Chicago Fashion Unfocused

When it comes to our fashion scene in Chicago, it’s really been more about the community rather than the city supporting it (at least since I’ve been around, circa 2010). And that was made official when WWD recently reported that Chicago is pulling all fashion funding, including our version of fashion week — Fashion Focus. Surprised? Mad? Sad? DGAF? You let it out honey…put it in the book blog.

chicago fashion

To me, this is absolutely not shocking as our city is broke and what they were doing for our fashion community here is nominal, so why not just pull funding all together? It’s quite unfortunate but it’s true. The article stated that our fashion budget last year was $142,000 (which shocked me it was even that much) which is way down from what it used to be (before I came on the scene) at around $500k. Oh those must have been the days!

So I took it upon myself to ask a few of my favorite fashion people here in Chicago (including some who were around pre budget cuts) to see what they think of all this. Whether you live in Chicago and can relate, or perhaps another city with an emerging fashion scene, or even if you’re in a major fashion city…I think we can all learn something here. Don’t you?


I was disappointed to hear that the city cut funding and eliminated Tonya Gross’s job [program director for fashion and culinary, creative arts and industries at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, or DCASE] because I felt like the program was finally on the right track. Before she took over, the city funds were really focused on helping small designers get their first runway shows — but the audience was never right (instead of retail buyers, it was just a party) and the designers didn’t see any benefit for their participation. In my opinion, helping Chicago grow its fashion industry should mean getting behind those talented and driven designers who can actually create more jobs. I hope that Tonya succeeds in keeping the programs she created alive. Tonya — count me in to help! — Susanna Negovan, Sun-Times Splash

While it’s natural to get upset by the city’s decision, I’ve decided to focus my energy on doing my part to support local fashion brands and designers. Action is more powerful than words, and I plan to find tangible ways to support our fashion talent from partnerships with our valued PR clients to my style blog. I’m disappointed – Chicago deserves better. But the Windy City is my home, and I am hopeful that small individual actions will lead to change and above all – a more fashionable future. — Jenn Lake, Zapwater & Style Charade 

I think the signs of funding being cut were clear from even a few years ago.  As funding decreased year over year, it becomes difficult to provide the same support or produce the same events, so in truth the quality declines – which is not fair for any one person who used this department for exposure.  Arts and Culture are so quick to get slashed when budgets weigh heavy, which is really unfortunate since Chicago is filled with so much vibrancy and potential.  I think this burden will fall on the fashion community now to rally around talent and turn the negative of this situation into an opportunity.  Hopefully these cuts will not be at the expense of Chicago losing what makes the fashion community great – individuality, perseverance and fresh creativity. — Mallory Ulaszek-Tews, Presence Agency (also a CCF Loves!)

Although disappointing, the cut in funding is not all that surprising. Fashion is simply not a top initiative in our city (and hasn’t been for awhile). I have always believed that fashion week in Chicago should be privately funded via corporate sponsorships. Additionally, fresh ideas plus innovative use of technology and social media is needed to push it to the next level.  To whoever takes the reigns, I hope they create programming that appeals to both the public and those of us in the industry. — Nikia Jefferson, Chi Town Fashionista

I think the closure is understandable, given the broader challenges we face as a city between the violence and education system, amongst other issues. It would take millions and global thought leaders to actually move the needle in the right direction. The truth of the matter is that our strength as a city is not industrial; we are the strongest on the consumption side. Chicago boasts itself as the top consumer market for many luxury and mass brands / retailers. We are a top tourist destination. Instead of struggling to establish a manufacturing and creative industry from scratch, we need to focus on our existing strengths.  In the meantime, if you are serious about having a career or business in fashion, you have all the resources within yourself to make it happen. And it all simply starts with hard work, following your instinct and relying on no one but yourself. — Azeeza Khan, Azeeza

chicago fashion focus

I do agree with most of what’s being said here, and a lot of what Nikia mentioned. That’s something  I always thought — our fashion week and programming should be privately funded. As much as I love what London does with their fashion industry (the city is extremely supportive, beyond just financially) there’s only so much you can do when your city has no money! It’s amazing to see how our community has grown with bloggers, designers, boutiques, etc. We do have some incredible talent here. But maybe it’s just not in our cards for the city to be the one to pull it all together. If you’ve ever been to Chicago Fashion Focus, you’ll see why I chose the title of this blog post. It really was a mess. Hoping not to offend anyone involved. They were trying. They really were. But you can’t expect to have your fashion week be taken seriously when people pay to go and it has nothing to do with buyers, editors, stylists, etc. (like fashion week should be..although ironically, might not be much longer). And the shows I had attended would be for many designers, showing hundreds of looks total. It was too much! Fashion is all about strong editing, and that was never present at our “fashion week.” I’m not saying we should be like New York Fashion Week, because I don’t think we’ll ever be that…and I’m not sure we even want to be that. But there’s so much damn potential here…it’s frustrating to see it not flourish like it should. In the mean time, though, we do have some amazing designers here like Azeeza (who makes a fantastic cape by the way)…

Christina Karin (who created this incredible mystery garment…)

And Lagi Nadeau (who I discovered through the Macy’s Fashion Incubator Program…which I’ll get to in a moment).

Those are just a few of the many. And that’s just clothing! Our jewelry designers are quite on point too (Dana Rebecca, Cities In Dust, Jules, etc.)

One of my favorite programs we have here is the Macy’s Fashion Incubator (sort of like a very mini / local CFDA). They provide resources to a different group of emerging designers every year. THIS is what we need more of. I always say that the core of fashion is design. Yes we have stores, fashion PR, bloggers, stylists, magazines, etc. but we wouldn’t have any of that without the people who actually create the clothes, right? So we need to find ways to support this talent so they can flourish in Chicago, and not have to move to NYC or elsewhere once they become a national / global brand (re: Creatures of The Wind…still love you though, Shane & Chris!)

macys fashion incubator

Now that’s just me (and five others)…so what about you? What do you think of all this? What Chicago fashion changes would you like to see? And if you don’t live here, what’s your current fashion scene like now? Can it relate to any of this? Maybe we can brainstorm some ideas to revamp Chicago fashion week and perhaps one day #CFW will be trending harder than #NYFW 😉

Images via Chicago Tribune, Azeeza & Chicago Fashion Incubator

4 comments on “Chicago Fashion Unfocused

  1. Love this post!! I was just having a conversation about this last week! It’s so sad that Chicago is lacking here.

    There are SO many individuals who care about fashion in our city as well as those who want to support our local designers. At the end of the day for the vast majority of people, it has to be convenient and as you mentioned, has to have a strong focus since typically the top fashion consumers have busy lives and full-time jobs.

    The way I’d see it working is if there was a fashion board comprised of individuals in the fashion industry but from different facets (rep from a key designer department store, a local designer/store owner, a rep from the art institute, a blogger, a personal stylist, etc). The key is to get a group together that’s able to reach the widest audience. We’d each share what would be of value/important to our group of people and create an event that is compelling, fun and helps achieve whatever the goals set in place are (ie. selling stuff, spreading fashion knowledge, etc).

    Apologies for the ramble – these ideas are just off the top of my head but anything to help generate a stronger fashion community… count me in 🙂

  2. Because of Chicago’s underdeveloped fashion scene, the “industry” here has always felt super bootstrappy to me. The traditional paths to success in fashion aren’t necessarily going to work here. It honestly reminds me of the art scenes in mid-size cities like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Yeah, you may have a few foundations/organizations that organize events like art crawls or support the growing community through grants but it always comes down to all of the individuals creating their own work and figuring out a way to get the word out and the public doing their own editing when they’ve been informed of the breadth of art out there for them. That’s how I’ve seen art communities grow at least.

    The struggle with that comparison though is that fashion isn’t treated as an art industry. A lot of designers are trying to get into stores and the investment it takes to get there is huge and not always sustainable if you have an off collection. Creating a beautiful piece and selling it is a much smaller dollar investment and way more sustainable. Additionally, the general public isn’t really seeking out independent designers, the folks who make beautiful pieces at a higher cost and smaller quantity. They shop for clothes like groceries instead of art. But, I think that’s something that will change slowly over time. Even the big designers are beginning to change how they showcase and sell, reducing the investment.

    All that being said, I think awareness is one of the hugest issues, getting the word about who Chicago’s emerging designers are and how you can shop their clothing to consumers and retailers is key. Idk, I’m just in love with the idea of taking some of the mystery out of how clothes get from design to in-store for consumers. Have designers showcase their work and host fashion crawls to generate public interest. The only cost would be promotion and it’d ingrain fashion as a part of Chicago’s art scene instead of a once a year event.

  3. I have a few ideas for the fashion industry here. It’s one of many ideas I have for the city. Instead of cutting the fashion budget, Chicago should cut Choose Chicago & the DCASE. The only decent event they’ve managed to produce was the Chicago Architecture Biennial. And, I think the success was largely because of the Graham Foundation, CAF, & AIA. There’s an affordable & quality way to produce these events. There has to be an open forum for ideas flow.

  4. We are the 3rd largest city and Fashion mecca. Why would a city and a sate in so much debt take money away from such a revenue generating venture. When the economy goes down people still spend the little money they have on clothing and accessories so I believe taking the focus away from the fashion design industry leaves huge gaps in our cities economy.

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