Downtown Chicago may have lost some of its retail identity when Marshall Field’s department store was renamed Macy’s. But retail in the Second City, like so many other American metropolises, is becoming identified as much by its neighborhoods – restored, rebuilt, regentrified – as by its downtown core and outer ring of malls.
These winds of change reflect an overall transformation in retail, as more retailers are seeking out storefronts on neighborhood Main Streets. Retailers plan to have 11 percent of their stores in urban street-front locations by the end of 2008, compared with 8 percent last year, according to the 2007 National Retail Federation “Retail Real Estate” study.
The trend in Chicago can be seen with big-name brands as well as independent boutiques. Last year, Nicole Miller decided to abandon the city’s fashionable Oak Street block between North Michigan Avenue and Rush Street when her lease expired and open a store on Wells Street in Old Town, an area just west of the Loop known more for its restaurants than its retailing. (Though it did house the first Crate & Barrel location, in an abandoned elevator factory on a funky side street in 1962.)
Armitage Avenue, an East-West street that forms the northern boundary of Old Town – dividing it from the city’s historic Lincoln Park neighborhood – has been nurturing a boutique scene for the past several years. On a seven-block stretch between Halsted and Racine, you’ll find shops specializing in women’s shoes, children’s clothing, pet products, skincare, unique gifts and custom handbags. National brands have also found a home here, including American Apparel, Starbucks, Kiehl’s and United Colors of Benetton.
Chicago’s Magnificent Mile will always be the place to see the big-name department stores and fashion brands. But the city’s increasingly stylish neighborhoods are an inspiring stop for creativity and originality. Here are a few boutique gems found on Armitage, a short El-stop away on your next visit to Chicago. Also, find more information and photos at www.vmsd.com.
934 W. Armitage
A not-so-general store
Art Effect, located in a 100-year-old former pharmacy building at the corner of Armitage and Bissell, carries contemporary clothing, jewelry, accessories, home goods and gifts, with brands including Jonathan Adler, David Fussenegger, Michael Aram and Alexis Bittar jewelry. “We keep the mix interesting so you can’t find these products everywhere,” says buyer and general manager Naowna Simon. That eclectic nature is also reflected in the store environment, which marries exposed brick and wood floors with bright painted walls. Product displays include stainless-steel tables on casters and vintage armoires. Here, an antique Underwood typewriter provides the perfect display vehicle for a modern-day pen collection.
1013 W. Armitage
no web site
Trendy threads at affordable prices
Offering casual to dressy styles, this store is a favorite among those looking for the season’s must-haves without the designer price tag. Labels include Nanette Lepore, LA Made, Diane Von Furstenberg and FCUK. A collection of furniture pieces, including tables, chairs and armoires, artfully displays the products and complements the rough-hewn flooring and light-colored walls. A sitting area in the back invites shoppers to relax between looking for that perfect outfit or accessory.
1154 Lill Studio
904 W. Armitage
Create your own “it” bag
Founder Jennifer Velarde says Armitage’s creative and homegrown atmosphere is the perfect place for her made-to-order handbag boutique. “Our brand is not just a product,” she says. “It’s an experience.” Inside a rehabbed Victorian house, bay windows, high ceilings, light-stained hardwood flooring and warm colors fuel the creative vibe. The design studio features samples, fabrics and pre-made bags hanging from bookcases lining the perimeter. Large work tables in the center invite customers to work with staff to create a one-of-a-kind bag, including work, everyday, makeup and special occasion styles. Shoppers also have more than 200 fabric swatches to choose from. “We try to hit on the same trends as those going on in the fashion world,” says Velarde.
Lori’s Designer Shoes
824 W. Armitage
Calling all shoe-aholics
One of the veterans of Armitage, Lori’s Designer Shoes carries more than 10,000 pairs of fashion footwear, jewelry and accessories. The warehouse-display style invites women of all ages to roll their pants up to the ankles and try on Dolce Vita, Charles David, Michael Kors and Via Spiga. Work and evening shoes are displayed in front, while the middle houses casual wear and boots. Super-casual is in the back. Colored concrete flooring inset with tiles depicting images of various pumps reinforces the message that it’s all about the shoes here.
1969 N. Halsted
The anti-supersize diner
Minnies’ decor may be inspired by the 1940s, but it’s retro with an edge like the rest of its Lincoln Park environs. Minnies is mini. The chic, casual eatery serves up tiny “Minnieburger” sandwiches like the classic Reuben and Cuban to a more modern Melted Brie, and cocktails are served with airline-size bottles of liquor. (Minnieburgers go for 3 for $8.75; 6 for $16.50 or 12 for $32.) The bar’s black-and-white tile floors and red-leatherette stools further lend to the retro feel. In the back, patterned black-and-white wallpaper and a 1950s-era mural of three old dames enjoying cocktails add to the spirited vibe.