Once upon a time, Chicago shoppers could walk up and down the intersection of North, Milwaukee and Damen and find a plethora of independently owned boutiques, ready to outfit nearly every style palate with hard-to-find designers, unique pieces and personal attention. But last week’s closing of two-year-old boutique Language and the shuttering of Jade later this month prove that one of the city’s most eclectic shopping areas is undergoing a sad makeover. The emergence of clothing-store chains like BCBG and Marc Jacobs in the neighborhood have small-boutique owners backed into a corner.
“The neighborhood is changing,” says Natalie Barber, owner of Language. “The overheads are getting expensive, property taxes are outrageous, rents are sky-high because of all the nationals coming in.” It’s a strange catch—the success of the boutiques in the neighborhood drew the attention of the national chains, who want to be a part of such a great shopping area. But some boutique owners have found they are unable to compete.
“The competition is fierce,” says Jade owner Laura Merlo, who equates Wicker Park’s evolution to that of the Meatpacking District in NYC. “They have sales all the time, their return policies more lenient. It becomes a challenge for small businesses to run the way they are accustomed to running.”
As if things weren’t challenging enough, both women cite the sluggish economy as a factor in closing their doors. “With the recession and the market being so bad people just aren’t shopping like they used to. Business just isn’t getting better,” Merlo says.
Anyone who has lived in the Wicker Park/Bucktown area can’t help but notice the massive face0lift that the area has recently undergone. And with the Michigan Avenue-ication of the once-artsy neighborhood, Merlo believes the flavor—both in style and culture—is rapidly disappearing. “It really takes away from what the neighborhood used to be. It’s been yuppified. They’re scaring away the people who loved to live here for so long.”
Despite the closings, both Merlo and Barber are far too passionate about fashion to stay away for long; new projects are already in the works. While Barber won’t rule out a storefront return, for now she’ll focus on the Language Web site, where business has actually flourished, and Merlo will open a new venture later this year. But both women cite location as a looming question, wondering where’s the next Wicker Park-like neighborhood. (Molly Each)