Black and white leather tufted benches with rhinestone detailing are a plush place to rest after a shopping crawl in the heart of Lakeview. When you’re dodging in and out of boutique after boutique, the vast sea of clothing and accessories seems to blend together after a while.
The retail landscape of Chicago, specifically in North Side neighborhoods like Lakeview, has been drastically changing over the last few years. More and more often, local businesses and boutiques have been getting driven out by large national retailers, creating a less diverse retail collective.
Lakeview’s Southport Corridor is a prime example of the national chain overtaking beloved local hotspots. The grungy and loved Irish pub Mystic Celt shuttered its green and gold doors in January after being bought out by L3 Capital LLC.
Now, a Madewell, the East Coast cool girl store, and Club Monaco, another iteration of stores like Banana Republic, are set to replace the Irish charm of the once lively Mystic Celt. Instead of chants and cheers from Cubs fans gathered to watch the game, the Sunday morning brunch crowd will have a few more stores to hit while waiting for a table.
In Chicago’s most popular shopping areas the local character has been slowly dwindling, but in the midst of corporate ascendance, some retailers are breaking the mold.
One brave, and fashionable, soldier who is hoping to change the game is Teresa Washington. A sassy and confident entrepreneur, Washington has had a knack for styling and an itch for fashion since she was a teen.
She owned her own clothing boutique in Cincinnati, Ohio called Paris J Boutique, named after her daughter and launched a women’s apparel brand called STMT (pronounced ‘statement’) in 2013. Four years ago she moved to Chicago and is the founder of Style Room 326, a members-only boutique.
The old Hollywood glamour style showroom offers customers a shopping experience they can’t find at traditional retailers. Membership, which comes at an annual price of $69, will get members exclusive access to pop-up shops, fashion shows, and styling workshops.
“Shopping will be a luxury experience,” Washington said. “As a member you’ll get access to see the pieces at an actual fashion show, meaning people can see, touch, and feel them.”
Perusing the glamorous showroom, decorated with sequin adorned throw pillows and sparkling golden chandeliers, with mimosa in hand is certainly a stark contrast to knocking elbows with the person next to you rummaging through the stuffed sale rack at J.Crew.
The hard-to-come-by luxury of superior customer service seems to be one of the biggest selling points that new retailers like Style Room 326 are boasting and serves as the base of their business model.
Two men’s boutiques founded by Brian Spaly have adopted unique business models in the pursuit of creating an experience for the shopper. Bonobos in Lincoln Park is a similar showroom-style store.
Bonobos sits in a loft-inspired space with exposed brick, caramel colored hardwood floors, charcoal grey walls, and open ceilings with exposed wooden beams. The vibe is industrial, an interesting but cohesive contrast to the brand’s preppy East Coast style.
The catch is, you can’t leave the store with any new threads on hand. Men who come by the showroom are styled and fitted by stylists, but throughout the entire process, are building an online shopping cart. Each new garment is shipped directly to their doorstep. Men can fill their carts with khakis, button-ups, and an array of gingham in any color imaginable and not have to worry about toting the purchases home with them.
Spaly’s second brainchild, Trunk Club, began as an online-only retailer wherein based on an online profile, a stylist picks out looks to send to members and whichever looks they like and keep, they pay for. Now there are five brick-and-mortar showrooms, and one in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.
Like Bonobos, the showroom space is a loft with beige exposed brick, deep brown and worn hardwood floors, and contemporary-inspired furniture with a bohemian accent. In contrast to its preppy sibling store, Trunk Club’s style is more city slicker than country club. The Trunk Club showroom also boasts a bar stocked with complimentary beer, wine, and spirits, 20 fitting lounges, and a 5,000 square-foot rooftop overlooking the skyline.
The similarity between all of these new retailers is that they’re making shopping an experience for the customer and creating an air of exclusivity that inevitably draws customers in.
“Consumers enjoy being a part of something that will make them feel special and not like just another shopper. Our goal is to provide every one of our members with A-1 customer service and know them all by name,” Washington said.