STROLLING THROUGH THE PARK
LOOKING FOR A NEW HIP DESTINATION? CHECK OUT BUCKTOWN/WICKER PARK.
Byline: Rebecca Kleinman
Even with the Magnificent Mile, Lincoln Park and River North, Chicago has room for another red-hot retail center: an area northwest of the city known as Bucktown/Wicker Park.
Although hipper neighborhoods, like the Ukranian hamlet and East Village, thrive even farther northwest, neither has established itself as a major retail destination. But trendy restaurants and lounges, as well as some key, influential retailers, have put Bucktown/Wicker Park on the map, along with lifting the area’s real estate prices. Its current development status strikes a balance between slightly more commercial ventures and offbeat, local flavor. Armitage Avenue, one of its main thoroughfares, houses retailers like Cynthia Rowley and Fitigues, while Damen, Milwaukee and North Avenues cater to one-of-a-kind boutiques, galleries and furniture shops. Yet gentrification hasn’t reached a definitive enough level to attract a chain like the Gap.
“Mainstream retailers would have a hard time going in, but it’s great for entrepreneurs who can roll with the feeling of the neighborhood, who understand it,” said Neil Stern, a partner at McMillan Doolittle, a Chicago-based retail analyst firm.
Whether the area will lose its hotspot status quickly isn’t likely, according to Stern. He reports that a thriving urban center and multiple, in-town residential neighborhoods ensure that numerous shopping areas can thrive.
“Chicago retail has been historically strong,” he said.
For a better idea of what Bucktown/Wicker Park has to offer, here are two pioneer retailers who help define the neighborhood and its cutting-edge status.
p. 45 (formerly phoebe 45)
In the fall of 1997, p.45 owners Tricia Tunstall and Jessica Darrow were taking a risk when they signed the lease for a 2,000-square-foot space on Damen Avenue.
“We were scared because there was nothing over here. We just lucked out because the area was ready to pop,” said Tunstall.
But that wasn’t all that was about to hit big. So was the young designer market, an untapped niche in Chicago’s retail community. All-around good timing made much of their store’s success “inevitable.”
Today, p. 45 is known as the city’s definitive source for young designer lines.
“Our initial principle has never changed: We want to sell clothing and accessories from new designers who push the envelope and to give our customers things that [aren’t usually] found here,” said Tunstall. The store had sales last year of just over $1 million.
Some of those include New York-based lines Lotta, Colovos, Kwiyun and Beth Bowley. The store also showcases local talent, like Amy Zoller, who designed an exclusive holiday collection using white stretch twill, Ultraleather, a synthetic leather and fur.
Other important lines are People Used to Dream of the Future and Souchi for sweaters, and Wink, a recent addition that’s known for casual, funky items, including low-waisted berry corduroys and a sweater with ribbed sleeves and an off-the-shoulder neckline.
They’re also excited about carrying a shoe line called Graye, which made its debut last month.
Success has given them a competitive edge. Now up-and-coming designers seek them out, usually by sending line sheets far in advance of trade shows. Both agree that this position makes it all the more difficult to say “no” to a promising designer. With the exception of the occasional risk or window item, most of the buying comes down to an instinct for wearable fashion.
“We can’t just like it anymore. We’ve got to be able to put one of our regular customers in it,” said Tunstall.
Instinct led to a 50 percent sales increase in 1999, along with more time to focus on expansion. A Web site, shop45.com, is up and running, with perks like free shipping and a program where customers can describe what they want, and then see the items in that category.
“When the street season is slow in January, that’s when we’ll focus on the Web site and on the international market,” said Darrow, who handles the business side of things, while Tunstall is constantly on the hunt for the next hot trend or up-and-coming designer.
They also hope to expand with another location by the end of the year and are exploring various possibilities, including sites in other cities.
Obi Nwazota is a busy guy — stylist, architect, designer, marketing director, boutique retailer and a leading citizen of Bucktown/Wicker Park. His influence is omnipresent, from the modern restaurant Okno, which he designed, to his latest dining venture, Gaijin Hotel, in which he is also a partner, to his ultra-hip boutique, Softcore.
“I just got so sick of hearing people talk about cool places or cool things that they went to or bought in other cities. Why couldn’t Chicago have something on the same level?” said Nwazota, who was also one of nine architects commissioned to design a model for the Chicago Contemporary Museum of Art’s exhibit “Material Evidence: Chicago Architecture at 2000.”
In the neighborhood, he found the perfect match to create his vision.
“This place has always had a history for being on the edge in fashion, design and the arts. It was important to align ourselves with those qualities,” he said.
Thanks to his efforts, Chicago’s jet set doesn’t have to travel nearly as much to find the latest looks in streetwear. Some popular lines are Fornarina, Tripp, Storm of London, Miss Sixty, Milk Fed and Sylvia Autrano.
And even with Chicago’s cutting-edge shoe stores, there’s still a demand for more lines like the Spanish line Luchini, Canada’s Gravis, and Italians Impulse, Diesel and Miss Sixty.
Nwazota and his partner, Suenman Lam, also use the store as a testing ground for their line Octopussy, which they founded in 1998.
“Opening a store was a good excuse to get off the road,” he said.
Including both men’s and women’s fashions, the line ranges from classic to futuristic styles. One bestseller is a colored and printed leather group in trendy silhouettes such as a reversible, sleeveless shell with a cowlneck. Another reversible version comes in black fur on one side, with a Chinese brocade on the other.
Lam serves as head designer and buyer, while Nwazota oversees all of the marketing and business aspects, which range from styling shoots for Chicago magazine to working on the store’s Web site, Sampld.com.
Their next step is opening a second location in the Midwest. Nwazota doesn’t see the move as a risk, reporting that they get a lot of customers from Kansas.
“We have a strong belief in the Midwest. These are the places that need our items because the people living there already have access to information about our products. So, they’re aware, but the market hasn’t caught up with them yet,” he said.
He cites Chicago as an example, recalling that no one thoughwlat they’d survive. Now, a year later, sales have quadrupled to $375,000.