I suck at Instagram. I really do. There’s just not enough time. But every once in a blue moon, I check my DMs. On one of those rare times, I unearthed a message from Ian Gerard, a courteous entrepreneur who wanted to discuss the Chicago fashion scene. We had the first of many chats shortly after. Hailing from glossy NYC circles, Gerard could easily be yet another pretentious Knickerbocker looking down on us Chicagoans. But that couldn’t be further from the truth; he did admirable grassroots work connecting with a diverse array of local fashion professionals, slowly but surely listening to our successes and grievances.
Equipped with that kind of feedback from our fashion industry, and drawing on seventeen years of experience at GenArt—a leading national arts organization he used to run—Gerard was ready to make a move. At the start of 2022, he co-founded The Curio with Matt Woodburn, an established Chicago entrepreneur and arts-and-entertainment-event producer. “The mission of The Curio is twofold: to bring together and champion the Chicago fashion industry, and to showcase and elevate the best local fashion talent,” says Gerard, The Curio’s CEO. They now count on a team of dedicated volunteers, including Maggie Gillette, who’s currently at the helm with Gerard.
“When I arrived in 2020 during the pandemic, it was clear that the industry was decentralized and demoralized due to lack of city funding and scant resources, and reeling from the ramifications of COVID,” says Gerard. “We have been working to bring the industry together, to generate energy and enthusiasm, and to change the perception of Chicago fashion. We also are producing events focused on showcasing some of the city’s brighter talent and getting consumers excited about Chicago fashion so they support it and buy locally.”
Their prospects are promising; so far, the events The Curio has promoted have gathered a real who’s-who of the local fashion scene. This year they plan on hosting at least fifteen fashion-related events, including the recently wrapped fashion show at the 21c Museum Hotel, “A Celebration of Chicago Style,” hosted by Chicago-born designer Cynthia Rowley and photographer Nigel Barker and honoring acclaimed designer Maria Pinto. In our interview, Gerard shares his take on our fashion industry.
What has it been like doing all this work connecting the Chicago fashion scene?
Very rewarding. Virtually everyone is wholeheartedly supportive and excited about what we have been trying to do for the Chicago fashion industry. While there are some parts of the industry that we still strive to create deeper inroads with—including the streetwear scene—we have been very happy with the diverse array of members of the Chicago fashion community who have been attending our events. Our approach is to try and break down barriers that have existed between parts of the Chicago fashion scene.
What are your impressions of our fashion scene—the good, the bad, and the beautiful? Who are some of the notable professionals and organizations you’ve encountered?
There are a lot of good organizations and fashion professionals here. Too many to list to do everyone justice, but organizations like the Chicago Fashion Incubator, run by Anna Hovet Dias, BLK+BRWN Market, The Costume Council, FGI Chicago, AIBI Chicago, and our partner for several of our events, the Chicago Fashion Coalition, are a few that produce great programming and value for Chicago fashion. We are actively working with all of them and many others to combine forces to effect citywide change. There are also great fashion schools here, starting with The School of the Art Institute and Columbia College, which produce dozens of solid fashion graduates each year, but who face few prospects for full-time work in the industry they love because this city has failed to create the infrastructure to keep its best talent from leaving. It is not a surprise that Chicago’s most famous designers had to leave Chicago to make a national name for themselves, be it Halston, Cynthia Rowley, Brian Atwood, Eileen Fisher or Virgil Abloh.
How can we grow in terms of sales and visibility? Any chance we could become a fashion capital one day?
When we started, being labeled a Chicago talent was almost a knock against someone’s brand and talent. And that is a shame because there is so much great fashion talent here. It is clear that the city and the administrations of Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot bear some responsibility. It was under Rahm that economic support for fashion programming was zeroed out, the official Chicago Fashion Week ended, and the last remaining city administration fashion staff was let go. And unfortunately, Lightfoot continued the zero funding for fashion policy during her tenure—while other art forms ranging from visual arts to performing arts to music continued to be robustly funded in a manner as would be expected from the third-largest U.S. city. There was also a leadership vacuum, the reason for that I do not know, in terms of those who could rally Chicago fashion and make its voice heard. There are many great Chicago fashion organizations, but there was no cohesive leadership on a citywide level to effect change beyond the parameters of their own individual programming. We, and Chicago Fashion Coalition, another recent fashion start-up, have tried to step into this vacuum, to energize and galvanize the many players of Chicago fashion, and to begin to make the case that Chicago should, at the very least, be the fashion capital of the Midwest. But with cities including Indianapolis, Kansas City, [Missouri,] Dayton, Des Moines and Minneapolis hosting official fashion weeks, many supported by their city or state government, Chicago’s city leadership needs to wake up and realize that fashion is an important industry for the city that requires support and promotion. What Chicago needs is more tourists and consumers coming here for fashion, along with the many other draws of this city, and turn around the perception that Chicago and its retail sector are in free-fall. We need positive stories to tell other than failed malls and vacancies in the Mag Mile. We hope that the new administration will reevaluate and invest in Chicago fashion.
What are some of The Curio’s recent initiatives to promote local commerce?
When we were launching the company, it became clear that even people in the fashion industry didn’t know what others in the industry were doing—let alone consumers not being in the know. To combat this, we created the Chicago Fashion Calendar to promote all credible fashion initiatives taking place in this great city. It is housed on our website, and we then highlight key events from the calendar on our social channels. We have promoted over one-hundred events, sales, talks, shows and fundraisers in the past year. We will also produce our first Holiday Fashion Market this December with 21c Museum Hotel Chicago where we hope to bring together dozens of worthy fashion designers under one roof for one weekend at the height of holiday shopping to drive home the message to consumers that there are so many great wares being created locally.
Where do you see The Curio headed, and how do you intend to get there?
We see increasing the frequency of events as well as the size and stature of our fashion shows and presentations. We want to build the credibility of our fashion showcases so that not only Chicago-based media and influencers come and support us, but that we draw the interest of regional and national content creators and media outlets. We also see the potential to take the great talent we work with here in Chicago potentially to other markets’ fashion weeks to increase their exposure to a larger national and international audience. Having extensive experience in producing dozens of NYFW, Los Angeles Fashion Week, and Miami Swim Week designer shows makes that leap much easier, and far less intimidating, for us than it might be for others. I can see a Curio Chicago Designer show at NYFW in 2024. To make these things possible, raising the stature of Chicago fashion here and across the country will require support. The support of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. The support of influential Chicago fashion enthusiasts and, most importantly, corporate brands that want to align with fashion to reach a young, stylish, brand-conscious audience. We are optimistic that we can make these things happen. And working with great brands like 21c Museum Hotels and Tricoci Salon & Spas already is building a foundation for future alignments. But overall, seeing how far we have come in one year, I believe that the future of Chicago fashion is bright!
Journalist Isa Giallorenzo was born in São Paulo, Brazil and has elected Chicago as her beloved home since 2009. She runs the street-style blog Chicago Looks and wants to see this town become one of the fashion capitals of the world.