Something out of nothing: creativity and the Chicago fashion scene

Something out of nothing: creativity and the Chicago fashion scene

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Creativity is not a matter of place. And yet, when we talk about creative scenes in Chicago, we often talk about the ways in which the city lacks rather than what the city can provide. It is a common argument, one that is framed around the pursuit of music, of visual art, of writing. But this argument fails to acknowledge the ways in which limitations can govern our decisions. For the Chicago creator, it is a matter less about opportunities and more about the self. What can one create out of nothing? How far can one push one’s self without the support, the resources, or the market to color their frame of knowledge?

For young fashion designers in the city, this creates perhaps an even tougher challenge than one struggling in the art or music worlds. Chicago lacks the media resources, fabric sources, production factories, retail stores, and history that exists in a city like New York. But as in any creative pursuit, the disadvantages also provide a chance to experiment with one’s work and develop without set rules or paths in line.

“In New York, the industry is there, the track is in place,” said Liz Patelski, one of two designers behind the new Chicago-based label Remi Canarie. “To be able to be out of the NY scene, yet still be a part of it … it allows us to be in this creative bubble.” This creative bubble has proven successful in the development of the line which mixes the high construction of menswear with softer, more traditionally feminine fabrics and cuts.

Remi Canarie is more than just a passion project from two young and creative local designers. It is also a coastal challenge, one that asks whether or not the high-design of New York, London, or Paris, can be accomplished in a city that “works.” Although young at ages 24 and 25 respectively, Patelski and co-designer Lisa Panza create wares that are smart, sophisticated, and beautifully-constructed. The two met at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) and credit the school for providing a support system that emphasizes the importance of design and gives students the freedom to pursue conceptual work. It is only in a city like Chicago where two young designers can eschew the typical path of a young designer (internships, assistant design positions) and instead make something of their own.

“In my mind, my end goal was to have my own line, so why not work toward that for the next two years?” asked Panza. Panza and Patelski did not create in a vacuum. Both are skilled designers with a background rich in awards and experience. During her time at SAIC, Panza won the Gladys V. Pick Scholarship, Nick Cave Award, The Walk Scholarship, and The Menswear Award for her talents.Patelski worked in New York City under CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist, Cushnie et Ochs, as a patterning and production intern. A Park Ridge-native, she transferred to SAIC and upon graduation in May 2011, she won the Eunice W. Johnson fellowship from the president of Johnsons Publishing Company, Linda Johnson Rice. The $25,000 fellowship, the source of funding for the duo’s label, was created in 2010 in honor of Rice’s mother and Ebony Fashion Fair founder Eunice W. Johnson.

The fellowship, while providing a strong leg up in their production process, does not draw away from the work put into the overall process. The two hit the ground running with their designs in October of 2012 and spent the prior year learning the business of owning and operating their own company. This involved everything from creating their own on-the-fly logo and attending Chicago Fashion Week panels for guidance on how to succeed in a city that does not cater to their field.

In many ways, Remi Canarie is a Chicago brand. This is not just a statement of location. It is also one of history and inspiration. Patelski and Panza’s influences, although seemingly disconnected, are rooted similarly in ideas of the past, Americana, and the perception of place.
“American roots is who we are,” Panza began. “We’re asking what does it mean to be an American designer?” Patelski agreed. “What is it about Chicago? It’s the city of big shoulders, and so we moved towards menswear, workwear, uniforms. That is Chicago.”

A major influence for the duo is the birth of American football. Long hours were spent in the Chicago History Museum researching football players from suburban Oak Park. Found images were used as part of their lookbook to help construct the identity of the line and also as a direct aesthetic influence on the finished pieces. A long-sleeved off-white and gray sweater and a loose silk blouse both feature thick strips of fabric that run down the front, a replica of the leather strips used on early uniforms for traction.

In addition to the traditional imagery of football, the two also found inspiration in the costumes of the Rolling Stones. Besides sporting recreations of American football uniforms, the two found inspiration in the creation of the band’s sound as a whole. The Rolling Stones were, in many ways, a reflection of the music they discovered from America. They created songs that were in response to and challenge of what they had heard. In a similar vein, Remi Canarie is a reflection of the difficulties, history, and ethic of Chicago. This is design as a reflection of the city in which they live and work.

Their name extends this idea to a literal end. Although “Remi” derives from a Kerouac character, “Canarie” is born out of Canaryville, one of Chicago’s oldest and most identifiable (if not insular) neighborhoods. But its insularity is also a reflection of a city – this city – of neighborhoods. It is about identity, roots, and the way place can define the things we want and do. To make it in Chicago is to make it everywhere. It is not so much about the successes that the city provides as it is the way the city alters the perception of what one can possibly do. “Being in Chicago, there’s not as much pressure to follow the same pursuits,” Patelski said. “We’re taking the opportunity here to define ourselves.”

Follow Britt on twitter @britticisms.