Letter From Chicago: Indie City

One of the holiday bestsellers at Chicago's p.45, the pioneering specialty store on North Damen Avenue, wasn't the latest 'it' bag or designer dress.

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Celebrating Barack Obama's victory on election night in Grant Park.

Photo By City of Chicago/Patrick L. Pyszka

One of the holiday bestsellers at Chicago’s p.45, the pioneering specialty store that opened more than a decade ago on North Damen Avenue in the trendy Bucktown neighborhood, wasn’t the latest ‘it’ bag or designer dress.

It was a $32 black T-shirt bearing the profile of President-elect Barack Obama, with the word “change” on the back.

When the store, one of the city’s first to carry Rebecca Taylor and 3.1 Philip Lim, displayed the shirts during last fall’s election debates, customers rushed to buy them. When Obama won, p.45 owner Tricia Tunstall revised the shirt, designed by New York-based Illightenment, to say “yes we did” on the back.

For Chicago, as well as the rest of the country, Tunstall now looks to the city’s hometown hero to give further retail incentive.

“I think he’ll give people a sense of encouragement and confidence,” said Tunstall, who campaigned for Obama with local fundraisers and canvassed votes in Indiana. “I hope and I think we’ll have a surge.”

At least she and other local retailers can hope. After dodging some of the economic doldrums this summer, Windy City merchants joined the rest of the country, smacked by the plunging stock market and a particularly cold and snowy December. In fact, almost 22 inches of snow fell in Chicago last month, making it the seventh snowiest on record, according to the National Weather Service.

“It’s consistent with what’s going on in the rest of the country, which is horrific,” said Keven Wilder, owner of Wilder Inc., a retail consulting firm in Chicago. “This is an unprecedented recession.”

“With the economy and the weather, we kind of got a double whammy,” added Tunstall, who made no profit on the $32 women’s and $35 men’s Obama T-shirts, of which she sold about 400. The retailer countered the economy by tempering her buy, reducing the amount of higher-priced items and working with designers to create lower-priced pieces or, in some cases, buying on consignment.

While some national and international retailers launched units in Chicago (Michael Kors came to Michigan Avenue this fall with a second store planned, and jewelry designer Helen Ficalora unveiled a boutique along North Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, among other openings), other brands closed or relocated, including Betsey Johnson, which moved to Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue after shuttering its North Halsted Street store in Lincoln Park.
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