Walking into the Chicago Fashion Incubator feels like walking onto the set of Project Runway, but there’s a crucial difference: the incubator’s six designers are here to stay. They’re at the incubator for a year—all of them. These designers aren’t competing, and their runway shows are a time for celebration, not cruel dismissals. At a meet-and-greet this week, these designers are all smiles and great outfits, and while their naivete about the fashion industry is quickly disappearing, they still have the enthusiasm and optimism of young, creative entrepreneurs.
Chances are, even after this crop of designers leaves the incubator, you’ll see their names pop up again and again. The program, part of Richard M. Daley’s Fashion Initiative, started in 2008, and many of its past designers—Agga Raya of Agga B. and Kate Boggiano included—are now carried in local boutiques like Veruca Salt.
This year’s designers run the gamut, but each pushes Chicago fashion a little outside of its comfort zone, in both directions: Women will have to get more down-to-earth or make more of a statement than you’re used to with these designers, and with two functional menswear lines, even the anti-metrosexual man will be tempted to peruse a rack.
Jonnie Rettele for Nonnie Threads designs utilitarian but stylish menswear, wheras Donaldo Smith for Killian Gui is urban-inspired but classic. Stephanie Kuhr for Dottie’s Delights stands out for her contemporary burlesque lingerie that oozes curves and sex appeal. Miriam Cecilia Carlson for m.c.c. is the fanciful, playful, induglent counterpart to more practical options like versatile, lucid separates by Leah Fagan for Peloton and tailored, accessible avant-garde pieces by Christina Fan for C/Fan.
The incubator expanded this year to include an Associate Designers training program as well as the Designers in Residence program. Twelve designers who applied for the Designers in Residence program and had potential but weren’t quite ready for the full-time incubator are part of the program attend quarterly workshops and use the workspace. The expansion of the program is a sign that whatever the economy brings us, Chicago fashion will keep moving forward. (Ella Christoph)