By Jimmy Lobus, Lauren Camplin and Maria Cannata
Despite gloomy economic conditions, Wicker Park remains a haven for “underground” culture, fashion, and design.
The Chicago neighborhood is a home for various fashion stores, ranging from well-known chains and designers to locally owned boutiques and thrift stores. Even in times when the Federal Bureau reports retails sales remain “relatively unchanged”, some high-end boutiques manage to stay on top.
“We opened up in 1997 and there definitely weren’t as many stores then as there are now,” said Nick Johnson, an Una Mae’s employee.
The store originally sold vintage products only but as more stores opened in the area, they were forced to change their image and include more modernized lines.
The evolving area of Wicker Park has forced many boutiques like Una Mae’s to adjust their image and promote their uniqueness. Walking down Milwaukee a casual shopper can find a variety of stores offering the similar merchandise. While some boutiques chose to expand the lines they offer, others chose to focus on a different area.
“It’s all about presentation and knowing merchandise,” said Lendsey Leyland, a manager at Lenny and Me’s on Milwaukee. “We try to set up cute displays so it doesn’t just look like a bunch of junk in a store. Wicker Park is known for being really diverse in all different kinds of shops. You run the gauntlet, you can get anything.”
While visual displays can help bring and keep customers, some shoppers say these techniques don’t influence their choices.
“I like the older quality of vintage clothes,” said Constance Longmoore. “The presentation of things and economy haven’t affected my decisions it’s just about personalizing my style.”
Wicker Park resident Deanna Paulson agrees saying that her shopping changes with the economy since “you can walk one way and buy a $500 jacket from Marc Jacobs and two stores later you can buy a leather coat from the 70’s for $30.”
Customers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of Wicker Park’s selection during the economy. Bonnie and Clyde’s owner Stephen Naparstek has found ways to put a positive spin on a grim time.
“I think the financial issue the US has been having the past two years has forced us to work smarter,” said Naparstek. “It’s provided us with the opportunity to go to more advanced lines that normally wouldn’t give us the time or opportunity because they already had their foot in Chicago and now they’re looking for new and different things as well.”
Podcast: Listen to Naparstek’s full interview:
Bonnie and Clyde’s expanded their lines into unisex clothing to set them apart from other stores and place emphasis on the “individual” instead of gender.
The boutique also uses another tool to cut costs and keep business thriving: nontraditional advertising.
Bonnie and Clyde’s is one of many independent businesses using global advertising agency USCENE to target customers virally. The global agency focuses on supporting independent businesses and promoting their boutique image in low cost ways.
Chicago UNSCENE Principal Christoph Gauspohl believes in his work because of the impact he’s seen local business have on communities like Wicker Park.
“Most people have no clue that in their simple everyday decisions they have the power to affect the survival of independent businesses as we know it,” said Gauspohl. “It is proven that when money is spent at a local business, the majority of the money stays within that community.”
Naparstek agrees with Gauspohl’s take stressing that “it keeps Wicker Park the focal point for the arts in Chicago” despite difficult financial times.
Some Wicker Park boutiques working with UNSCENE have taken advantage of these opportunities by focusing on social media. With new technology available there are many new ways in which stores can promote their products.
Stores like Bonnie and Clyde’s use blogging and social media to reach new customers about their clothing and art. Others are a little more hesitant.
“I’ve never used Twitter or any of that stuff to be honest,” admits Una Mae employee Nick Johnson. “We should more than we do. Out of necessity I think we’ll have to start using that social media. I look forward to more of that happening in the future.”
With reports indicating economy trends “pointing towards more of the same in the coming months”, social media will play a large role in businesses trying to outlast the hard times. However bleak the future may look, Gauspohl remains confident those that possess the right qualities will make it through.
“Anyone can be successful in a bad economy,” said Gauspohl. “It just takes an awareness, perserverance, and innovation to the weather the storms. It takes those who are able to adapt, switch gears, and open up opportunities for new fresh energy.”