News & Politics » Chicago Antisocial

Tame Guerrillas

Outrageously priced "renegade" fashion at Vacant and rebellion interruptus at Camp Gay.



To get to the Vacant boutique at the Marshall Field's mothership this month, you can take the main elevator straight to the ninth floor. Or, if you get directions from some crackhead, like I did, you can wend your way through the forest of expensive furniture on the eighth floor, find the special escalator that goes up one more level, then cut through the rug department, so desolate the employees lie down on the merchandise.

On the far end of this beige wasteland you'll see a garish hot-pink glow--the tacky temporary boutique Paper magazine has opportunistically set up next to Vacant, the roving boutique Russ Miller founded on Manhattan's Lower East Side in February 2003. Vacant, in Miller's own words, is "the original traveling guerilla retail concept and exhibition store opening for one month only in an empty space in major cities . . . showcasing an exclusive range of one-off, hard to find, and strictly limited edition products from brands and emerging designers." By the end of the year he plans to have hit Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, and Tokyo. At some unspecified time in the future, he plans to run the store out of a Hummer.

Information about Miller is scarce, but it's obvious he's very protective of his concept. He keeps a "bandwagon" log on his Web site,, where he calls out alleged copycats. Paper isn't on the list (yet) but Levi's, Comme des Garcons, and Song Airlines are.

As I walked in last Saturday afternoon, I got the ol' up-and-down from a prissy little man dressed all in black. The all-white 8,000-square-foot room contained maybe a hundred items, all crammed together in about a tenth of the total space. I overheard a salesperson say that much of the merchandise was stolen at the launch party the night before, but still, it was beyond decadent. It was embarrassing for humanity.

In theory bringing rare, interesting products to towns with little or no access to such goods is a noble act of humanitarianism, though Paris and Tokyo hardly need the help. And I'm all for exclusivity when it comes to fashion--but in my book that involves humans who make a decent living handcrafting works of art that are rare by necessity, because there are only so many hours in the day. A lot of the stuff Miller was peddling came from corporations like Nike and Puma, which limit editions purely by choice. Most of the $90 screen-printed T-shirts, from Mad Anthony, Futura Laboratories, and the like, had tags that said they were manufactured in third world countries.

Items for sale included three pairs of Puma Trinomics in neon 80s color combinations; 13 pairs of extremely rare Nikes, including a pair of iridescent bronze high tops with gold glitter soles (a pair of even higher gold Pumas was for show only); wild graphic soccer balls and matching jerseys by artists Puma hired; and unposable hard plastic figurines of De La Soul as spacemen on a mission to save hip-hop. Vacant is the only place you can get prerelease stickers and cards from Da Jammies, a forthcoming DVD of socially positive hip-hop cartoons from the producers of Tupac's Thugz Mansion. And it's the launchpad for N.E.R.D. front man Pharrell Williams's Billionaire Boys Club collection, which includes a line of $200 sneakers decorated with dollar signs and diamonds and sweats embroidered with the slogan "Wealth is of the heart and mind, not the pocket." Sure it is, until you need a $200 pair of sneakers.

Most items didn't have prices on them, and when I asked Miller's assistant about them, she said she didn't think he wanted her to tell. I guess it's true that if you have to ask, you can't afford it.

Miller himself--a troll of a man in dark baggy clothes and a long, scraggly billy-goat beard--talked incessantly on a gigantor cell phone that looked like a PlayStation controller. (Big is the new small, duh.) The only time he willingly removed it from his ear was to chat up three large black dudes dressed in bright, shiny jerseys, warm-up pants, and gold medallions (one also carried a Louis Vuitton man purse). I tried asking him about some of the merchandise but he gave short answers and refused to make eye contact. Was it because I didn't look cool or rich enough? Because he could sense my disenchantment? Because he "doesn't need the press," as the assistant put it?

I asked a sweet-faced browser who identified himself as Kenton Johnson of Jane Doe artist management what he was so wild-eyed about. "Exclusive merchandise like this is trendy," he said. "It's beyond 'in'--it's way after 'in.'" Plus, he explained, "it's way cool to have things other people don't have."

Later on Saturday I headed over to Camp Gay, the endearingly disgusting multilevel live/work/party space in Humboldt Park. It's the kind of joint that makes you wonder when your last tetanus shot was or whether you can catch diseases from other people's pee. The bathroom is a scary, sub-Euro BYOTP closet so dark you usually have to turn on your cell phone to find your mark.

By the time I got there both the backyard parking lot and the inside stage area were packed. Local noise band the Coughs, charming in their consistent sloppiness, were rocking a particularly angsty set; kids were sliding right down into the mosh pit via a fireman's pole that connects the living space with the performance space. It was the best set I've heard from the Coughs, but I was champing at the bit for headliners Friends Forever, a Providence-based band of dirty dogs who play their scruffy, mountain-man art disco exclusively out of their smelly VW bus.

Around 1 AM the crowd made a mass exodus east on Armitage to a curb near Western--Friends Forever rarely play at the same location as the rest of the bill. Last time they were in town they set up in front of Buddy; they made it to the part of their show where they set off fireworks before the police made them stop. This time they didn't even get to play a note. They'd arranged all of their equipment, plus fake foliage and tiki torches, on the street and the sidewalk, but just as they revved up the generator they use to power their amps, two cop cars pulled up behind their bus. Though no officer ever got out of a vehicle, it was clear this wasn't happening.

Friends Forever packed up and followed the crowd back to Camp Gay, where they proceeded to set up inside, like a regular band. With each piece of equipment they lugged indoors, I lost a little more respect for them. I was slightly relieved when the police reappeared and shooed everybody away. I hate the pigs as much as the next anarchist, but they helped Friends Forever save face and for that they deserve a tiny tip o' the hat.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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