WHAT’S HOT NOW: CHICAGO
Byline: Elaine Glusac
CHICAGO — Wrigleyville, on the North Side of Chicago, attracts an eclectic crowd — gay, straight, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. It also gets enough teens and young adults whose hair is dyed pink, green or other hues from the punk palette to support a considerable collection of shops that reflect their individual styles.
Vintage and military looks, inexpensive sportswear and dresses and, most important, labels generally unavailable at department stores are a big draw.
The intersection of Belmont Avenue and Clark Street is the heart of the district, home to a Dunkin’ Donuts the locals term “Punkin’ Donuts” for the neo-punks who stake it out after dark. Clark Street runs diagonally north for over half a mile to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs and namesake of the neighborhood.
Restaurants and shops alternate along Clark, where retail rents have increased roughly 22 percent in the past six years, ranging from $22 to $36 per square foot, according to retailers and realtors.
“There are no gang-bangers around here,” said Sara Zakarian, a 15-year-old high school student who, like many teens interviewed, travels by bus to the area several times each week to hang out and shop.
Directly behind the infamous Dunkin’ Donuts lies a clothing store called The Alley, 858 West Belmont, a mecca for the noir-ish alternative crowd and open 365 days a year.
“As opposed to a market where fashion changes each season, teen trends can go on for years,” said owner Mark Thomas, who cites used workwear — such as gas station jackets — as an example. “We got five years out of it and it dropped dead as a doornail 90 days ago.”
But the used pea coats, military flight jackets and gargoyle-printed clothes are still going strong at the 20,000-square-foot shop, which does an annual volume of $2.5 million on price tags that range from $5 for T-shirts to $150 for leather police jackets.
At Belmont and Clark since 1986, The Alley has been in business for more than 20 years. Previously, it was in the nearby Lakeview neighborhood. It currently anchors what Thomas advertises as “the alternative shopping complex,” a collection of neighboring shops he owns that are devoted to such items as T-shirts, sex accessories, plaster gargoyles and beads.
Of his customers, Thomas estimated 35 to 40 percent are female. At age 13, he says, they buy work clothes, but by 18, they like trendy fashions.
According to manager Joe Luciano, current hot looks include baby Ts, polyester shirts and anything PVC vinyl or mohair from lines like Lip Service, Serious, Mondorama and Kickwear, as well as The Alley’s own MobTown line of T-shirts and jewelry.
“It’s a place to hang out,” said Lucia McCafrey, 15, who visits The Alley about twice a month. “I buy incense if I have no money for the day.”
Her sister, Dali, 13, said band T-shirts, which retail for $5 to $10, are popular at the store, along with wallet chains, hats and silver rings for about $15. “I go up to $10,” she said. “I’m not going to waste my money like that.”
Retailers Ellen Freedman and her daughter Julie Schneider brought their tastes together to bridge the generation gap at Hubba-Hubba, 3388 North Clark, a shop that is popular with other mother-daughter teams shopping for dances and proms.
Hubba-Hubba dresses “are for kids who want to look different at their dance than the department store [shoppers],” said Freedman.
Until recently, baby doll and slip dresses were popular with juniors, but the duo said the looks are more eclectic now, with bias cuts still strong in satin and velvet. Among their popular lines are French Design Group, Basement Clothing, Cameo and Mica.
Most kids come in, shop on their own and hold an item until they can bring in their mothers, said Freedman.
“Occasionally, they have a credit card, but it’s not the norm,” added Schneider. And for really special occasions, price may be no object. Hubba-Hubba recently sold a crochet-fringed dress for $300 to a woman for her daughter’s prom. “There’s no rules,” said Freedman. “They will spend for special occasions.”
The shop started out eight years ago with vintage wear, but now devotes half its inventory to new merchandise.
“People love mixing the two,”said Schneider. Last summer the shop, which generates under $1 million annually, doubled to 2,000 square feet by opening the basement “Parlour,” which carries similar merchandise. The duo reported selling to customers who come from a radius of about 100 miles on weekends.
“Customers dress this way not just to go out clubbing,” said Lora Chasteen, owner of Medusa’s Circle, 3268 North Clark, which features cutting-edge clothes for shoppers from 18 into their 20s.
But since clubs are out, according to a Medusa’s saleswoman (“they’re sweaty and expensive”), the looks become popular in other venues.
Chasteen and her husband, Pier Zambrano, who does body-piercing out of the shop, studied fashion design in Miami before opening a store in South Beach three years ago. But demand was limited to summer merchandise so the pair decided to move.
Chicago won the nod over New York.
“Chicago is a happy medium versus New York, which is glutted,” said Chasteen. “We made no mistakes about [choosing] the neighborhood.”
The most popular price point in the store is between $40 and $50, said Chasteen. Outside that, she said she sells everything from $36 polyester print shirts by XOXO to $96 rickrack-trimmed satin dresses by Jeannie Nitro to $120 rubber trenchcoats by SodaBlu to $195 brocade jackets with fake fur trim by Tripp.
“I can’t sell things that are too expensive,” said Chasteen, who estimates first-year volume at about $250,000. “They would go to the mall if it was too plain or basic.”
Little Sister Designs
Luke Cho opened Little Sister Designs at 2659 North Clark, just south of Wrigleyville, last summer as an adjunct to his rave-focused men’s shop, Untitled. Catering to 13-to-23-year-olds, Cho brought in metallic jeans and polyester dresses for the club crowd. But the target market wanted casual, so today Cho is skewing his merchandise to the athletic-inspired sportswear popular with young girls.
“I don’t see a future for satin and vinyl,” said Cho. “It’s going more casual. Those clothes are not multifunctional.”
He finds sports uniform-inspired jerseys and Ts more versatile.
“These are very price-conscious goods,” said Cho, who carries nothing over $100 but sells plenty of baby Ts for $15 and Gladys in Wonderland fake fur jackets for $53. He projects first-year sales at $250,000 for the 900-square-foot shop.
Little Sister’s best-selling lines include Poot, Living Doll, Adidas and X-girl designed by Sonic Youth star Kim Gordon. Jeans are either very wide like Girly Things’ $60 model or slim and stretch like X-girl’s $35 pair. “Accessories have been strong for us,” said Cho, who sells stuffed animal backpacks as well as Astroturf models.
Cho said the teen market can be a fickle one and that competition from the likes of Urban Outfitters is considerable.
“That’s why we pick lines where we don’t compete with other retailers,” said Cho, who has an exclusive in the area with several of his lines such as X-girl and Poot.
“It’s totally the underground look,” said shopper Shari Fabsik, 19. “It’s got trendy stuff that’s hard to find anywhere else.”
There are many vintage shops in Wrigleyville, but one of the best in matching high style with low prices is Strange Cargo, 3448 North Clark, an 11-year-old shop recently purchased by brothers Jay and Sheldon Schwartz.
The 2,000-square-foot shop specializes in clothing from the Fifties through the Seventies, especially never-worn items like Levi’s peg-leg trousers from the Sixties.
“People buy seven, eight at a time,” said Jay Schwarz, who sells them for $20 to $25. Overalls by Key are also popular at $31 each.
Strange Cargo sells more shoes than anything else. Men’s platforms in women’s sizes from the Seventies are especially popular at about $50, as are Seventies-vintage Canvas All-Stars for $40.
Currently anything leopard print is hot.
“Leather is big. You can always sell leather,” said Jay Schwartz, who offers a wide range of leather jackets from $10 to $200. A few racks of new clothes contain PJLA rayon floral dresses and Jonden stretch shirts all in the $35-to-$45 range.
“The average sale is $20 to $30. That’s our customer,” said Jay Schwartz, who declined to provide volume figures. He also noted that the gentrification of the neighborhood means more customers come from farther away in the city and that 30 percent are out-of-town tourists.