At his Oak Street flagship boutique, George Zaharoff helps to meet Chicago men’s need for luxury suiting.
Zaharoff’s suits come in a variety of fabrics and styles.
Clients can handpick fabrics in the upstairs atelier.
Slim-fit light blue plaid shirt ($110) and sapphire blue tie with bouclé yarn ($100).
by elle eichinger | July 5, 2013 | Style & Beauty
You enter a serene space, flanked on either side by the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Light shines down from above, and ahead of you beckons a grand curving staircase—exactly where it leads is obscured from view. Affirmations swirl around you: “Be at peace.” “Invoke positives.” “Dare to dream.” “Dream big.” “Take action.”
Is this paradise? No, it’s Zaharoff, designer and Chicago native George Zaharoff’s eponymous Oak Street flagship boutique, which opened late last year. The angels were commissioned works, based on carvings that Zaharoff found in a 17th-century monastery outside Kazan, in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan; the signature pattern etched into the translucent glass is inspired by a Venetian church from the Byzantine era. And the affirmations curling up the curved staircase wall represent the dream-chasing quality Zaharoff both possesses and looks for in his clients. “Byzantine Industrial” is what Zaharoff dubs the look of the three-story boutique, which he designed with the help of architect Jordan Mozer.
Despite the beauty and thoughtfulness of the design, though, the centerpiece of the store is Zaharoff’s custom clothes. The suits he has been designing for the past 20 years are practical and functional, handmade from unique Italian fabrics and inspired by world travels. “They set [the wearer] apart just a little bit,” Zaharoff says. “Not crazy or wacky—just a little different.” And at a time when fashion seems to be embracing androgyny at every turn, Zaharoff’s suits exude pure masculinity in their tailoring. “You won’t look at a piece and say, ‘That’s a woman’s—no, that’s a man’s jacket,’” Zaharoff says. “It’s very clear. I love the masculinity of a male, the femininity of a female,” the designer says. “I love bringing out those aspects.”
Specifically, “My Zaharoff man is somebody who goes out there after his dream,” Zaharoff says. He’s a power player in any industry, and the suits complement his lifestyle—not only with soft-yet-durable fabrics that are wrinkle-resistant for easy travel, but also with those same affirmations that the designer is so fond of sewn inside each suit jacket. Zaharoff imagines his customer on a business trip: “He’s in a hotel room somewhere, and he’s got a big meeting, so he has his jacket out. All of a sudden he puts it on the bed, it falls open, and it says, ‘I can accomplish anything I want to.’”
Zaharoff himself has long been that very traveling businessman. Since launching his line at the age of 21 after graduating from DePaul University—where he studied operations management because, he was told, “Little boys can’t grow up to be fashion designers”—Zaharoff has traveled to more than 100 countries. From Greenland to Hong Kong to West Africa, he’s picked up patterns, color palettes, and fabrics and met manufacturers who are doing things differently. He always travels with an open mind. “The moment you’re judgmental,” he says, “you block off. Then you’ll be in another part of the world, and you’ll miss something. You have to be open to anything and everything.” He looks at the world in patterns—the tie he wears when we meet bears a motif he discovered on wooden doors in Zanzibar; a shirt he stocks is patterned after a damask wall he saw in a Russian palace.
On one spring day, Zaharoff is clad in a mix of patterns tied together by auburn accents: a thin stripe in the plaid of his pants and the stripe of his sock, a part of the motif of his tie. For summer he lightens things up with linen, bright colors, and breathable leather shoes. Just don’t expect to see George Zaharoff in shorts, ever. In the past, he contends, “shorts were worn by children until they reached maturity, and only then would they receive their ‘big boy’ pants. Men did not wear shorts in public until after World War II.” His answer to the faux pas: “Summer in Chicago is perfect for what I call ‘tropical’ 100 percent wool fabrics. The yarn is twisted before it is woven, giving it bounce and making it wrinkle resistant. It allows the heat created by the body to escape easily.” He adds: “Remember to wear a cotton undershirt, too.”
Zaharoff also makes it a point to encourage color. “In men’s suits, every color sells as long as it’s black, blue, or dark gray,” he jokes. “So how do you mix it up? With the neckwear, the shirt, the socks.” This summer, he’s working with brilliant shades of vermilion, jade, periwinkle, and bright yellow. He’s also using heat-resistant bamboo fabrics from Japan as well as his favorite Italian linens. These are the types of textiles customers will find in Zaharoff’s in-progress atelier on the third floor, which he’s modeling after the European fashion houses. “I am going to have a ‘fabric library,’” the designer explains. “Bolts of very special fabric I find in my travels, which will be shown only to my very special clients.” Among them are lush bamboo silks; Zaharoff is also working on a collaboration with Japanese mills known for their magnificent fabrics. He’ll keep no more than 10 yards of each—enough for only a few suits or jackets—guaranteeing a unique product every time.
And then comes the designer’s favorite part: putting it all together. “[As a designer] you create art, but the wearer is the completion,” says Zaharoff. “Like when an artist signs his name—to me it’s when the suit becomes part of the person, that’s the completion. That’s the finished piece.” Zaharoff, 110 E. Oak St., 312-285-2100
Photography by david w. johnson