CHICAGO — The Taste of Chicago is not known for fashion — yet.
The world’s largest food festival, celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, ended its five-day run in Grant Park on July 12. The focus of the festival is to showcase the city’s diverse culinary landscape — everything from celebrity chef dinners to food trucks to neighborhood eateries.
But for the second year, the city used the festival’s widespread appeal as an opportunity to promote Chicago fashion, highlighting more than 28 local designers and boutiques as part of the “Fashion Focus Chicago Maker Market.”
The participating vendors — who included designer Jennifer Akese Burney, who applies traditional African prints from her native Ghana to modern silhouettes for her Akese label; leather accessories designer Chelli Look of CHC, and jewelry designer Jules Vance — were given a designated area at the festival, situated in a series of white tents that created a pop-up retail setting. New this year, the market hosted two runway shows with Latino Fashion Week and African Fashion Week Chicago.
“When people come to Chicago and they come to the Taste of Chicago, they are getting a different taste of Chicago. Something they can take away with them as they travel back home. They’re helping to perpetuate local fashion design in the city,” said Tonya Gross, director of fashion, culinary and design at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
The sheer foot traffic acts like a publicity machine. “A million and a half people come for the five-day festival so this is great exposure for the [designers], introducing them to new customers,” Gross said. “We’re really perpetuating that brand of ‘Chicago-made’ right here.”
Jewelry designer Vance participated in the inaugural Maker Market in 2014 and was enthused about returning to the city-sponsored event.
“It’s great. We get to meet a lot of people from Chicago, a lot of travelers and international travelers,” said Vance, whose celebrity clients include Sophia Bush. Vance and her husband Brian make all of the jewelry by hand, and the pieces retail from $20 for a sterling silver friendship ring to $400 for a 14-karat gold Labradorite necklace.
For those looking for a souvenir that also strikes a fashion chord with the current zest for Western fashion, the CHC tent was the right spot. There, shoppers found a variety of leather accessories, rendered in cow leather and calf hair sourced in the U.S. from states like Texas, Ohio and South Carolina and handmade in Chicago by designer Chelli Look.
“I’ve gotten phenomenal feedback,” said Look, whose prices range from $20 for headphone covers to $400 for a tote. Her collection sells at retailers like East of Mississippi in Brooklyn, Beige in Little Rock and Humboldt House in Chicago.
“The event is an outdoor event, so what I tend to see is the follow-up customer. She touches it and it’s important to get your hands on the product. It’s one thing to look at your product online. And here, you also get to see the maker,” said Look.
Despite the event’s popularity, designer and boutique owner Lesley Timpe, of Squasht, was skeptical about participating at the festival. After all, everyone knows the Taste show is about food.
“I was hesitant but Jules [Vance] told me about the setup and the way they do it. There are perks they are offering and we’re on all the maps [at the festival],” said Timpe, whose store, located in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, sells her ready-to-wear label. “I’m pleased with the turnout. It’s hard out there for an independent business owner and designer, but people have been responsive to us.”
Discovery is what it was all about and Taste offered a way to blend two aspects of the city — food and fashion, said designer Jennifer Akese Burney. “People come from all walks of life,” said Akese Burney, who moved to Chicago from Ghana in 2011. Her handmade clothing line retails from $135 for a blouse to $325 for a dress. “Events like this bring people together and it celebrates different cultures.”
Carrie Butorac, of Minneapolis, was happy there was something besides food at the Taste.
“It’s my first time in Chicago. I just left my group and said ‘I’ll be over in the fashion area, come find me,’” said Butorac, while perusing the colorful frocks at Akese. “I love to check out fashion, design and art from different cities and cultures. And I’ve never seen anything like what you have here.”