Byline: Lisa Bertagnoli

Walk into Karin Berger’s showroom at the Apparel Center and of course you’ll notice the brightly colored summer, transition and fall fashions hanging around the room. The 3,100-square-foot showroom is done up city loft-style with painted concrete floors, track lighting and cream slipcovered chairs and loveseats. Contemporary collections hold court on one side of the room; updated separates and missy, the other.
After your eye gets used to the profusion of color, however, you’ll notice a plate of homemade cookies on a side table near the entrance. The cookies, and the touch of warmth they represent, are a holdover from Berger’s early days in business.
Berger, the first woman with a showroom in the Apparel Center, started her business 22 years ago. Becoming a manufacturers’ rep seemed a natural career choice for her. First, she had experience in modeling and retailing. Second, she possessed what she calls “an innate fashion sense.” Finally, Berger, at the time just about to become a single mother, wanted the flexibility that her own business would offer.
Berger persuaded Regina Porter, a now-defunct line of better shirts, to give her a 60-day trial. She started business with “a bag of samples and an MG sports car.” Armed with that first bag of samples, the first thing Berger found was that she as a woman was virtually alone in a male-dominated world.
That in itself didn’t bother her. “I always felt women have an advantage in this business, because we wear the clothes,” she said.
What did bug her was the constant feeling she had to prove herself. Endlessly teased about doing “a man’s job” and literally having doors slammed in her face — “Men wouldn’t hold doors for me,” she said — Berger decided to combat the hostility with the ultrafeminine gesture of home-baked cookies.
The cookies, she said, became a signature at her shows and in her showroom.
These days, though, the fresh-baked sweets are a product of Berger’s employees. She no longer has time to bake.
Berger handles 11 lines and relishes her long-term relationships with manufacturers. That 60-day trial with Regina Porter, for instance, turned into a 14-year arrangement, and she’s handled Margaret O’Leary, her best-selling line, for seven years.
The sportscar is gone, replaced by a retrofitted school bus and a minivan, both of which Berger uses to tour her 10-state Midwestern territory. The bus, complete with big round steering wheel and doors that open with a crank, adds a little excitement to long-distance travel. “I always get second and third looks when I’m driving,” Berger said.
A staff of four handles customer service and oversees the showroom when Berger is out on the road.
Her customers include department stores and upscale specialty stores — for instance, Jacobson’s, Nordstrom, Marc Shale, Frances Heffernan and Over the Top in Winnetka, Ill.; Mary Walters in Chicago; Fibers in Cleveland, and Herschfield’s in West Bloomfield, Mich.
Berger counted Bigsby & Kruthers, based in Chicago, as a client until the upscale retailer announced it was going out of business earlier this year. “It’s a loss to the retailing community,” Berger said of Bigsby & Kruthers’s closing.
Berger said her biggest challenge was bringing the news to her savvy customers, who visit New York several times a year and are current on trends. Other challenges include providing a high level of customer service, plus maintaining a balance between handling existing firms and finding new vendors.
In an unusual twist, one of Berger’s customers, Jane Hamill on Armitage Avenue in Chicago, has also become a vendor. So, in addition to selling clothes to Hamill’s store, Berger will represent Hamill’s line of dresses throughout the Midwest. Adding dresses, a suggestion of Berger’s young staff, rounds out her showroom. “The dresses are clean, appealing, updated. That was missing in our line,” Berger said.
Hamill, for her part, said she likes the energy of Berger’s showroom. “There’s always action and a good buzz, and the people are nice and helpful,” Hamill said. Her dresses, which she terms “a simple design with beautiful fabrics,” will make their debut at the March market.
Berger’s staff, all women in their 20s, help keep her apprised of what’s cutting edge, Berger said. She added that they also represent her clients’ primary customers, “updated young women” who are looking for career-oriented clothing and for wardrobe suggestions. In the Midwest, “career-oriented” means lots of sweaters, paired with long skirts and slacks. “It’s not too casual, but a modified look,’ Berger said. She finally settled on the word “finished” instead of “coordinated” to describe the look. This fall, that look will manifest itself in lots of knitwear, lots of color and lots of novelty items.
Berger sees a return of the jacket, still soft and unstructured, but close to the body. Other trends are sleeveless sweaters paired with shawls and wraps, bulky knits, toggled closings on everything — “Thanks to Prada,” Berger said — and new looks for old-fashioned fabrics such as boiled wool done up in a matching deep-brown skirt and poncho.
This past season’s gray will give way to brown and camel, with touches of violet, wine, purple and orange, Berger said. “People will still replenish black, but it’s secondary,” Berger said, looking askance at her own ensemble of black wool sweater and hoodie, black stretch pants and black boots. “I travel a lot,” she said, by way of excuse; and indeed, Berger was getting ready to depart for the Coterie show in New York.
For the future, Berger sees even more travel throughout her territory of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas and Nebraska.
While she would not name a favorite city, saying instead that she found something appealing in every city she visits, she said a few were certainly noteworthy — for instance, Cincinnati.
“I love it; it’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s not a hotbed of trends, but people dress and there are nice restaurants and shops.” Omaha and Lincoln, Neb.; Sioux City, Iowa, and Ann Arbor and Birmingham, Mich., also appeal to Berger.
When she’s not traveling, part of her Chicago duties will be setting up a Web site with help from her daughter Stephanie, a Web designer in her late 20s. Although Berger calls Stephanie fashion-conscious, with contemporary, but not trendy, tastes, there’s never been talk of the younger Berger taking over the family business. “She does like to shop in my showroom, though,” Berger said.
Berger said she does plan to participate in the twice-yearly Stylemax show. “It’s an opportunity to bring new stores to the Midwest,” she said.
Berger doesn’t plan, however, to give up her showroom. She just renewed her lease, and besides, she’s spent a lot of money redoing the space, she said.
And as long as there is a showroom, there will be homemade cookies.

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