Byline: Lisa Bertagnoli

Fashion retailing is a lot like interior design, except it takes less time.
That wisdom comes from Kate Prange, who in September left behind an eight-year career as a decorator to open Shop Girl, a specialty store in Chicago’s DePaul University area. Designing homes is a long process,” says Prange, “but the look on someone’s face when you finish is fabulous.” In retail, she says, one gets the same results, but in a few minutes. “People buy a great outfit and they’re so happy,” she said.
At the 1,000-square-foot store, Prange tries to keep customers happy with a selection of casual, office and eveningwear. Tahari, Trina Turk and Absolu are displayed along with up-and-coming designers: for example, The Wrights and Mary Adam, a New York designer of hand-made skirts and dresses. Jeans, a few coats, handbags and jewelry, bath-and-body items and a smattering of baby items round out the selection.
Prange says she’s careful to offer a variety of prices. Sweaters, piled up on a table in the middle of the store, include lower, moderate and high-end cashmere offerings. Similarly, her three maternity lines cover the same territory, with Chicago designer Amy Zoller, whose maternity line Prange offers exclusively, holding court at the high end.
“I don’t want to be a snobby store,” Prange explains. “I want people to feel comfortable, and I don’t want them to say “this store is really expensive.”
She’s right, considering the store isn’t located on one of Chicago’s main fashion strips. A resident of the Old Town neighborhood, Prange originally wanted a space there, but couldn’t find one. A friend then suggested Webster, a small, yet well-traveled street that cuts through the center of DePaul’s campus. “It’s more of a destination spot” than a store in the thick of a retail mix, Prange explained.
The store, a former production studio, is located next to John’s Place, a popular neighborhood restaurant. That makes for good marketing, since the restaurant often has a wait for brunch and customers can do a little window-shopping while they wait, Prange said.
Prange refurbished the space, including laying new floors and installing a tin ceiling. All told, the process took about $50,000 and five months.
Although she has one investor, Prange financed the build-out herself. The store is staffed by two full-time and eight part-time workers.
So far, Prange’s customers range in age from 25 to 45 and tend to come from the surrounding neighborhood. That explains the maternity lines: “It’s breederville around here,” says Prange, who has two young children of her own.
What these women are buying has left Prange puzzled about what direction the store should take. Before opening, she felt iffy enough about the store’s purpose to hire Jill Hart, a local retail consultant, to help edit merchandise and map the store’s future.
While Hart helped Prange parcel out the store, she couldn’t have prepared her for the vagaries of the buying public. “We’re not a T-shirt store, but we sell a lot of jeans,” Prange said. “We’re not a suit store,” even though Shop Girl does carry a healthy selection of suits.
“We don’t know our customer yet,” Prange added. “We don’t know us yet.”
Several pieces are proven hits with customers. Among them: pleather pants, a pair of $180 suede pants that Prange had to reorder three times, sweaters and T-shirts. Things Prange terms “super-expensive” tend not to fly out of the store.
For inspiration and ideas, Prange hits the road: London, Milan, Venice, South Beach, San Francisco, Los Angeles and, of course, New York were on her itinerary this past year. She says seeing how women dress in other countries helps her interpret the trends here.
For instance, while the pashmina trend here has cooled, in London, Prange saw women wearing pashminas not as wraps, but as scarves knotted around their necks. “It’s more functional that way,” she said, demonstrating with a scarf she pulls off an office shelf. She’s suggesting the style to women, and the items are selling.
A Midwesterner herself, Prange edits her merchandise for the somewhat conservative Chicago market. “We passed on HotPants, and I made a note to self: No halters,” said Prange, who claims that Chicago women insist on wearing foundation garments. “In New York and Los Angeles, nobody wears a bra,” she says. Holiday and resort dresses with lined halter tops are proving the exception.
Chicago women also aren’t as creative with handbags as she’d like. “My handbag sets me apart,” Prange said, lifting a patchwork leather carryall off the floor. Her customers don’t share her imagination, opting instead for classic styles in black or brown.
The pretty, but impractical handbags Shop Girl carries — for instance a constructed, polished leather black bag with a fuchsia lining by Un Apres-Midi de Chien, are purchased by men for their girlfriends, Prange said.
That so many people are visiting and buying has Prange dreaming of a second store. “I keep joking that our next store will be Shop Girl Aspen,” she said.
In the meantime, “Shop Girl Chicago” is rocking, she said. She expects first-year sales of about $700,000 and expected to finish 2000 in a better-than-break-even position. “We’re doing well, let’s put it that way,” Prange said.