Spring fashion is always a thrill for style-minded Chicagoans, but this year there’s an added reason for excitement: the March 16 opening of the Chicago History Museum exhibit “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair.” Over an intimate dinner at the café at Ikram— (arguably the epicenter of high fashion in Chicago), —Michigan Avenue gathered with some of the city’s keenest style minds to talk about the state of the fashion scene in the Windy City. Here’s what they had to say....

Let’s start with a historical question. When did fashion become important to Chicago—and when did Chicago become an important fashion city?

NENA IVON: Fashion always has been important to Chicago. If we go back to the history of [fashion in] the city, we go back to basically what Ikram has done: It was with individual shops. It was Ruth Kane, it was Weathereds, Stanley Korshak, and on and on.... The aesthetic then was individualization with the client—the one on one, with the store owner becoming a friend with that client. For the most part that has gone away—shopping became “mall,” it became impersonal. But I don’t think that ever took away the chic look of our people, no matter where you are. You can be in a tiny little town somewhere and there’s going to be a core group of people who are chic. Everyone sitting at this table has a flair and a look. I can’t envision that these are the only people in the city of Chicago who have that.

IKRAM GOLDMAN: I have a group of women that I adore—all of you are at this table, but some who attended [a party recently] are at this table. It was a New York party, and there was an editor friend of mine who said, “Let me tell you, your Chicago girls pulled it all out. They dressed up, they were better looking than any New York girl. They had the better shoes; they had the better hair; they had the better makeup.”

LINDSAY JOHNSON RICE: Oh, yes!

GOLDMAN: It was phenomenal. These were editors. This was a very prominent editor, and she said, “I was astounded. I was embarrassed that this was a New York party, and we couldn’t pull it together, but your Chicago girls came in, bells and whistles, everything was perfect. Document it.” There are way too many stylish women in Chicago—and men, by the way. From a historical perspective, people are really starting to move away from thinking that we’re not a fashion city to becoming a very prominent fashion city. Can we just say Michelle Obama came out of this city? And she’s a fashion icon.

IVON: There was one point during [my time at Saks] that we [practically] sold more Norman Norell in the city of Chicago than anywhere else in the country. There couldn’t have been anyone more chic.... And Pauline Trigère. Unless you owned Pauline Trigère, you weren’t chic.... [But] I don’’t think there’’s a Chicago look; I think there’’s just more ease in the clothes perhaps.

GOLDMAN: I think it’s a comfort. It’s not a look; it’s a comfort.

IVON: Exactly. I’ve always dressed for me. I never really cared if anyone liked what I had on or not; it didn’t interest me. I think if you’re comfortable within your own being—which is a Chicago aesthetic, that you’re comfortable within yourself—you’re going to look good.

NICK CAVE: As a visual artist, I also have a responsibility not only with what I produce in my studio to create what is art, but also the image I want to portray, so that [too] becomes part of my brand identity. Who am I when I step outside of my comfort zone or my environment into the real world? And then how do I want that to be perceived? I strive to be fearless, and that just builds my armor to proceed in a world that is led by creative people. It’s all about design; it’s all about dress; it’s all about a look. We all think about that when we power-dress—getting ready to go into a meeting to get down and dirty, I’m not wearing blue jeans. You know what I’m saying?

JOHNSON RICE: There’s a lot of innovative design that comes out of Chicago. The School of the Art Institute, the students there—lord knows those fashion shows, they couldn’t be more innovative. Then you have Columbia College Chicago. There’s a great deal of fashion energy and enthusiasm that is really exciting. Ikram, you studied at the foot of the master, Joan Weinstein, at [legendary Chicago boutique] Ultimo. She was unbelievably chic and she had a tremendous clientele—and this is decades ago—who are now with you, and their kids and daughters are with you. So I don’t think that Chicago has ever really been second-class when it comes to fashion. I think we’ve been more understated. But not everything is so demure and laid-back. I look around on the street and there are a lot of edgy folks out here. And it’s good; it’s fun.

GOLDMAN: In this city, there’s no way you’re going to say that people aren’t dressing. We bought the fashion. We sold the fashion. Even when I go to the showroom and I buy a couture piece off the runway, they say to me, “Who’s going to buy it? And where’s this person going to wear it?” Desirée bought this Rodarte dress and wore it to a party for just 12 people. That is a couture dress—it could have been worn in front of 1,000 people and it could have been her wedding—but she wore it for a sit-down dinner party. So it’s what makes you feel great.

BRENDA SHAPIRO: It wasn’t always like that.

How have things changed?

SHAPIRO: I came from New York in 1967, and I thought I’d died. I was 30 years old; my life was over, and I had to live in this little town. That’s how I felt.

IKRAM: Chicago was a little town?

SHAPIRO: I came from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I got all the way to New York, and that’s where I wanted to stay. Then I came here, and I had a mother-in-law who was as chic as anyone could possibly be. She wore a lot of Chanel—always looked like a million dollars. I could never dress like my mother-in-law... but I knew that I had to find my own style, and Ultimo provided that playpen of dress. It was the most amazing experience. And I do think that my generation, coming of age, began to think that you didn’t have to dress absolutely gorgeous, but you could have your own style and express yourself.

Let’s talk about the ’70s in Chicago, the era of Soul Train and Mahogany, when Chicago became a capital of urban fashion for America. How do you think that came about?

GOLDMAN: Joan Weinstein.

JOHNSON RICE: She put Chicago on the map.

GOLDMAN: Even today, when I’m on the road and I go on the buys in New York, Europe, anywhere in the world—when I say “Chicago,” any fashion person will say “Joan Weinstein, Ultimo.” When Joan Weinstein was alive and we would travel together, people would bow to her. True story: We were in New York City, getting out of the car, and she looks up, and she stops. Her hesitation for a millisecond—I was like, Why did she do that? I looked over, and out of the corner of my eye I see a woman walking by. Joan gets up, and we’re walking together, and both women curtsy to each other and keep walking. It was Jackie Kennedy and Joan Weinstein. [Laughter] This was the power of Joan Weinstein in New York City: Jackie Kennedy stopped dead in her tracks watching Joan Weinstein get out of the car. Joan used to tell me stories about when she discovered designers like Sonia Rykiel back in the ’70s. Joan would say to me, “When I first bought Sonia Rykiel sweaters”—and they were the “kookiest,” was the word she used—“there would be a line on Saturday morning out the door.” She brought Sonia Rykiel, Armani.... She was the first person to bring Armani to America. Barneys picked it up second.

SHAPIRO: Ultimo was the first store in Chicago where people in their 70s would shop, and people in their 20s would shop, and we would all be in that dressing room together half-undressed. That was another thing: No one anywhere would be in a dressing room where you’d literally come out to look at how you look.

CAVE: For those of us who couldn’t do Ultimo and were 17 and didn’t have the means to shop at that level, it was Ebony magazine. It was Ebony Fashion Fair. That was the way I could connect to this broad range of dress, style, savviness, power, and it just cultivated this amazing sort of confidence and way of dress that filtered into the way I dress today. How do we mix hip-hop with—

JOHNSON RICE: Haute couture.

CAVE: We’re kind of clashing it together, and that’s how we’re curating our new wardrobe. Go with a sneaker, a Yohji Yamamoto skirt, and a Chanel jacket, and it will be fly.

GOLDMAN: Linda, I’m sure you hear this all the time: God love your mother [Eunice W. Johnson]. For her to outright buy these pieces...

JOHNSON RICE: It definitely was major.... She was incredibly tenacious. I would never want to sit across the table and barter with her. I watched her in Paris; I watched her in Yves Saint Laurent—all these places. I can’t tell you how they negotiated with anyone else, but she had to bring her checks with her. She would pull out a check, and they had given her the price on this dress, and my mother’s sitting there going, “mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm,” and she pulls out a check and starts to write it. I’m sitting there not saying a word. She folds the check up and puts it back in her purse, and she says, “I don’t believe I like that price,” gets up, and leaves. “Linda, come on, we’re going.” Out the door we go! We go back to the hotel room [and there’s a call]: “Oh, come back in, Madame Johnson, we have a special price for you.” She was tough. She took no prisoners on anything. But if it meant walking away, she’d walk away, and that was the way she was in life.

GOLDMAN: So, what was she like when you were growing up with her in terms of your dressing?

JOHNSON RICE: [Laughs] She never had an unexpressed opinion, but she sort of let me do my thing. But I love clothes. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

GOLDMAN: You could have had a different style than she did.

JOHNSON RICE: I think I was a little more edgy than she was. I think the generations are different. She was a very Southern woman from Alabama. Everything was completely put together, from the hair to the nails. In that era, there was no rushing out the door. She would be late to catch an airplane, and my father would say to her, “Eunice, wouldn’t it be better to be half-dressed and make the plane?” She would say, “I’m going for fully dressed; we’ll get the next one.” [Laughs]

GOLDMAN: When Hamish Bowles came to Chicago, he said, “I have to do one thing, but I want to do three things: I want to see your store, see your parents’ collection, and see Leslie Hindman’s Ebony tag sale, and I have to buy something.” And I said, “Why? What does the ‘have to’ mean?” He said, “Because it’s Eunice W. Johnson.”

Let’s talk about local designers. Who are the most exciting designers working in Chicago today?

GOLDMAN: I don’t know any other designers who really resemble a Chicago designer and have made it into the world of fashion the way that Creatures of the Wind has.

IVON: But there’’s a stigma where you stick “Chicago” on it. What difference does it make where they are? If you’’re talented, you can be based anywhere. Most Chicago-based designers don’’t want to be here. It’’s just that simple.

GOLDMAN: I agree, but how could they? We don’t have the room! We’ve never given them a platform or the tools to be able to work here. It’s virtually impossible.

IVON: One of my students at Columbia said to me, “I want to be a pattern cutter.” And I said, “Excuse me? Do you know that you will always have a job? Do you realize that you will make a lot of money doing that? Why didn’t it dawn on me that this is what you wanted to do?” Until we train the people to do the pattern cutting and do the sewing, they all want to be the next Yves Saint Laurent. We have to have the ones who are talented, such as Creatures of the Wind, stay here and build that industry. Until that happens, they’re not going to.

CAVE: How do we create some of these jump-start opportunities? Designers want investors, but you’re not going to invest in someone who doesn’t have a track record. How do you create a sort of incubator that allows you to help?

GOLDMAN: We don’t need designers in this city. We need manufacturing companies that support them. Once you build that, they will come.

ROGERS: It’s the chicken and egg, though—the designers can give the work that they can sell to the manufacturers.

GOLDMAN: One of the things that concerns people when they’re investing their money is personality. I want to know that you’re solid, that your heart is in it, that this is something you really love, and that you’re going to stick with it for a very long time. We just had dinner with the mayor, and he said one of the things he’s trying to do is get more manufacturing companies in the city.

IVON: Another one of our problems is you can’t buy fabric in America. You have to get it all offshore. These buildings are now sitting derelict, and the kind of money it would take to bring [those] buildings back—well, it’s astronomical. But to bring that manufacturing element back into the city is what we have to do, and that’s humongous.

CAVE: Just around this table, we’re all very connected and interested in fashion. Right here is an opportunity to come together. It doesn’t mean that we have to have a humongous factory to get things off the ground, but we have to be pioneers.

Like what you're reading? Get it delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up now for our newsletters >>