News & Runway

Closed Set with Julie Bensman: Buying in My Backyard

I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in 3 years…or Chili’s, Wendy’s or TGI Fridays (Chipotle is a different story, different column). Do I crave a Shamrock Shake once in a green moon? Who doesn’t?! The cold green goo is a delicious flashback to post volleyball practice drive-through runs circa high school. But what keeps me from reentering the golden arches or red/white striped, flair-filled spaces is the fact that there are so many other independent, amazing restaurants, bars, bakeries, and coffee shops in NYC run by owners who also happen to be my neighbors. They wake up each morning and head to a space their hands and heart built, serving friends and family (and new acquaintances) with a passion for their product. I’m not saying the teenager serving you french fries isn’t passionate about, well, something, but the point I’m trying to make is: why give your money to a faceless entity when you can shop locally for a superior product AND have a relationship with the seller?

In this vein, the concept of supporting local fashion designers isn’t a new one, but there has certainly been a push as of late to fund and bring attention to the industry’s rising talent. This year’s CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists included the likes of Joseph Altuzarra, Prabal Gurung, and Billy Reid (the latter of whom won the $300,000 prize back in November). The publicity the group received as it completed its four month tenure was unprecedented: a spread in Vogue (of course), an exclusively-designed collection for Ann Taylor and a star-studded awards ceremony attended by the best dressed names in the business. The hype was so huge, it now seems odd to think of someone like Prabal Gurung as a “rising star” rather than a household name…but behold the power of the press.

Whether via fashion editorials, government-sponsored workspaces, local presentations, or just plain hitting the pavement credit card in hand, markets nationwide are fostering local talent in their own way. Although for quite some time, the Chicago Fashion Incubator (CFI) has been providing six emerging local designers with the resources (including workspace, curriculum, and mentoring) to launch their careers in fashion, it was just last year that they commissioned a four week pop up shop on Michigan Avenue. This year, the shop will be open an extra week and kicks off Tuesday, March 15 (tomorrow) with a fundraising launch event. I caught up with CFI Executive Director (and amazing designer!) Lara Miller to chat about the project.


Julie Bensman: As a well-known designer yourself, why do you find it important to support other local designers?

Lara Miller: Fashion can be a tough, but also incredibly rewarding, business. It’s nice to have a support network to turn to during the hard times and to celebrate with during the great times. I’ve been so lucky throughout my career to work with a number of incredible mentors. It is because of their support and encouragement that I began my business. I truly believe that the overall trend of “buy local” grew from the networks of small businesses – farmers, technology firms, retailers, etc. –that have adopted the idea that by mentoring and supporting one another, they support their industry as a whole.

JB: How did the idea of the pop up shop come about? 

LM: The management at 900 North Michigan Shops curates a shopping center that balances luxury retail with unique specialty stores. They were thinking of ways to bring in exciting new retailers and thought of CFI. While we weren’t ready to open a full-time retail location, a pop up to celebrate the alumni and to introduce the new Designers in Residence was a perfect fit.

CFI Popup Shop

JB: What message do you hope to send to other markets with regards to shopping locally?

LM: Over the years, I’ve watched Chicago’s local shopping scene flourish. Small boutiques that support local design have helped to economically develop and elevate neighborhoods. p.45 in Chicago’s Bucktown area is a perfect example. The pride of wearing a local designer is palpable: it offers the consumer the opportunity to be a part of a special community, but it is also important to note that local doesn’t necessarily have to mean artisan or craft. Local companies cover the gamut in style and type of product….in the long run, it makes good economic sense and it helps establish a sense of ownership and community for consumers.

Who said you can’t have your cake (from the local bakery, natch) and eat it, too?



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Editor-At-Large Julie BensmanThe Fashion Spot’s Editor-at-Large, Julie Bensman, is also the Entertainment Editor for Niche Media, whose titles include Gotham, Hamptons, Ocean Drive and LA Confidential. Closed Set is a collection of her musings on all things fashion, from an editor’s desk to your desktop.