THE NEW GUARD
A CROP OF NEW DESIGNERS IS TAKING THE WINDY CITY BY STORM WITH THEIR FUNKY FASHIONS.
Byline: Melissa Knopper
Back to the Future: Cynthia Ashby
Chicago designer Cynthia Ashby lives and works in a vine-covered studio in a blue-collar neighborhood on the city’s west side. Inside the dimly lit space, ghost-like wire dress forms keep her company as she cuts paper patterns. A black machine covered with knobs and dials sits behind her in the corner. It’s from an old neon sign shop, Ashby explained. “I think it looks like a time machine.”
In a way, Ashby herself is a bit of time machine: She draws inspiration from the past. Flipping through old books, she soaks up images of Victorian women in petticoats or aproned workers from the 1920s. “I’m interested in American history,” she said. “I like anything from the Civil War, the Revolutionary War and people from the frontier.” Working with hand-dyed linen, wool and leather, she creates modern pieces with nostalgic origins. For example, the spring 2002 line takes cues from a set of antique postcards Ashby found. Fascinated with the old-fashioned handwriting on one of the cards, she decided to run it around the waist of a pale blue coat. The embroidered words, which say, “I wish you would answer my letter soon, L.C.,” give the garment a mysterious, poetic quality. Ashby’s pieces have vintage touches, such as dropped waists, delicate rows of buttons and wire-rimmed hems that ruffle and flair like a hoop skirt. But her unstructured designs also have a modern, Asian look to them. For fall 2001, she added asymmetrical closures to a gray reversible pinstriped coat. When the coat is open, the dagger-shaped metal closures clang like wind chimes.
The clothes appeal to all of the senses, reflecting Ashby’s background as a sound and performance-art major at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. To pay her way through school, Ashby sewed custom orders out of her tiny studio apartment at the tender age of 18. Her big break came when the owner of Asinamali, a boutique in Evanston, noticed her designs at an art fair and gave Ashby her first retail order in 1992. She started a wholesale line in 1997. Since then, her business has steadily grown. Now, stores across the country, from Los Angeles and Seattle to the Detroit suburbs and Charleston, S.C., carry Ashby’s clothing line. Locally, they can be found at Isis in Highland Park. And today, at 29, her sales average between $200,000 and $350,000 per year. Isis owner Sue Gantz particularly loves Ashby’s coats. “They have great lines, they’re comfortable and very flattering,” she said. Wholesale prices range from $70 for a pair of linen pants to $250 for a leather coat.
In the future, Ashby would like to stage more performance art events to promote her line. She also dreams of someday moving back to her native Los Angeles to design costumes for Hollywood stars. But for now, she’s enjoying her time in Chicago, a city she’s grown to love.
Dressed in a ruffled blue linen coat layered over a long skirt, Ashby, who has a mass of brown curls and sparkling blue eyes, says she has a lot in common with the women who buy her designs. “A lot of my retail customers are artists or creative people,” she said, adding that most are 30 and older. “They have to have enough confidence to wear my clothes because they are not mainstream.”
Kate Jacobson Sbai el Idrissi has only been in the design business for two years, but she went straight to the top from the beginning. Her first retail account was Adelaide, a high-end boutique along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Owner Adelaide Herman said she was immediately attracted to Kate’s distinctive graphic knits. “They were different,” Herman said. “And she uses such wonderful shapes.” One of her most popular designs, for example, is a sweater covered with old-fashioned man-in-the moon faces.
The dramatic, whimsical images Kate weaves into her designs reflect her previous background as a costume designer for a traveling Shakespeare troupe. Kate, 40, traces her passion for knits to her childhood, when she used to create tube tops and dresses for her Barbie dolls with a toy knitting machine. Since she grew up on a farm in Iowa, Kate also had ready access to wool producers of the four-legged variety: sheep. A beloved aunt showed her how to spin wool into yarn and dye it by hand with berries and walnut husks. For many years, after she earned her theater degree and worked with several traveling shows, knitting was only a hobby. Later, she came back to it, but this time out of necessity. To support her young son, Kate searched for a job with dependable hours and found one at a knitting factory. She spent eight hours a day churning out knit shoulder pads. It may not have satisfied her creative urges, but she learned how to use sophisticated knitting machines — a skill that would pay off when she later moved from Iowa to Chicago.
Two years ago, Kate decided to pursue her interest in fashion design full time. Knits have always appealed to her more than traditional woven fabric, she says. Mostly, it’s because she loves the sensual texture of yarn, but also because she can vary the colors and patterns. “I wanted to make a fabric that has my handprint on it,” she said. “The garment is almost secondary to the fact that I actually produced a fabric that has its own character.”
At first, she worked with a lot of black and white. But after visiting her husband’s native country, Morocco, Kate began experimenting with vivid, exotic colors.
Kate named her line Shibuy Hada, after a Japanese philosophy of life similar to the concept of yin and yang. Her designs usually have a bit of both — somber, mellow tones mixed with vibrant colors and playful touches. For example, her collection includes a long sweater coat in a subdued plum and charcoal pattern with elegant Edwardian lapels. But she also has a bright purple sweater coat edged with wild red yarn fringe.
Retail prices for her knits range from $120 for a baby-kid mohair sweater to $1,200 for an intricately patterned wool sweater coat. Kate rents booth space during market days at the Chicago Apparel Center, selling to resortwear shops and boutiques across the Midwest. She also takes custom orders. Most of her customers are either wealthy women or fellow designers and artists who save up because they love the quality and character in her designs.
When she’s not out selling, Kate wanders Chicago — and the world — with her camera. Inspiration can come from anywhere: a Hindu sculpture, a wrought-iron doorway, ivy leaves or patterns in the Moroccan sand. Back at her home studio in ethnic Albany Park, she scans them into a computer, then feeds the picture to her high tech knitting machine to reproduce the image in woven swatches of yarn.
Knits will always be Kate’s true passion, and sweaters are her bread and butter. But lately, she has been flirting with a promising and unusual niche. “I’m thinking about all kinds of socks,” she said. “As weird and wild as I can make them.”
That Tan-Do Spirit
Michelle Tan made her first fashion design in 7th grade. It was a purple rayon top, she recalls, with a woven lattice back and a fake flower on the pocket. She proudly wore it to school one day, but was dismayed when a classmate questioned her sense of style. “That was the day I decided I was going to become a designer. I wanted to prove him wrong,” Tan said. “I still keep that top in my workroom to remind me where I’m going.”
After drawing a crowd of 400 people to her latest show at an industrial plant on Chicago’s Goose Island, and attracting attention from buyers at Marshall Field’s, it’s clear Tan, 25, is going places. The 1999 graduate of the Chicago-based International Academy of Design and Technology is one of the hottest young designers in town, according to Susan Glick, fashion director of the Chicago Apparel Center.
“It’s my favorite line I’m carrying for fall. I just thought the colors and textures were fabulous,” said Kate Prange, owner of the trendy Lincoln Park boutique Shop Girl. Prange snapped up a pile of her knits and shirting. She is particularly fond of Tan’s trademark: convertible clothing. For example, she makes a tank top with detachable straps that can turn into a handbag, as well as sweaters with sleeves and cowlnecks that can be removed to create a sleeveless tanks.
“That utilitarian effect is definitely a great selling tool,” Prange said. “It’s perfect for Chicago, because you never know what the weather’s going to be like.” She feels Tan’s designs are just right for her young fashion-forward clientele. Tan says she always has the customer in mind when she designs these versatile items that transition easily from day to evening. In her spring 2002 collection, for example, she has a simple black cotton dress that a woman could wear to work under a jacket. After 5 p.m., however, she can reach for hidden zippers to reveal some cleavage, a sexy front slit and an open back. “I know people are so busy,” Tan said. “You don’t want to go home and change, but you want to look different.”
Like a true artist, Tan keeps her eyes open for sources of inspiration. “I can get inspired by anything — a piece of art, people on the street or even a piece of garbage,” she said. In fact, her spring collection was inspired by a visit to the Goose Island recycling plant where she held her recent show. The new line, “Pretty Punk,” is full of hard edges and toughness. She decorates waists, bustlines and belts with studded metal snaps, safety-pins and exposed zippers, then balances them with feminine ruffles, pleats and wispy chiffon. For the fabrics, Tan chose an industrial-strength waterproof denim. She also made a pink organza cocktail dress from recycled paper fabric with peekaboo laser cuts. Wholesale prices range from $89 for a cotton blouse to $289 for the pink cocktail dress.
For now, Tan is focused on making a name for herself in Chicago. While she hopes Chicago will always be home base, Tan plans to pursue stores in New York and Los Angeles in the near future.
Three years ago, Jen Velard was searching for a creative way to spend her free time. Then she received a refurbished sewing machine from a relative, and started creating funky fabric bags for herself and friends. The hobby became all-consuming.
“I remember sitting home on Friday nights, not wanting to go out, because I was working on a bag,” Velard recalled. “My boyfriend didn’t understand that!”
Although she had a dependable job as a corporate interior designer, Velard was craving more independence and creativity. On a whim, she decided to sell some of her handbags at an art fair near her Lincoln Park neighborhood. Desperate to finish on time, she scooped up an armful of fabric samples and some prototype bags and ran out the door. It turned out to be a wonderful marketing strategy.
At the art fair, Velard’s booth was buzzing with women caught up in the fun of personalizing a purse to match a favorite outfit. Velard and friend Robin Quinn (who had agreed to help with the art fair) couldn’t believe their luck. On that first day, they took in $2,200’s worth of orders, and they had found a lucrative niche.
As word of mouth spread, so did Velard’s customer base. Quinn — who was a trade-show event planner — hit on the idea of hosting purse parties at a client’s home or work. Soon, Velard, 28, and Quinn, 27, quit their jobs to focus full-time on their new handbag business, which Velard named 1154 Lill, after her cozy home studio.
After only two years in business, Velard and Quinn have seen some explosive growth. Their sales have climbed from $70,000 to $450,000. Until recently, customers could buy 1154 Lill bags in such Chicago boutiques as Hubba Hubba, Mary Mackintosh and Ivan Noel salon. Hubba Hubba manager Jennifer Santo says her customers love the 1154 Lill bags because they are so versatile and unique. “We always like to give local artists a chance,” she said.
But this summer, Velard and Quinn took a break from wholesale to launch their first retail space. Their new showroom, at 2523 Halsted Street, has the same bright color scheme as Velard’s home studio. Creative touches abound. They found a gold baroque mirror at the Salvation Army, weathered window frames rescued from the alley serve as display racks. A row of artificial daisies add to the hip, girly vibe. Dramatic curtains hide the workshop in back.
A key to 1154 Lill’s success is their constantly changing repertoire, Velard explained. She only buys three to 10 yards of each fabric and never makes more than 10 of any style. “People come here to find something different and unique,” she said. “When you give them that creative outlet, it’s amazing what they come up with.”
Retail prices range from $24 for Amy, a small coin purse, to $88 for Ally, a basic handbag, and $112 for Paula, a roomy diaper bag. Custom orders take two weeks.
Less than a month after Velard and Quinn ventured into retail, they already are talking about the future. Their next goal? “We want to replicate this workshop experience at another location,” Velard said — perhaps in the suburbs. “But we don’t want to get too big and corporate, because that would go against the reason why we did this in the first place.”