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Fashion: Niche Market

You've probably never heard of him, but to about a hundred women with cash to burn Sam Kori George is the best designer in the city.



Sam Kori George doesn't advertise. He hasn't been featured at Fashion Focus Chicago, and you won't find his clothes at Macy's Chicago Designer Shop. In fact you won't find them in any store at all. But after less than five years in business, he's probably one of the most successful fashion designers in town. In December he moved from a 1,200-square-foot studio on Walton to a 4,200-square-foot combination workshop and showroom at 1 East Delaware, where he turns out his classically elegant pieces for clients willing to drop $650 on a pair of pants or a couple grand on a cocktail dress.

A lean, compact man, dressed simply in black pants and a black sweater, George leads me on a tour of some of his current favorite creations: "You always think of silk as being pristine and fragile," he says, pointing to a 40s-ish belted black trench of water-repellent silk faille, "but it's probably the most durable cloth ever." The kangaroo fur he used to make a vest, he says, is "indestructible." He holds up a party dress with a removable tulle underskirt that peeks out beneath the hem: "You remember when Sarah Jessica Parker wore that dress with tulle? I was doing that already."

George describes himself as a textile freak. Four times a year he travels to New York to buy fabrics like French gabardine and English whipcord. "I like working with what I call an honest fabric," he says. "One season I tried working with fabric that had a little Lycra in it, and I hated the way it performed." Honest is a good word for his designs too: think flannel pants, stiff silk moire blouses, and narrow jackets, often in neutrals with just the occasional burst of color or kicky detail. "Clients don't come to me to reinvent the wheel," he says. They're people who "appreciate service, simplicity, and quality."

Because he's not doing anything groundbreaking, George works pretty much under the radar--but that's fine with him. "I think there are a lot of people who go into business thinking they're going to change the way things are done," he says. "Bravo for that person--that's not me. I want to make beautiful clothes that are very, very simple and very, very appreciated. I want to work with high-quality fabrics. I'm very happy there."

George was born in Baghdad, one of seven children in a well-to-do Christian family. He attributes his taste to his mother, who would bring him along on trips to her dressmaker's. "My mother always knew what was appropriate," he says. "She'd look at a fabric and say, 'I love it, it's beautiful, but it's not for me.' That's got to be through the genes somehow."

When the government nationalized the oil company George's father worked for in the early 70s, his parents decided to emigrate. The family lived in Beirut for a year, then came to Chicago, where both George's mother and father had family. They settled in Glenview in 1974, when George was nine. They changed their Assyrian name to George, but fitting in was difficult. "You can imagine the trauma," he says. "Nine years old, you don't speak a word of English, it's a totally different culture. . . . Kids called me Sammy Swami and asked if we wore harem pants and turbans."

Fortunately George, who is fluent in Assyrian and Arabic, picked up English pretty easily. He found enjoyment in knitting, art, and home ec, and by the time he finished high school, he knew he would pursue a career in fashion. His family took it in stride. "It wasn't up for discussion," he says. "I mean, they always knew I was 'artistic'"--he makes air quotes with his hands. "One time I was knitting, I was trying to finish up a sweater. My aunt and uncle came by and my mother was like, 'Can you take that someplace else?' So she didn't have to come up with an excuse."

George wanted to go to Parsons in New York, but his family wanted him closer to home. He studied at the School of the Art Institute on a two-year scholarship, then transferred to the International Academy of Design and Technology. He says SAIC's fashion program at the time was for students with less practical experience coming in. "The concept of being a fashion designer was sketching and draping and having these wonderful ideas. There was no idea of how garments are constructed, cutting and sewing and so forth. I came to the table, I knew how to sew, how to knit, knew how to drape. Was I phenomenal at it? No. Who is at 19? But at least I knew how to recognize a pattern. I could cut muslin. There were some kids who had never threaded a sewing machine before."

At IADT George met fellow fashion student Greg Gonzon, who would become his partner in business and life. Again George says his family was supportive. "My parents were modern people," he says. "They wanted me to be happy." Gonzon graduated in 1986, George a year later. A few years after that Gonzon opened a small studio where he made and sold his own designs. George helped out but also worked full-time for a company running several Benetton franchises. "I was meeting people in Iowa City and teaching them to fold," he recalls. In 1992 the owners decided to sell, and rather than continue with new bosses George left.

Around that time Barneys New York was opening its Oak Street store and a friend suggested he apply for a job. Although he had no experience in sales, George took it as a dare. During the interview, he recalls, "they asked me if I had a 'book,' and I was like, no. The lingo was as foreign to me as Chinese." Despite his lack of clients, or a "book," he was hired as a salesman in the women's department. He was a natural: on his first day he says he sold so much that his boss called him into the office, assuming there was a mistake in his figures.

George was still at Barneys in 2001 when Gonzon took ill with what turned out to be cancer. He died in September that year, at the age of 38. A bereft George had to figure out how to manage the business he'd left behind. "I kept the studio open because he had his clients and the people that worked for him, and I said, 'I'm going to figure it out.'"

He quit his sales job at the end of 2002 and reopened the shop the following June under his own name, encouraged by the pledge of support from his clients at Barneys: "That was what made leaving really easy for me, because when all is said and done, you need clients to survive."

Today George counts as regulars about 100 women, ranging in age from 28 to 75, including "a whole slew of people I would never have had contact with at Barneys because I didn't have anything to sell that would appeal to them." While they include what George refers to as "philanthropists and executives," he says they're not the never-too-rich-or-too-thin types of popular imagination. George makes his samples in a size 8 (as opposed to the industry standard of 0 or 2) and has many clients who run a size 12 or 14. "I'm not designing for waifs," he says.

Most of his clients look at the samples and order custom-fit clothing based on them. But about a fifth of his business comes from completely made-to-order commissions by customers like retiree Sandy Lefton, who's a relatively new convert. She was introduced to George by a good friend last year when she needed an outfit for her son's wedding. "I really had no idea what I wanted--I came in and said, 'Here I am--you design it,'" she says. "He made [such] a beautiful formal ball gown that when I walked out, my friends started crying." Now George is designing Lefton a suit jacket to wear at her daughter's wedding.

For work of this nature, George says, "the client has to be trusting. People say it's a pretty daunting experience. [A wedding] is a big event, it's not an event you can repeat. For somebody to trust that--I don't take anything lightly, like, 'Oh, see you next week' or pass them on to an assistant. I'm there for every step of it. . . . People call me 24-7 asking how to wash things, how to wear them. I become a component of their lives.

"I could do wholesale, but it changes things," he says. "You're not in control anymore. . . . I think it says a lot about what I'm doing--not to sound like an ass about it, but these women I work with can basically go anywhere," he says. "I'm really flattered they buy from me."

In case I'm not convinced, George has me try on a cream basket-weave double-breasted short jacket. It's the kind of thing I would normally dismiss as too ladies-who-lunch, but I can't stop looking at myself in the mirror. It's a little swingy, with a supremely soft silk lining. At $1,450, however, it's also a bit beyond my budget. George points out that for people used to paying for designer clothes, the price is reasonable: "You have to think about the quality and service that goes into the garment," he says. "It's all about the quality, and unfortunately, quality costs."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sam Kori George in his new 4,200-square-foot showroom and workshop/photo by Rob Warner.

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