The Wind of Change
Michelle Obama Has Put Chicago's Conservative Chic on World's Stage

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009


Popular culture has defined Chicago as the big city that is not New York -- urban, energetic, and filled with bold architecture but lacking all those Big Apple neuroses. It has served as a training ground for our national jesters: "Saturday Night Live" cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey. In the '70s, Chicago was "Good Times" and "Mahogany." In the '80s, it was "Risky Business" and John Hughes movies. And for generations to come, the city will celebrate Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey.

But in the popular consciousness, Chicago has never been about fashion. Until now. When Michelle Obama stepped into the spotlight with her Maria Pinto sheaths, style suddenly became one of this city's high-profile exports.

The new first lady, a Chicago native, has been crowned a fashion icon by designers, magazine editors and no small number of bloggers whose posts range from sweetly fawning to so obsessive they might have been typed from a dim basement room plastered with yellowed news clippings. Her fashion status began shifting upward in fall 2007 when she was photographed in Vogue. By summer 2008, when she wore a purple sleeveless Maria Pinto dress and an Azzedine Alaia belt and fist-bumped her husband onstage in Denver, her style became central to the public's relationship with her.

Her signature look is characterized by those minimalist dresses, statement jewelry, bare legs and toned arms. She smoothly shifts from designer dresses priced at more than $1,000 to mass market brands such as the Gap and H&M. She shops Chicago's exclusive North Rush Street, and she browses the Internet.

She helped a $148 Donna Ricco sundress sell out because she wore it -- and talked about it -- on "The View" in June 2008. After she wore J. Crew on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in October and discussed her online shopping habits, the company updated its Web site so customers could type "Michelle Obama" into the search engine to pull up her ensemble under the headline: "All politics aside . . . this outfit gets our vote."

Obama's fashion choices will be a shorthand for the style of this White House. The Kennedy White House exuded an East Coast aristocratic style embodied by Jackie Kennedy's European-influenced wardrobe mixed with preppy simplicity. The Reagans swept into the nation's capital full of Hollywood panache and glamour. Nancy Reagan brought along James Galanos and his couture sensibility. And while Laura Bush did not become famous for cowboy boots and Western hats, Texas style was celebrated during two inaugurations and many visits to the Crawford ranch.

So what is Chicago style beyond big coats, warm boots and long, flat vowels? Does it even exist?

The Milan of the Midwest

It's hard to distill a region's fashion sensibility into 25 words or less. But for recent administrations, there at least has been a vocabulary of cliches that could be debated and dissected. California is informal. The East Coat is tweedy. Texas is boots, hats and belt buckles. True or false? Talk amongst yourselves.

Chicago style may be akin to a Midwestern news anchor accent. It usually goes unnoticed. It is the standard by which everything else is judged either as good or bad.

At least one thing is certain: Geography shapes Chicago style as surely as it affects the way Californians dress. Lisbeth Levine, a tall redhead with an Ivory girl complexion, grew up in the New York suburbs, but for the past 20 years has lived in Chicago. For five of them, beginning in the late 1980s, she was the Chicago Sun-Times fashion editor.

"It was the Armani era, and when I went to Milan for the first time, I immediately understood why his clothes did so well in Chicago. It was the coloring of the city," she says. Milan can be a monotone of grays, from the sky to the buildings. Giorgio Armani's palette of beige, gray and oatmeal fit right in with Chicago's iced over, salt-stained winters. "People who wear bright colors come from areas with lots of sun," she says. "Those subdued colors just fit the landscape."

On one of the coldest days of the year, one can't resist risking frostbite to wander the city and see if these folks can be stylish in below-freezing temperatures. Men wear dark overcoats and fedoras; a woman in a chestnut-colored fur stands out because of her metallic gold scarf, which looks handmade; and a stubbornly fashionable young woman in cropped black pants stands at a bus stop in snub-toed slingbacks and bare feet. But mostly, warmth trumps any slavish devotion to style.

Designer Cynthia Rowley, who grew up in Barrington, Ill., a northwest suburb, remembers the old wintertime image of "women in ankle-length fur coats with a matching hat. Furs were cool," she says. "No one was pouring paint on them."

"The joke is that my first collection, when I was still living in Chicago . . . was wool pants and turtlenecks in thick mohair. Sweaters and mittens. It was shearlings. A buyer said to me, 'Everywhere in the U.S. is not like Chicago.' It was totally like the frying-pan-over-the-head moment," says Rowley, now based in New York.

The brutal weather translates into a practical approach to fashion overall. "There's a total Midwestern sensibility. You're proud to have gotten a good deal," Rowley says. "It's totally counterintuitive to the whole fashion world where status and price makes something desirable, when in the Midwest it's that special thing you find, like a flea market find or the J. Crew outfit Michelle [Obama] wore on Leno."

While it is possible to find a man in an ankle-length mink trench coat on the Chicago streets these days, the women have long since moved on from that sort of matchy-matchy opulence. They have honed a style that is influenced by Midwestern propriety, the city's history and the challenges of the fashion industry as a whole.

Style matters here, but people aren't focused on adopting trends fast and furiously. And they don't save fashion for special occasions. Judith Byrd-Blaylock, a longtime Chicago resident before moving to New York four years ago, remembers being inspired to shun a bland corporate uniform as a freshly minted attorney in the 1980s. "I got my navy suit and white shirt, the women's version of the male uniform," she says. "Luckily, there was a woman partner who was very fashion forward. She was a role model. I didn't have to wear the uniform."

The Obama administration will include two high-profile women from Chicago who have been featured in Vogue magazine and celebrated for their everyday professional style: senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Desiree Rogers, White House social secretary.

There are some 250 designers working in this city. Shopping is Chicago's No. 1 tourist activity, according to Melissa Gamble, who has been Mayor Richard Daley's point person on the city's fashion industry since 2005, and it has Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York, countless designer flagships and a fair number of high-end independent boutiques such as Blake and Ikram that help set the national fashion industry agenda.

"Chicago is not a fashion wasteland as people have come to regard the Midwest. It is very fashion conscious," Byrd-Blaylock says firmly. "They follow the fashion rules more closely. They ask themselves, 'How do we put that together in a way that is sophisticated and not too whimsical?' In New York and L.A. they're more focused on personal style and quirkiness."

When she lived in Chicago, Byrd-Blaylock traveled in the kind of social circle that included law firm events, charity galas and politics. She chaired the finance committee for Barack Obama's losing congressional race against Bobby Rush. She served on the finance committee for his U.S. Senate race and on his New York finance committee for the presidential one.

Chicago, she says, is a city dominated by business and civic institutions. "The way people dress generally reflects the culture of the community. When I think of Chicago, it's a big business community. It is culturally strong and growing, but it's different from a place like Los Angeles or New York," she says. "The attire is influenced by what is appropriate. You err on the side of being conservative. Sophistication above adventurousness."

'Pulled Together'

Michelle Obama reflects the Chicago approach to fashion -- albeit with a more enthusiastic embrace of color.

"I think Michelle, the way I've seen her dress over the last two years, there's conservatism about it, but in a fresh way. It's pulled together, head to toe. The hair, the makeup. Nothing is out of whack," Byrd-Blaylock says. "It was important to women I knew to be well-dressed but still in the realm of appropriate."

In Chicago, she was part of a group of socially prominent women, including Obama, Rogers and Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, who shopped at Ikram, a boutique at Rush and Chestnut streets that carries collections ranging from the iconoclastic Azzedine Alaia to fashion favorite Lanvin.

The store and its owner, Ikram Goldman, are well-known within the fashion industry. Goldman, who dresses mostly in black, grew up in Israel, was tutored by the now retired Joan Weinstein -- the closest thing Chicago ever had to a retail version of Diana Vreeland -- and has a keen eye for design talent.

Chicago supports as many multi-brand, high-end, independent boutiques as Manhattan, if not more. Those shops include the eclectic Blake, the flashier Ultimo, as well as chic Jake and Mark Shale, an ultra-high-end Brooks Brothers-meets-Talbots. But Ikram stands out because of Goldman's determination to make sure her customers are not only well-turned out, but well informed.

"I love her mind," says Timothy Long, curator of costumes for the Chicago History Museum. "I love that she teaches a Midwestern vernacular of European design." (Michelle Obama's press office asked Goldman to decline an interview request for this story.)

She has "a strong following of women who are sophisticated and well-traveled who want to step outside of the box," Byrd-Blaylock says. "You go to Ikram, and you feel like a new woman walking out of there. She opens your mind and makes you feel edgy and fresh."

Like any city, Chicago and its residents are shaped by their history. The city's legacy as a meatpacking town dominated by gangsters and political machines encouraged women to actively work to build a more palatable reputation. "Women from this city, when they traveled internationally, met with negative ideas of what the city was," Long says. "They used fashion to convey a visual message: We are not blue-collar, unsophisticated. We are not hog butcherers."

"Women who could buy Balenciaga would buy the signature item, the Balenciaga gown, the Paul Poiret gown," Long says. "Chicago was the second largest city for so long. If you're third, fourth or fifth, you're not going to fight as much. But if you're in a race just behind the winner, you're going to try harder."

If there is any doubt about the discerning eye of Chicago women -- including those with family names such as McCormick and Field that now grace city landmarks -- an exhibition of their clothes underscores their fashion savvy. "Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures From the Chicago History Museum" includes works by Lanvin, Poiret, Charles Worth and Halston -- who began his career as a local milliner.

That history as a second city influences contemporary Chicago style. People believe in being pulled together. It's not a stuffy city or an overly formal one. But there is a sense that sloppiness is a form of disrespect. On a Thursday evening at Pops for Champagne, a small bubbly bar and jazz lounge on State Street, the men are in crisp shirts and trousers, the women in sweaters and slacks. No one has a studied look. But everyone appears to have made an effort.

"They take pride in looking nicely put together," says Nancy Pearlstein, who owns Relish in Georgetown. In the mid-'90s, she was the men's and women's fashion director for Mark Shale. "In Chicago, I think they're a little more intimidated to take a risk because no one does. In Chicago, they're much safer. But in a nice way."

Not 'Trying to Be New York'

History also has shaped the way Chicago relates to its homegrown talent.

For decades, the hometown department store Marshall Field went head-to-head with its New York counterparts. It hosted elaborate galas to benefit local institutions such as the Lyric Opera. And it was the king of fashion for the entire Midwest.

When it was swallowed by Federated Department Stores in 2005 and transformed into Macy's a year later, the locals were incensed in a way that residents of Minneapolis and Detroit were not when their beloved department stores disappeared.

So out of more than 800 locations, the State Street Macy's is the only one with a "fashion incubator" dedicated to nurturing six local designers who have been in business for less than three years. Their aesthetic ranges from the polished tailoring of Agga Bonikowska to Evil Kitty, which is driven by cheeky graphics.

The store also has a separate department for more established Chicago designers set off with fancy signage proclaiming their hometown affiliation. And Chicago has its own fashion week, supported by Macy's as well as the city.

"When we first started, everybody said, 'Oh, you're trying to be New York.' No. New York is New York," says Gamble from the mayor's office. "We're striving to develop the full potential of what's unique to this city."

The city has four design schools, including the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which produced a long list of designers including Halston and Maria Pinto.

Pinto started in fashion with dramatic wraps and even now in her spare, loft-like West Loop shop, drawers are filled with distinctive styles such as a black cashmere throw bisected by a spray of metallic beads. Her work ranges from the minimalist sheaths worn by Obama -- priced in the $900 range -- to more elaborately detailed gowns that sometimes drift into excessiveness.

Nestled in the city's Gold Coast neighborhood is Sam Kori George, whose spartan 4,200-square-foot atelier draws philanthropists, businesswomen and professional socializers who are uninterested in trends and willing to spend $3,400 on a cashmere blazer or $12,500 for a mink lined overcoat. George, who formerly worked at Barneys New York, says he surpasses the $1 million mark in yearly sales.

Trying to set up a design business outside New York or Los Angeles adds an additional hurdle to an already tough business. But designers here have found both a method and a customer base. Melissa Serpico, for example, found an affordable location on a spotty stretch of North Ashland Street in Wicker Park. In Chicago, she says, "You either have to start your own business or go elsewhere."

Her second fall collection hangs in her shop. It's distinguished by asymmetrical draping techniques, seams that angle in surprising directions and a certain degree of discretion. Serpico's fidelity to Chicago has paid off with a new high profile commission. She's creating a pink inaugural gown for Amy Rule, wife of Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff and a Chicago native.

All politics might be local, but in Chicago, fashion is, too.

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