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Feature Fri Dec 03 2010

Hungry and Driven: Unearthing the Emerging Chicago Fashion Community

Sometimes the fashion shows take place in abandoned warehouses on the West Side or in third floor fledgling art galleries in Wicker Park. Occasionally, someone will clear out the knick knacks and sketch pads they normally scatter across the battered love seats of their first apartments in the city. The point, it seems, for a new crop of young designers, is to prove that there is some form of community (albeit smaller and certainly less competitive) in Chicago in a similar vein to more established design cities like New York or Los Angeles. If there are designs to be shown, a venue can be found--or created--to showcase a young designers work.

Every fall, the events of Chicago Fashion Focus primarily take place in the Macy's on State Street or in elaborately constructed tents in Millennium Park. The number of shows, usually less than 10, are a far cry from the fashion week events in smaller cities such as Miami or Minneapolis, and in no way compare to the extravaganza known as New York Fashion Week. With the demise of GenArt, the opportunities for local emerging designers to showcase their work during Fashion Focus is even less than during the event's first fledgling years in the early aughts. The results of this post-Gen Art era in the Chicago fashion scene has been ignored, or largely disjointed. For young designers obtaining their degrees from local art colleges such as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College, and the Illinois Institute of Art, the disconnect between their academic pursuits and the communities or opportunities available has been a wake-up call and the inspiration to pursue more DIY-generated opportunities for exposure and experience.

In the spirit of this DIY-ethos, Carmen McGhee and Aris Sergakis, two fashion design students from the Illinois Institute of Art, came together to produce "UNEARTHED," an evening dedicated to the young emerging fashion designers of the city.

from left: McGhee and Sergakis

"What we're trying to accomplish with UNEARTHED is to give ourselves a voice and to start to make a change," McGee said in the week before the eclectic showcase and runway show. For young designers embarking on their first collaborative event, McGhee and Sergakis were furtive in their goals and belief in the show.

"We thought if no one else is doing it the way we see fit, we should just have our own show," McGhee began. "Chicago isn't looked at as a fashion capital and we're tired of being represented that way."

The way they "see fit," is a departure from the shows they've witnessed as part of the up-and-coming Chicago fashion community.

"I've been to/seen a lot of Chicago fashion shows that for lack of a better word, suck," said McGhee. "I'm tired of seeing fast-paced, overly posed, badly styled, runway shows backdropped by tacky techno music. Chicago is plagued by shows like this, that are put together by talentless "professionals" who just want money, and lack passion for beauty and art." Sergakis agreed unequivocally.

"It is extremely frustrating when the media and the people strictly attend shows that lack concept, innovation, and most importantly, real design," Sergakis explained.

Despite the lack of a quality runway environment, the two note that the amount of learning opportunities in the city are abundant, with internships, apprenticeships, and academic instruction easily accessible. However, it is the translation of the knowledge obtained in these opportunities to a post-collegiate career that can often prove difficult. Without the strong foundation of a sustainable local design community such as the one in New York, many young designers abandon the city in which they learned the more technical skills of their trade.

Chicago is all thick boots and warm scarves. Style aesthetics are conservative as a whole, and more representative of the conditions of the weather. It is this conservatism that provides a subtle yet constricting environment, one that makes the pursuits of the young designer seem out of place and even unwelcome.

"I understand the clientele in this city, and what they like is simple, clean, and classic. Its simply a matter of taste. What we need is a new crowd of individuals who support the more exaggerated, complex, and innovative. Real fashion, not just clothing," Sergakis explained.

design by Lindsay Peterman.jpg
Design by Lindsay Peterman

This sentiment has been reiterated in other local arts communities, especially pertaining to the visual arts, but the dearth in the fashion community is particularly troublesome. Visual artists have many internationally recognized museums to aspire to, as well as a bevy of small, medium, and large art galleries in which to display their work. Emerging fashion designers in Chicago, without the force of a New York Fashion Week, are often left to their own devices.

UNEARTHED is McGhee and Sergakis' "device," their chance to debut their work, along with the work of thirteen additional young designers. It is a chance to help establish their work among the community that they identify as skilled yet confined. It is a chance to, more or less, examine "real fashion," as an art form under consistent metamorphosis, and driven by the vision of the individual for a specific ideal.

"I would say when I am designing I try to portray power, romanticism, and sexuality with dark undertones. I want the wearer to feel strong and vulnerable at the same time," said McGhee. Like McGhee, Sergakis' designs emerge from the visceral.

"I'm always combining hints of menswear into my womenswear to create a powerful look, but one that stays fragile and feminine. The affinities of a woman's universe are something very important to me, so I like to keep my work austere but emotional," Sergakis said.

In addition to a runway show, UNEARTHED will feature an exhibition of work by local artists.

"There are thousands of artists in the city that aren't properly represented and we wanted to give them a chance to show Chicago what they have to offer as well," said McGhee. The works on display also frame the mood of the evening and work as a precursor, or compliment, to the runway show. Visual art and fashion design are two sides of the same coin, constructing tangible objects out of the ideas from its creator. Like many of their peers in the visual arts, the show also provides an opportunity for the designers to work within their own vision and pursue their craft on their own terms.

design by Nicole Paprosky.jpg
Design by Nicole Paprosky

"We are not only searching for opportunity, but creating it for ourselves," said Sergakis. "As long as we can do it the way we want to, it will all be fine. Its only a matter of time."

UNEARTHED takes place tomorrow, Saturday, December 4 at 7pm at No Nation Gallery, 1542 N Milwaukee. The evening includes a cash bar and a donation of $3 is suggested.


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Sandra Smith-Doghmi / December 5, 2010 10:46 AM

Hi, enjoyed your post and agree with you. Have a project in the works that I would like to chat with you about. Email or call me if you like 773 495 5201 Sandy

LDW / December 5, 2010 12:52 PM

Pretty cool & interesting piece.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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