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Wannabe fashion designers square off in a department store showdown.

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A stocky middle-aged man in a polyester shirt with a phone attached to his belt faced a group of casually stylish, immaculately groomed women seated behind a table. He held out a choker made of chunky, dull-colored metal. "When you see my jewelry, I want you to be overwhelmed by it," he said to the women, who looked decidedly underwhelmed. Undeterred, he held up a pair of clasp earrings. "You can wear them all day, they don't pinch," he said proudly.

"Uh...interesting," offered one of the women.

On the far side of the table, one of four set up in the middle of the women's contemporary sportswear department, a queue of men and women trailing wheeled suitcases and garment bags snaked around the atrium. They were designers who'd shown up at the State Street Marshall Field's for its semiannual Distinction in Design contest. Each aspiring Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan--who had to be based in the Chicago area and demonstrate the ability to deliver inventory on an ongoing basis in order to qualify--had ten minutes to impress the judges. The winners--one for women's ready-to-wear, one for accessories--would receive $1,000 and the chance to sell their lines in the store.

Despite the fashionable setting and the presence of celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch, who was participating as a judge, the atmosphere was distinctly undivalike. A handsome guy in a Gatsby-esque motoring cap, Bloch is famous for dressing the likes of Britney Spears and Halle Berry but seemed right in his element in the middle of the sales floor, rifling through garment racks and munching on a sandwich from a box lunch. He pooh-poohed the notion that he might have to lower his standards for this heartland crowd. "Absolutely not. We hold everybody up to the same caliber. You're coming into Marshall Field's, a major, major store. And you can't sell something here just 'cause it's Chicago--I mean, I don't think of things that way at all."

"We're looking for things we don't normally have in the store," explained contemporary sportswear buyer Catherine Champion. "We're looking for people that have great ideas that could be exploded or expanded upon."

A woman with creamy skin and model-class cheekbones approached Bloch's table with her designs, pink- and blue-checked gingham separates. Bloch carefully inspected a top, turning it over in his hands, and asked if she had sewn it herself. She admitted she hadn't. "That's OK, that's OK," he said reassuringly. But then he turned the garment inside out, exposing a stray thread. "See, you can't sell that in a store. You've got to watch your production values." The designer looked deflated, and Bloch added some words of comfort. "It's all good," he said. "You come here to learn what we need for next time."

Bloch explained the importance of such details. "I think that in our business and as a designer, you shouldn't be coming around with loose threads," he said. "The littl7e things, little nuances, presentation means so much. Somebody came here with a bag from another store, another major store. Like, what are you thinking, hello!" Still, he pointed out that he was there to offer constructive criticism, not bitchiness. "It's about trying to be helpful and inspiring to people. Everybody has to start somewhere. Nobody starts at the Oscars!"

The designers seemed aware of where they stood. Chicago, after all, is not New York--there's no Anna Wintour here waiting to swoop down on the next promising artist and lift him up to fame and fortune. A lot of the contestants were people like Vicky Zuniga, a worker in an insurance office who was up till two the previous evening polishing her colorful silver and glass jewelry. Zuniga assembles her pieces as a hobby, places items in a few boutiques, and hopes eventually to make designing her full-time job.

Hat designer Carla Faso, who was wearing one of her creations, a pink Easter-bonnet-like number, studied millinery at the International Academy of Design and Technology and interned in Paris under Prudence, head milliner for Vivienne Westwood. "Are they being brutal?" she asked as she waited in line with a stack of hatboxes she'd festooned with photos from magazines. Faso's been dividing her time between working at her father's pizza place and assisting Highland Park milliner Lisa Farrell. Earlier in the week she attended a charity fashion show, where she sold three hats even though the crowd wasn't quite her target demographic. "It was an older clientele," she said. "Don't write that down!"

A guy in his early 20s wearing a Montreal Expos visor and baggy jeans ambled up to one of the judges' tables. "I really don't know what I'm doing," he said laconically. "I'll just show you what I made." He tossed down a flat, square little purse sewn out of denim with frayed edges. "I made that in 45 minutes," he said proudly.

"You're very experimental," said one buyer diplomatically. But despite its rough workmanship, the design concept behind the bag seemed to inspire some of the other buyers, and soon the table was surrounded. "It could be a backpack!" someone said. "I'm thinking back-to-school, junior high or high school." Mr. Expos Visor showed how he had incorporated a pocket for a cell phone. Someone said she thought it would work best as a bag marketed to guys. Bloch proposed a model big enough to hold the monthly bibles of the stylish: "Get W, Interview, Vibe, make sure they can get in there."

Among the better-prepared contestants were marketing consultant Samantha McDermott and her business partner Susan Kim, who's designed costume jewelry for Burberrys and Christian Dior. The two established their handbag company, Samantha Kim Inc., last September at the urging of McDermott's husband, Jonathan. "We wanted to rework women's briefcases," said McDermott, showing off the Gladiator, a gray, hard-sided bag with black edging and covered in buckles and studs. "That's the Courtisane," said McDermott, displaying another bag with lace-up sides, like a pair of sexy boots.

"Isn't 'courtesan' Italian for 'prostitute'?" Kim asked McDermott, who quickly explained that the name was intended to evoke a sultry, sophisticated woman rather than a streetwalker.

Kim and McDermott were also demonstrating a versatile bag they call the Switch. Interchangeable colored panels, each with a name like Cosette, Sybil, or Audrey, can be attached to it with a system of straps on which a patent is pending.

Around 2 PM the line of designers had petered out and Bloch and the buyers adjourned to pick the winners. An hour and a half later, a PA system and a backdrop with the Field's logo had been set up and waiters were passing around champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Bloch stepped up to the mike and said a few words about the local significance of Marshall Field's. "Most of you probably shopped here as kids--or were dragged here," he said. "And now, my favorite sentence in the world: 'And the winner is...!'"

Beth Lambert, whose clothes made from upholsterylike fabrics won the ready-to-wear prize, turned out not to be present. But Kim and McDermott were there when Bloch called their names as the winners in the accessories division. The photographer snapped a picture of the two with Bloch and the buyers, and everyone crowded around expressing congratulations. "I feel like I'm with the Juicys!" exclaimed McDermott's husband, referring to the designer duo behind the red-hot Juicy Couture label.

Workers started dismantling the sound system as curious shoppers lingered and the good losers gossiped among themselves. A member of the catering staff approached one of the stragglers, a young man wearing a Kangol with the brand name printed all over it and carrying the Bloomingdale's bag that had offended Bloch earlier. "Excuse me," said the staff member. "Where did you get your hat?"

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

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