It was unseasonably chilly in the basement of Christopher Peters and Shane Gabier's Humboldt Park two-flat—or maybe it just seemed that way, since they were unpacking clothes and accessories from the 2009 spring/summer collection of their line, Creatures of the Wind. Some of them looked a little worse for wear—straw hats smooshed, fringe tangled—but the men were unfazed. The items had just come back from a New York photo shoot for W magazine, the monthly Conde Nast fashion glossy, which has slated a profile of the designers for March. That's considerable editorial coverage for a brand that's less than a year old.
Gabier, 35, a graduate of and now a faculty member at the School of the Art Institute, has been a fixture on the local fashion scene since launching his eponymous line of carefully constructed, daring yet refined pieces in 2003. His work made regular appearances at Fashion Focus and in local media (including the Reader), earning him recognition as one of Chicago Gen Art's Fresh Faces in Fashion for 2005. Peters, who's ten years Gabier's junior, was a student in SAIC's fashion program when they met; they began dating after he graduated. "I helped with his fall 2007 collection, and we started talking about doing something together," says Peters. They decided to design for both men and women—Gabier had previously focused on women—starting with a fall collection. "We did it fast—we started at the end of December, beginning of January, and then we showed it in the middle of March in Los Angeles." Cat Power's version of "Wild Is the Wind" inspired the name.
To build credibility and momentum on a national scale, the two were careful from the outset to control their brand and image, which for them meant eschewing runway shows, big parties—and the growing local industry. For their Los Angeles debut, they showed at the studio of designer Jasmin Shokrian, a friend of Gabier's from his student days, and invited fewer than a dozen guests, a select mix of boutique owners.
The plan was "to align ourselves with the kind of designers that we feel are our peers and colleagues, lines at a certain kind of price level," explains Gabier. He mentions Alexander Wang, Opening Ceremony, and Rag & Bone—none of them household names by a long shot, but all regularly extolled by fashion editors and other tastemakers. Like those labels, Creatures of the Wind offers the kind of conceptual yet rigorously executed pieces that appeal to more cerebral fans of fashion—people who prefer something challenging over anything overtly sexy or conventionally pretty. The clothes are "very wearable, but definitely concept driven," says Gabier. A particularly striking piece from the debut collection is a unisex jacket made from a circular piece of washed cotton twill with armholes that wraps snugly around the torso. On the whole the silhouettes are more streamlined than Gabier's past work, which was built on unusual, even primitive shapes, but they still lack what is known as "hanger appeal." That means they'll require educated and passionate sales staff to sell them. The price range isn't for everyone either—separates run from $300 to $875 and dresses average about $550. "We'll never show at a trade show," says Gabier. "We know the stores we want, and we'll contact them."
While in LA, the designers attended a party sponsored by Vogue at Getty House, the mayoral mansion, where they put Shokrian in a black-and-white version of their wrap jacket. Publicity "is the only reason I would go to a party like that," Gabier admits. "I'm not there for the social aspect." It worked: the cape caught the eye of Kim Friday, an editor for Women's Wear Daily, the bible to the trade, who asked for their contact information. When the publication sent a writer out to cover the annual SAIC fashion show, she interviewed Gabier and Peters for W, WWD's consumer-oriented sister publication, as well.
At the time the two were at work on the spring/summer 2009 collection, which combines soft, ethereal fabrics with precise tailoring. One spring dress of light-blue cotton chambray is folded, pleated, and sewn to show triangular and diamond shapes across the front; a jumper features a collar created with origami-like folds. "We were looking at the rites of spring in early America—that kind of weird duality of the celebration, the innocence with weird sexual overtones," Peters says.
The two designers bring different strengths to the worktable: Gabier has a precise, technical background, while Peters is more of a draper. After years of working alone, Gabier welcomes the challenges of working with a partner, both creatively and from a business perspective: "It's been a good push for me—it's not just me that I'm responsible for," he says. Combining business and romance doesn't faze them, perhaps because both of them have parents who work together—Peters's run a restaurant, Gabier's an insurance agency.
Collaboration is a cornerstone of their vision for the line, and they're inviting from the outside as well. For the spring collection they brought in musician Matteah Baim, who created macramé-like accessories and accents out of silk string, and artist Stephen Eichhorn, whose paper collages of foliage were turned into digital images and printed onto some of the clothes—on one men's shirt, his tiny ivy leaves make up a sort of camouflage pattern. Artist and fellow designer Ryan Davies created the jewelry—including dramatic wood necklaces and bolo ties with an acorn motif. "I think Chicago's a really good place for these interdisciplinary collaborations," says Gabier. "There's this small indie music scene and a tiny little fashion scene—it's interesting to take advantage of that."
City-sponsored fashion events, however, are a different story. Gabier and Peters elected not to participate in last October's Fashion Focus Chicago, a week of runway shows, parties, and installations—they say it just doesn't get enough press, national or international, partly because it's not selective enough. (The fact that it coincided with Paris fashion week last fall didn't help.) "Everyone is very well-intentioned, absolutely, but the people who are running this really need to see what serious fashion means," Gabier says. "If you really want to make it interesting, it maybe has to be a little more limited or selective, it has to push some boundaries."
Gabier, a Michigan native, and Peters, who's from New Jersey, don't even necessarily want to be known as Chicago designers. "We're not anti-Chicago, we're not pro-Chicago. It's where we live, we like it here, we have good jobs here," Gabier says. But "it's too easy to put everybody under this umbrella—it kind of insinuates this shared aesthetic or progression." The two would consider participating in a local event "if it makes sense," but for now, "our time and money is better spent in New York." For that city's fall fashion week, they organized another small but selective event, transforming a friend's Lower East Side apartment into a showroom and booking appointments with reps from a handful of boutiques and media outlets. They'll take a similar tack during the fall 2009 ready-to-wear shows this March in Paris, asking European press and retailers to a showroom in the Marais.
For now, Creatures of the Wind is available at just three handpicked stores nationwide: Scout in Los Angeles, Stand Up Comedy in Portland, and Hejfina in Wicker Park. The W article could increase demand very quickly, but Gabier and Peters say they want to continue to move slowly to better control their image, distribution, and production. They've both got day jobs—Gabier at SAIC, Peters at Hejfina, where he's an assistant buyer—and intend to keep them for the foreseeable future. "It's great for us to get recognition right away," says Peters. "Still, there's a whole lot of downtime between these comets. You're in a basement, and you don't know what's going to happen next week. So you better be happy with the dress you're making, because you might be the only one who's going to see it!"