By Jennifer Berg and Elizabeth Seeskin
Far away from the established runways in New York, Paris and Milan, hairdressers busily curl hair and makeup artists dust faces under white canopies on the rooftop of River North’s Citizen Bar. In another tent, Rosie Dulyapaibul, owner of Bucktown boutique Roslyn, lets out an operatic trill as designer Elise Bergman pulls out a white dress she’s created just for Rosie’s shop.
It’s the evening of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an inventive fashion show showcasing Bergman’s latest collection. At the garden-themed affair, models clad in ethereal, summery dresses stand atop pedestals placed beside flowering pots. Tables are flecked with candles and, as the night wears on, stars appear in the sky overhead.
With her tumbling blonde curls and porcelain features, Bergman herself is a perfect addition to the celestial scene. And despite the fact that tonight is “her” fashion show, Bergman carries herself with an ease that belies her tender age.
At just 23 years old, Bergman has designed “about three or four collections,” she says, and her designs have already been scooped up by discriminating boutiques across the country. Throughout the summer (from Memorial Day to Labor Day), Bergman runs a tiny clothing shop in Lakeside, Michigan called Elise Bergman Dress Fine (www.elisebergman.com). The shop, which is a “tiny addition” to her aunt’s jewelry store, “is about the size of a dressing room,” she says. “Which works great [because it] allows me to work closely and personally with every customer.” Locally, Bergman’s work can be found at Roslyn and Lincoln Park’s Entendre.
Although her design talents developed at an impressively young age, Bergman, a Chicago native, wasn’t the type of gal who stitched up elaborate Barbie doll dresses at age 5. “I had a few Barbies,” she says. “But I spent a little more time building forts in the woods than playing with dolls.” Not that she was a total tomboy. “I definitely liked to play dress-up and give my friends makeovers and do other girly things,” she’s quick to say, adding that she “was pretty crafty” and could Bedazzle like nobody’s business. She was also born with a mean business sense—Bergman started selling hemp necklaces and beaded jewelry to “a couple little clothing shops” when she was about 11 years old.
At a young age, Bergman started sewing under the tutelage of her mother and grandmothers. “I would help them with projects around the holidays,” she says. “I would generally sew by myself, as long as the lines were straight,” though, “as soon as we came to a curve, someone else had to take over.”
Even though Bergman says her mother always “had great style and dressed us in really nice and fun clothes,” she confesses that she “was fairly unaware of fashion and personal style growing up.” And on the playground, she wasn’t exactly surrounded by young fashionistas. “I couldn’t quite appreciate Oilily dresses or cowboy boots at the time because a lot of my classmates made fun of me for dressing ‘different,’” she remembers. “My attempts to fit in a little better resulted in things like oversized Elmo t-shirts and faded denim overall shorts.”
In high school, Bergman says she “started to get a better grasp on how to express myself through clothing…I began to really enjoy putting together outfits that had a good balance of funky, hand-made pieces and classic essentials.” It was also around this time that her artistic eye came into focus. Throughout high school, Bergman took jewelry and metal-smithing classes that, she says, “really aided in my understanding of 3D structure.” She also spent a summer at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), where she studied jewelry and textiles.
She did not, however, study fashion design in college. At the University of Michigan (she graduated last year with a degree in English), Bergman duly enrolled in the art school and liberal arts program. She now attributes her understanding of color, texture and aesthetics to classes she took in subjects like fiber arts. “My training is more in structure and material than in apparel design,” she says. “I’m learning terminology and the best ways to drape fabric as I go. I’m sure I break all sorts of fashion rules, but I have so much fun experimenting.”
These days, Bergman’s experiments are conjured in a Lincoln Park studio-slash-apartment, whose workspace is defined by a long wooden table with her laptop on one end and her sewing machine on the other. “Business side, creative side,” she says laughing. And as she guides through the neat stack of vintage sweaters that are lying on the floor ready to be cut and recycled, it’s clear just how much experimentation goes on.
Bergman often uses material from vintage clothes out of a desire to reduce waste and remain eco-friendly. But the variations in material and the original cut of the garment mean vast differences in the final piece. Explaining how she integrates these variables into her design, Bergman is somewhat vague. “I kind of had a general idea in mind, but just really I kind of sat for awhile and thought about the sleeves, and I just sat, I didn’t start to cut, I just like…played a little bit.”
“Playing” is an integral part of Bergman’s process. “That’s why sometimes I don’t understand designers who don’t sew,” she says. “It’s really important for me to be actually physically working with the material, because it takes on its own life and you need to respect that.”
In terms of her day-to-day agenda, Bergman says “each day ends up being very different.” She elaborates: “I spend about two hours a day on the computer doing paperwork, Web site updates, finances, catching up on emails and keeping track of orders. I spend a couple hours each day working out the details of the new pieces, sewing custom dresses or doing alterations. Once every couple days I’ll venture out for meetings with customers, shop owners, writers, potential interns or one of the few seamstresses who help me keep up with some of the sewing.”
For the young designer, having extra help feels like a welcome luxury: “It is still exciting to me when somebody buys one dress,” she says. “So when somebody places an order for ten or fifteen, I’m a little overwhelmed, though thrilled. It’s nice to have some extra hands to help with sewing. When I first started selling wholesale I was still hand-making everything by myself.”
Though she’s an artist at heart, Bergman says she also enjoys crunching numbers. Still, she says, in her day-to-day life, “finding the balance [between business and creativity] is tricky. Good business and marketing don’t do anything if the product is bad or unavailable. And, a good product can’t survive a faulty business.”
She copes with it all with Zen aplomb. “I’m just taking it one step at a time and growing within my own means,” she says.
Without a degree from Parsons or an internship with Derek Lam, Bergman travels outside the accepted path of a fashion designer. She admits that she never took the runway seriously. “Three years ago I didn’t pay attention at all. It’s like I knew Prada and Marc Jacobs. And I think I didn’t want to be a fashion designer, because I didn’t really appreciate the fashion industry.” She’s paying attention now though, at least a little. “I’ve been clipping from Style.com,” she says. All of the fashion-minded who don’t have front-row seats to Fashion Week keep tabs on the daily runways by checking pictures posted on the Internet, including Bergman.
But Bergman says she hasn’t been very inspired by what she saw. She bemoans the extreme shapes that travel down the catwalk and have little to no relationship with what people actually wear. “The tent shape is really in and sometimes it looks great,” she explains of a recent trend, “but sometimes it looks ridiculous and I don’t know how anyone can wear that.”
For Bergman, clothing isn’t about the latest and newest. She has no “story” for her collections and the pieces aren’t meant to generate talk among the fashion elite. “I think being a trendsetter is important, but sometimes it gets to be so extreme that it’s impractical.” Bergman’s collections don’t go through a complete overhaul each season. Instead, new dresses are added to the previous designs, a nod to her desire to create classic, timeless pieces. “And though I like to think there is an edginess to my designs, everything I’m working on now is very feminine. A theme in a lot of my pieces is their simplicity, versatility and high-quality fabrics. I try to make my pieces as versatile as possible and generally just make one size and find a way that it can be adjusted to fit a lot of body types. Sashes and ties are a theme in my pieces.”
Being outside of the industry has its perks, too. Despite the clothes’ lack of art-school edginess or associations with celebrities, they’ve managed to find a place among some of Chicago’s most respected boutiques. Dulayapaibul of Roslyn explains, “…for the fall season we [at Roslyn] have had great feedback on the raw silk multi-wraps that can be worn several different ways, and dressed up or dressed down. The Justine and Belle dresses, which were created for the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ event, will be available throughout the fall. They’re great dresses because they are so comfortable, yet chic.” Bergman’s status as an independent designer is part of what helps sell her clothes to both a local and national market. Explaining how the owner of Entendre pitches her clothes to customers, Bergman says, “She likes to say ‘I know the designer,’ or ‘She’s local.’ And they don’t have to have any idea who I am. But some people really like that idea.”
Not that she entirely identifies with the term. Trying to describe the space in the fashion world that she’s cut out for herself, Bergman says, “Indie. That’s a title that I like and also I think of like an indie craft fair. I fall somewhere in between. I’m not making sock puppets and I don’t have huge production in China. Nor do I want to do either of those things.” Bergman’s design is consistent with her evaluation of herself. Definitely a stylish step up from the patchwork skirts that grace stands at local fairs, her pieces maintain a hint of the hippie aesthetic with natural fabrics and her consistent use of wraps.
When posed with that clichéd job-interview question—what direction are you headed in over the next several years—Bergman reveals clear and realistic goals. “I like the idea of moving business and home a little farther away from each other,” she says. “In the long run, I imagine a spot that includes a workshop and a showroom and maybe incorporates a community or collection of other artists and designers. I want to continue to be as interactive and personal as possible, so I like the idea of a public workspace.”
But the next few years will take a few years to arrive, so Bergman concludes, “I’m just getting settled into my new spot. So I think I’ll sit tight for a little while.”
Since the 2006 development of the Mayor’s Fashion Advisory Council, there’s been much talk of designers staying in Chicago, and how the city can work to make that a more attractive career path. On the topic, Bergman says, “I think I have a greater chance of being noticed as a designer in a city like Chicago, where people are aware of fashion, but our city isn’t as based on that industry as New York or L.A.”
Of course, being a native of the city doesn’t hurt her decision to stay put. “Chicago is my home,” Bergman says, “so there is a great base of people here rooting for me.”