Attendance at last night's Inside Chicago Fashion panel discussion at the Chicago History Musem, one of a series of events relating to its Chic Chicago exhibit, should have been mandatory for students of the city's many fashion design programs. Local designer Anna Fong revealed that if she had to do it all over again, she would have majored in business and minored in fashion at Columbia College, calling her job 90 percent business and 10 percent design. Dieter Kirkwood of the local line Dieter Bennet pointed out that while designers can't ignore the nuts-and-bolts of the industry, neither can they cut corners on the art: "You can't slack off on design--people will notice." He's lucky to have partner Bennett Cousins handle most of the business side of their line, but noted that having an exclusive, high-end brand (the line sells at Jake, Helen Yi, and Tula in Chicago) means he spends a lot of time and energy cultivating new clients and keeping current ones happy.
Both Kirkwood and Fong reaffirmed what most local designers say--that it is not necessary to be based in New York. Kirkwood argued that being outside the hothouse that is the Manhattan fashion industry means that "it's easier to experiment design-wise--you have time to develop an aesthetic." And while both admitted that there are significantly fewer production facilities and resources here, they prefer not to produce outside the area--much less the U.S.--so they can keep an eye on quality control. "Delivery and fit" are words for designers to live by, said Fong.
In answer to a question from moderator and NBC5 contributing style reporter Barbara Glass about whether they'd lowered prices in response to the economy, Kirkwood said they had actually raised prices, to no ill effect. Thea Robinson, manager of the Michigan Avenue Burberry store and a luxury retail veteran, said her company hadn't lowered prices, either, but admitted, "We have had a lot of sales."