Call it coastal snobbery but I have always considered Chicago more of a place for a layover rather than a fashion destination. Now that we’re about to be in term two of the Obama administration, however, and can look forward to another four years of Mrs O style, I have begun to change my mind.
So when I learnt that the Windy City would be hosting the annual board of directors meeting for an organisation with which I am affiliated, I scheduled an extra day to explore. Maybe, I thought, the city is what sparked Michelle Obama’s love of colour and print. Maybe, as an inveterate wearer of black, I would experience a similar epiphany. Maybe Chicago culture would seep not just into my BlackBerry but into my wardrobe too.
After two days of discussion, arguments and apologies over line items, my free day began with a jog along the Miracle Mile, which was filled with internationally recognised brand-name boutiques and department stores of all price ranges – but nothing unique. Though I considered catching an earlier flight home to the West Coast, where I could find exactly the same items in a warmer clime, I decided to stick around until at least lunchtime so I could track down an authentic Chicago hot dog.
It just so happened that the Vienna Beef factory was open early and had a tour available that morning, so I caught a taxi to Bucktown, a trendy neighbourhood north of Wicker Park. I was famished after the tour, which involved (at least on my part) repeated and complex calculations regarding carbohydrates and energy expenditure per unit, so decided to forget the bottom line and go with a Chicago-style double dog: two hot dogs sharing one poppy seed bun with sport peppers, relish, mustard, onion, tangy pickle, tomato and celery salt – plus French fries.
Admittedly, dining on a delicacy guaranteed to send you up a dress size wasn’t exactly the best start to a shopping spree but it tasted divine.
As luck would have it, Bucktown has a popular shopping street called Damen Avenue, perfect for a brisk walk. I could, I reasoned, efficiently work off some of the deep frying (or at least the condiments) while window shopping.
My first stop was Robin Richman, a shop that looks like an art gallery from the pavement but feels more like a goth clothing museum inside, with museum-quality prices. I left behind a Gary Graham black and mustard quilt print silk dress with a fitted bodice and slightly flared midi skirt ($675) but there were three items I couldn’t resist.
First up was an extra-long-sleeved Nicholas & Mark black marled wool sweater with ruching around the bustline and a flared hem ($223); a pair of curiously flattering wool harem pants by Kiyoko ($495); and a Share Spirit white raw silk scarf with black hand-stitched Dia de Los Muertos motif ($350).
Virtu is a gallery featuring handicrafts, glassware and semi-precious jewellery. There is no clothing per se but the shelves are filled with accessories and home furnishings, including a series of cotton muslin pillows printed with high resolution images of animals. At about $36 each, I grabbed a selection as gifts.
Next, at P45, I tried on a few lightweight print dresses and oversized shirts by Clover Canyon ($129 to $299), a bordeaux 10 Crosby by Derek Lam tulip-cut leather skirt ($495) and a pair of MMG metallic pewter snakeskin boots ($695). On the sale rack I found a green, navy and beige Jennifer Chun silk paisley scarf print shirtdress for $345. While all of the items fit well, there was just too much colour and sparkle for my taste.
On the same strip is Akira, a local chain with more than 20 locations around the city. The store was packed with house-branded items ranging in price from $5 to $150 and most of the clientele were young enough to be in high school or college. Even though I’m still an XS and my brain thinks I am 21, I failed to identify age-appropriate pieces, with the exception of one black satin faille majorette jacket with gold detail along the edges and bodice for $49. It’s not as “mid-life crisis majorette” as you might think, though, when paired with a turtleneck and jeans.
Close by, the foodless T-shirt Deli displayed “new flavours” in deli cases. In 20 minutes, the helpful staff will create your dream T-shirt from supersoft American Apparel shirts and a variety of fonts and slogans. My mind was racing with ideas but I settled on a classic white with black raglan sleeves and a middle emblazoned with the phrase “I Get Around” in fuzzy rounded lettering.
Still, I hadn’t yet experienced an Obama style epiphany, so, heading back downtown, I made my way to the celebrated Ikram on East Huron Street. Outside the shiny red building I felt nervous: would this high-end fashion boutique live up to expectations?
Unfortunately, while I loved the product choice inside, all my best purchasing intentions were frustrated by the service. For example, I really wanted to buy a Palmer Harding ecru silk long-sleeved shirt ($770) and a Creatures of the Wind black velvet dress with red rubberised sleeves ($1,600) but couldn’t get the attention of the sales staff to either inquire about size or to let me into a dressing room.
When I finally cornered someone and asked for smaller sizes, I received two completely different pieces from the ones I had chosen.
Giving up and getting out, I walked past a white cotton fishtail shirtdress ($570) that would look great with black stiletto boots but when I asked the nearby staffer if it was Carven, he replied, “Do you mean CarVaaaan?”
I left faster than my jet back to the coast, memories of those delicious double dogs dancing in my head.
The Mystery Shopper is a globetrotting executive who shops as she travels for work
www.dressspace.com (Nicholas and mark)