Above  the fray
The biggest trend on the Chicago fashion scene, at the start of 2010, was to hang it up.

Oak Street's world-famous boutique Ultimo, which helped launch Marc Jacobs and Peter Soronen, shut down in January after 40 years. Designer Maria Pinto, a campaign-trail favorite of Michelle Obama's, closed her design studio and West Loop store in February. Once applauded as a Midwestern mecca for cutting-edge designers, the retailer Jake filed for bankruptcy and vacated its last shop, on Rush Street, in March.

The raveling economy also frayed fashion programs. Melissa Gamble left her position as the city's fashion czar this summer for Columbia College Chicago. The national organization Gen Art, which presented a headlining runway show at the city's annual fashion week, folded in May. (A city spokesman said the lineup for this fall's Fashion Focus will be announced in August, later than usual.)

Still, Gamble and others who labored to elevate the city's fashion profile say the industry here isn't coming apart at the seams.

"Designers continue to grow their businesses, and new designers and stores are opening in spite of the toughest economy recent generations have ever experienced," Gamble said after her departure was announced. "Fashion is one of the most competitive industries that exist. Even in good times, businesses come and go."

Many surviving designers and retailers are adjusting — their product, their approach, their expectations.

"A year ago I was trying to do everything, but in my first season I've seen my best sellers have been my blouses," said Ashley Zygmunt, who just opened a Lakeview storefront/studio for her line Zamrie. "So from now on, I'm only doing women's blouses and tops. I've become very focused."

Last year, designer Elise Bergman started working one day a week at Roslyn boutique in Bucktown, where her line is carried. She has noticed that her signature silk dresses ($275-$375) are moving into the bridesmaid realm; other shoppers can't spend that much on a single piece. "Separates tend to work better with customers' budgets," she said. So for next season she's doing more of them, some from fabric remnants that render them one-of-a-kind.

Many designers say boutique closings have hurt their sales but not to the point that they are hanging by a thread.

"I actually think that quite a number of Chicago designers are thriving right now," said Lara Miller, director of the Fashion Incubator Program at Macy's on State Street and a member of the Mayor's Fashion Council.

Tennille White's orders have soared since the plus-size end of her range was used on BET's "Rip the Runway" last spring. Women's shirt brand Kate Boggiano was picked up by Mark Shale stores. Blake Standard sells to Neiman Marcus Cusp stores.

Among emerging designers, Jess Audey has developed a strong bridal clientele. Anna Hovet's funky clothes are carried at Chicago retail juggernaut Akira.

The city's fashion "rock stars," Miller said, include veteran talents Cynthia Ashby and Caroline Rose. Both sell their relaxed women's separates at stores across the country — Rose at Nordstrom, Dillard's and Neimanmarcus.com; Ashby, at scores of boutiques.

In retail, Stephanie Sack says her 8-year-old plus-size boutique Vive la Femme in Bucktown has experienced record-setting sales for the third year. That's part of the reason she partnered recently with Kathryn Kerrigan, a local designer who specializes in stylish shoes for large feet, to open a Kathryn Kerrigan store nearby at 2031 N. Damen Ave. "My clients love her shoes; her clients love my store," Sack said. "It seemed a perfect fit."

Many more designers and shops, Gamble said, "are maintaining in this environment if not growing."

As for the recession's casualties, reincarnation is sometimes an option.

The former owners of Jake, Lance Lawson and Jim Wetzel, already have resurfaced with Space519, billed as a "refined general store" on the 5th floor of 900 N. Michigan, filled with jewelry, accessories and home goods in a wide range of prices, including $15 nail polish.

In fashion as in life, Lawson said, "there are many times you have to reinvent yourself. There still is a viable fashion community here. We just have to adapt."