Sarah and Amy Blessing have a relationship that could make conjoined twins look like distant relatives. At 29 and 26 they're the two oldest in a family of four siblings, and they still finish each other's sentences. For the last four years they've lived in the same building, and were roommates until Amy got married last year. They grew up in Portland, Oregon, came to the midwest for college, and both eventually pursued careers in art. Sarah worked for an interior design firm for three and a half years before freelancing for a year, while Amy held various positions with local women's clothing designer Amy Zoller, eventually becoming her assistant and sales representative. For the last two years the pair has designed delicate jewelry made of semiprecious stones under the name--what else?--Blessing.
In the summer of 2000, when both were working part-time at Bucktown boutique P45, they began tossing around the idea of opening a men's store. "The women's market is really saturated," says Sarah. "You go into shops that carry clothing for both [men and women], and the men's section is like this big," says Amy, holding her hands two feet apart. Plus they think it's uncomfortable for men, who're already competing with women for dressing rooms, to have to hear questions like "Am I supposed to wear underwear with this?"
Sarah and Amy went to New York last November to scope things out. Since Amy had previously worked in fashion, she knew how to talk to designers' representatives and small boutique owners. Their retail experience at P45 didn't hurt either, and everyone they met with was generous enough to give them advice. After that trip, they traveled individually to London, Paris, LA, and New York, conducted more research, and did a lot of shopping. By February of this year they had a clearer sense of what they wanted in their own store.
"We wanted to showcase designers not found in Chicago," says Sarah, "but it's not our mission to be exclusive." One designer they met with said things like "Oh, my guy would wear this shirt with jeans and flip-flops," and that's when the sisters started thinking in terms of what the quintessential Chicago guy--at least the type who likes to shop--might wear, and what he'd want in a shopping experience. Their conclusion: a laid-back presentation rather than a slick, art gallery setting, and better basics that blend a casual aesthetic with classic craftsmanship--sort of a "baby steps to fashion" approach, says Sarah.
They finished their business plan in April and started plotting to purchase their clothing in time for a late fall opening, as most other buyers had ordered their lines for the season months before. In June they went on a shopping spree and bought everything they needed. "We had no space, no name, no business card, and people sold to us on good faith," says Amy. But they fretted a bit over having dropped thousands of dollars on beautiful garments, only to have them packed away in Sarah's apartment for a couple months.
That's partially where they got the name for their store, Apartment Number 9. "We thought we might have to open shop in our building," says Amy. Instead, in mid-September they secured space in a brand-new building in Bucktown; soon after, three friends of theirs began personalizing it. The result? Minimalist white walls with warm lighting, concrete floors, lots of custom-built wood furniture and wall fixtures, handmade metal racks, a few well-placed nooks, and soft leather mats on the fitting room floors. The store has an inviting, natural feel, which complements the clothing: Paul Smith's signature brightly patterned, impeccably tailored button-down shirts; distressed jeans by Paper Denim & Cloth; fine cotton sweaters and T-shirts from John Smedley and James Perse; William Reid's slightly funky but classic-fitting slacks; and sporty standards from Fred Perry and others.
They also offer miscellany such as plush corduroy satchels and overnight bags by Rafe Totengco, fancy grooming accessories by Art of Shaving, hats hand knit by their mother, leather-covered journals hand bound in Italy, quirky cuff links, and books on food preparation, fatherhood, and medical diagnosis--because not only is the Chicago guy well dressed, say the Blessings, he's also a good cook, a good dad, and a bit of a hypochondriac.
Apartment Number 9 opened the week after Thanksgiving and is located at 1804 N. Damen. Hours are 11 to 7 Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 on Sunday. Call 773-395-2999 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.