is everyone does his or her own thing,” said Finn. “We all have different styles.”
Diane Falanga’s style grew up in the past few years. Formerly a public relations executive, she launched BLAKE, which stands for Babies Love Adorable Knit Extras, two years ago as a children’s resource following the birth of her son. In the couple of seasons, she has expanded to women’s knit dresses and sweaters.
“I got into women’s because children’s wear customers kept asking for the same styles for them,” said Falanga. “There’s a lot of translation between children’s and women’s.”
In current color combinations with small, playful touches, BLAKE manages to appeal to two generations. With sales stores including Barneys New York, Dayton Hudson and Fitigues, the company grossed $400,000 last year. Prices range from $75 to $120.
The hand-loomed and hand-finished sweaters are produced primarily by contractors. Styles include patch-pocket jumpers, shaped turtlenecks and boxy, cropped scoopneck pullovers in custom color combinations. Fabrics are mainly cotton and chenille.
“Fall deviates even more from children’s to give women’s a leg to stand on alone,” said Falanga.
Even hand-knitters have made a go of wholesaling sweaters.
Designer Robin Richman and her staff of knitters put in about 15 hours per sweater at her Pilsen studio. They produce one of the quirkiest collections in town. It includes front-corseted tunics, bust-line cropped cardigans and belted jumpers retailing for $240 to $400.
Acting as her own sales rep at New York shows, Richman sells nearly $300,000 annually to 160 accounts. Curbing her volume, she said, “is a preference. I want to have a life. I love the concept of doing the collection. Shipping and production is hard.”
At the same time, designing is easier in Chicago.
“I can live nicely here. I have a car and a country house. I can’t do that in New York.”
Sue Peterson, designer of Sue P. Knits, senses a trend to knitting in the region.
“I don’t know if it’s a Midwest thing, but this area does seem to be deluged with knitwear people and sources seem to be here for people who knit,” she said.
Working from a North Side studio, Peterson produces a line of beautifully detailed knits, including accordion-pleated cardigans, drawstring-waist vests and ribbed pullovers. Fabrics range from mohair to cotton, and production is through contractors.
“I take basic sportswear and change it so many ways with texture or different yarns,” said Peterson. “Details give the sweaters their individuality.”
In business full-time for five years, Peterson sold $200,000 last year in sweaters that wholesale for $125 to $165. Though she attends shows in New York to get feedback, she said, “There’s not enough benefit to consider moving there. Everything seems more expensive.”
Knitwear designer Vicki Cell did consider a New York move. A graduate of the School of the Art Institute, she was offered a job with Nicole Miller on Seventh Avenue a few years ago. But family ties drew her back to Chicago, where she uses contractors to produce her growing line of sweaters in romantic but restrained styles.
Henri Bendel picked up the line for several seasons, and Cell’s sales now approach $50,000. For fall, she will offer corset and ruffled styles in earthy tones. Prices range from $100 to $150.
Cell is considering using a Hong Kong factory to produce her line.
In this age of easy communication, she said, “I don’t think it matters where you are. Anything is accessible if you want it to be.”
Where to find Chicago knitters:
Maria Rodriguez, showroom 1313, Chicago Apparel Mart
DAR, call 773-525-8080
Norma & Hyla, showroom 1312 (Michael & Sherree Rothstein)
Su-Zen, call Jamie LaPorta, 773-506-2903
Sue P. Knits, showroom 1331 (Susann Craig)
Robin Richman, call 312-226-1715
BLAKE, call Ingrid Knuti, 312-397-1360
Vicki Cell, call 847-940-7253