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CHICAGO — Could Chicago be the next Antwerp of fashion? The idea might not be so far-fetched.

Creatures of the Wind designer Shane Gabier, who lived and worked in the Belgian city after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, introduced the idea of the Windy City serving as an export of fashion talent to New York, much like the Antwerp Six and Paris.

“There’s a really interesting comparison between Antwerp and Paris and Chicago and New York,” said Gabier, who recently sat on a panel with his partner Christopher Peters at a brainstorming brunch session at Soho House organized by the city. “The Antwerp Six, the designers who came out of Antwerp in the early Eighties, they realized right away they were only going to make an impact by putting themselves in front of people that mattered in those cities at the right time.”

Like Antwerp, Chicago is an affordable city. “You have space here. You can capitalize on the other resources, which is what we did, too. We have a good portion of our friends who are artists, graphic designers and musicians. There are a lot of great resources, but ultimately you do have to travel,” he said.

Organized by the city’s department of cultural affairs, or DCASE, the meeting brought together about 40 industry professionals, ranging from designers and retailers to educators, and took place during the middle of Fashion Focus: Chicago’s Fashion Week. Tom Julian, director of strategic business development at the New York-based Doneger Group, moderated the session. The Creatures of the Wind designers, who still own a home here in Logan Square but live in New York, traveled in for the occasion.

The meeting’s topic of discussion: How to make Chicago a real fashion city.

“There are 20 fashion weeks throughout the United States right now, so it’s only natural that Chicago has a fashion week,” said Julian. The question is, “How are you going to own this? How are you going to stand uniquely and differently, where is your white space?”

The problem — aside from the grand problem of designers exiting the city once their careers take flight — is that many in the room that day have heard this discussion before.

However, this time, something felt different.

Fashion Focus, created as a tourism attraction under Mayor Richard Daley’s reign, will hit its 10-year anniversary in 2015 — and it’s safe to say it’s reached the awkward pre-adolescence stage. What’s the purpose of the week — is it to attract consumers or buyers? How will the shows be curated? How will Chicago help support designers? What is Chicago fashion? This is all up for discussion.

“We’re hitting the reset,” said Tonya Gross, a milliner by trade, who took over the helm in 2013 as program director at DCASE for fashion and culinary, creative arts and industries. The department also oversees major cultural attractions like the Taste of Chicago and the Blues and Jazz Festivals.

“We’re not trying to be New York. We’re not trying to be L.A. We’re trying to be Chicago. What is the brand identity? We’re trying to spotlight those who are either emerging, mid-career or long established. Not only fashion designers, but also fashion brands based in Chicago. Another focus is retaining talent,” she said.

Gabier’s Antwerp-Chicago comparison was received positively and was one of many suggestions on how to promote designers here.

Rather than trying to lure buyers to the Midwest to attend Fashion Focus, “the efforts would be better spent on how to collaborate and put Chicago designers in front of the New York market,” Gabier said.

Andrea Schwartz, vice president of media relations at Macy’s North Central region, agreed, and suggested the city bring designers to New York to meet with buyers. Schwartz serves on the board of the Chicago Fashion Incubator, a two-year program that teaches six designers in residence the business of fashion, and is a founding member of the Mayor’s Fashion Council. Both programs were created during Daley’s administration.

“We don’t need to bring buyers here, we need to bring our designers there,” said Schwartz, who is planning on taking the Fashion Incubator designers to Macy’s Herald Square to meet with editors during New York Fashion Week in February. “There’s no need for us to switch the culture. If you want someone to buy your line, where’s the best exposure? Let’s get them ready to go to that fashion capital and be prosperous.”

Critics of Fashion Focus say the open-to-the-public shows, which take place at Millennium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center, lack sophistication.

“Mayor Daley’s wife when she was alive was very much into fashion. She started this Fashion Week in Chicago. The content was not runway-worthy per se, but a lot of money was put into it from the city,” said Heiji Choy Black, fashion and style director at Chicago Magazine.

“Ultimately the previous incarnation to anybody who was in the industry was just a big joke,” said Black. “It’s like, ‘How do we spend these dollars coming from the city in a way that has value? So it’s valuable to not only designers who live here but also to taxpayers.’ That’s what I feel like this conversation was about.”

For Remi Canarie designers Lisa Panza and Liz Patelski, both Art Institute alums, it’s a matter of production quality.

“Our trajectory is to be somewhere on a world level and it seems like showing in Chicago is kind of hindering that,” said Panza, regarding the Chicago-based label. “It seems that Fashion Focus is focused on designers on a local level and not fostering talent on a global level. They ask us every year and we just choose not to.”

Gabier suggested the shows be more selective. “When it becomes a consumer event, it’s just a different thing. Anywhere else, it’s not like ‘A for effort.’ It does have to be curated. If there was a jury selection or a process where there was more attention or focus or more resources, that might be a way to help push those people,” he said.

While the meeting highlighted Chicago’s assets, from strong academic fashion programs to a rich culinary and music scene, one major component missing to be considered a working fashion city is a centralized manufacturing center, like New York’s garment center.

“If the city could formulate a place, a zone or central area where fashion designers could come that would give them resources for fabrics, resources to manufacture — this is our biggest need here,” said Andrea Reynders, designer and professor emeritus at the School of the Art Institute. “That’s the biggest hurdle for every designer trying to make it in Chicago. We have such a struggle trying to find someone to make our designs. Those of us who have better funding, they are able to go to New York or other parts of the world to have things manufactured.”

A manufacturing center would not only benefit designers, it would provide jobs, said Reynders, whose former students include the Creatures of the Wind designers, Cynthia Rowley and Maria Pinto.

“There are a lot of skilled laborers here, sewers and tailors. The city needs to say, ‘Hey, we have a place for you,’” she said. “Maybe you’re just making button holes or steaming the collar, but those kinds of people are priceless in the industry.”

The Mayor’s Fashion Council will be “key to unlocking the potential of the fashion community,” said Susan Glick, vice president of women’s apparel at the Merchandise Mart. “I think the city is behind developing a centralized place,” said Glick, whose family history is rooted in Chicago manufacturing, as her father produced millinery here in the 1930s.

“How do we shore up manufacturing here? How can we make it viable for anybody in Chicago to do business? There are buildings that I’ve heard that could be used collectively for this.”

For 2013 and 2014, the city budgeted $142,000 for fashion programming — a far cry from the pre-recession budget, totaling about $500,000 a year from 2005 to 2010. In 2011 and 2012, funding was adjusted to $70,000 and $75,000, respectively. In addition, the city has $40,378 in grant money for nine fashion-related projects funded through its Individual Artist Program.

Tracie D. Hall, the city’s deputy commissioner of creative arts and industries, said the commitment to fashion is just as strong as ever.

“The focus is more strategic now,” Hall said. “We see so much promise around fashion in Chicago. We are open and ready for a large strategic discussion that’s inclusive and reflective of all the kinds of players.”

Shopping is a major source of revenue for the city, but many of the boutiques in the outlying neighborhoods are suffering.

“[Mayor Rahm Emanuel] does a great job at bringing huge corporations into the city, but what makes the city so unique is all these independent shops,” said Black of Chicago Magazine, a former boutique owner in Wicker Park. “New York does weeks where the city is tax-free. That’s a huge boon to businesses and it’s never been done in Chicago. There are too many issues here.”

For retail owners, a big challenge has been maintaining the high price of rent — and just staying open.

“The rents in Bucktown especially have gone up dramatically. Spaces are renting on Damen Avenue for $10,000 a month. People can’t afford that. The traffic is not as high as it used to be, even four years ago,” said Erica Cook, owner of Trillium boutique on Division Avenue in Wicker Park. “If the city could designate a zone or streets where they are all local, independent businesses that would help. We get customers from out of town that want to go to local boutiques they can’t find anywhere else.”

Regardless of how large the city’s pockets are for fashion, there is only so much it can do to promote and grow the industry, said Melissa Gamble, Chicago’s first director of fashion and current lecturer and internship coordinator for fashion studies at Columbia College.

“It’s critical to have the city’s  support, but a lot of the growth has to come from the industry itself,” said Gamble, who held the fashion director role from 2005 to 2010. Kiran Advani succeeded her from 2010 to 2012. “You can talk about Fashion Focus all you want, but Fashion Focus is not going to do it. That’s not going to take effect in the way that things have happened in the culinary and music industry here. That comes from the designers and businesses that are doing really interesting, innovative work that rise to the national level. People need to check their expectations and understand where this development really happens.”

Azeeza Khan launched her ready-to-wear label in 2012, and has made a conscious decision to stay here.

“It’s the people who are defining the city. It shouldn’t be the city defining the people,” said Khan, who recently attended the Vendome trade show in Paris, where pieces from her rtw and accessories collection were ordered by 10 Corso Como in Milan. “I go to Paris and the first thing people ask is, ‘Do you know Ikram?’ She’s made her mark. She brings prestige to Chicago fashion that is needed on a global perspective.”

Still, trying to launch a label that’s based in the Midwest has posed unexpected challenges. Peters of Creatures of the Wind recalled being in Los Angeles, waiting to meet with a “large retailer” to present the label, which the duo founded in 2008. When the retailer heard the designers hailed from Chicago, she “said she was going to leave,” he said. It was almost like “you say you’re from Chicago, it’s like you live in a minefield,” he said.

On the flipside, living miles away from the country’s fashion capital can have advantages for a young designer.

“New York fashion tends to be more commercial, and as a young designer, you get on a track and you want to be in the CFDA Incubator. It’s not what we’re interested in,” said Panza, of Remi Canarie. “We’re more interested in making weird clothing and trying to make that commercial. It’s like going back to Antwerp, going from left field and making that the aesthetic. We thought that it was possible when we saw what happened with Creatures of the Wind. They have this otherness quality. All of their collections — they always have these really conceptual bases.”

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