The Life And Times Of An Ex-fashion Mecca

A Letter From
  • The Life and Times of an Ex-Fashion Mecca
  • Chicago Skyline
< Back to features
6 May 2011 By Marquita Harris

The Life and Times of an Ex-Fashion Mecca

Many years ago Chicago was considered a fashion epicentre thanks to major retailer Marshall Field & Co. In more recent years the city has struggled to establish itself as a nurturing environment for emerging talent.

Although from failed fashion weeks to its recent plans to construct a type of garment district, optimism remains. But are the city's efforts in vain? 

We all know what happens to abandoned cities. They turn to ghost towns. You know, those places where myths replace history, whispers generate echoes and remnants decay to ruins. But what about a fashion city? What happens when a thriving Mecca for retailers and labels loses its zeal? Can it come back from the dead?

Once upon a time Chicago was a force to be reckoned with. From the turn of the century through the 1950s the dusty city accounted for several milestones in America’s fashion legacy. This was thanks to bigwig retailer Marshall Field & Co. (now named Macy’s). In the 1880s the retailer was the first in middle-America to usher in garments from the House of Worth. At one point the department store also bought more couture than any other retailer in the States. Not too shabby.

Who would’ve thought that buyers from the Midwest shop would outshine New York City’s? Not to mention Balenciaga. The shop’s buyer, Kathleen Catlin, is credited with popularizing the couturier’s chemise, a.k.a the “sack” dress, in America. To other buyers the frock was ghastly, Catlin’s instincts proved otherwise. Designers such as Christian Dior would create exclusive garments for the mega-shop. Even Harry Selfridge, founder of England’s own Selfridge’s got his start working at Marshall Field.

The Life and Times of an Ex-Fashion Mecca

The retail shop gave clout to Chicago, making it a go-to place for international style. From shoppers like Al Capone to debutantes and dignitaries, Marshall Field & Co. was it. Then, the clout fizzled. The bubble burst. The retailer—the heart of the city— succumbed to a fate unbeknownst to many department stores at the time: they became cliché. The retailscape changed forever. Chicago changed forever.

Fast-forward to present day, to imagine Chicago as an “it” place in fashion’s international scope is laughable. The city—though filled with wonderments such as architecture, cuisine and other worldly delights—has floundered since its heyday when it comes to fashion.

The city that once exerted so much energy in the fashion world can barely fuel enough passion for local designers to stay put. Chicago is home to several esteemed, well-attended art schools, yet once the collegiate ride is over many students exit. And for the few designers that do remain, legitimate exposure is hard to come by.

Chicago Board of Trade Building

In the mid 2000s local designers rejoiced when they heard Chicago would be producing its own fashion week. While it was no Bryant Park affair, optimism prevailed and designers paid to be a part of the new event. Unfortunately, they were haggled. The organizers fell into financial hardship. The event although technically happened, suffered due to lack of promotion and broken promises.

Only the designers, models and a handful of people knew about “Chicago Fashion Week.” Then, when the event ended, designers were left unfulfilled and models unpaid. The organizers poofed into thin air, never to be heard from again. But all wasn’t lost. In September 2005, the city’s mayor, Richard Daley, got involved. In an effort to boost tourism and foster creative design talent, Fashion Focus was created. The 11-day event consisted of catwalk shows, shopping events and store openings. It’s happened every year since and is now condensed to roughly a week.

Yet somehow the event— with its major sponsors, and pomp and circumstance—fails to shake awake the city’s tiresome state. However, efforts continue. A recent flyer from the mayor’s office was sent out inviting “creatives” to check out vacant spaces in the new Creative District, west of the river. Rumour has it that the district aims to be Chicago’s answer to New York’s Garment District. Whether it will take off is anyone’s guess. And whether the city can revive its “chic” is also to be determined. But it seems that slowly but surely the city is realizing that in order to gain a fraction of the clout it once had, it had better begin to nurture the talents that remains or they too will flee to the “living” cities.