Midwest style

by Elise Diamantini

The Chicago retail scene is brisk and blowing in the right direction.


Akira has quickly multiplied, from one women’s store located in Wicker Park to 17 stores (including men’s, women’s and shoes) in the Chicagoland area. This month marks their 10th anniversary! And, in true Akira fashion, the retailer is hosting a major event that will take over all of North Street in Bucktown (where there are three Akira outposts). The Akira Bazaar will feature belly dancers, fortune tellers, a hookah lounge, and even camels to celebrate this milestone. There’s truly never a dull moment with Jon Cotay and the rest of his Akira crew.

On surprise sellers: Tanks! I really didn’t think that Chicago guys would be into tank tops, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how well they’re doing. Toms Shoes are on fire, too. It’s funny: I think guys only buy Toms because their girlfriends like them!

On disappointments: Printed wovens got a lot of buzz within the industry, but they’re just not selling at retail. On another note, we’ve seen some interest in dress up from Moods of Norway and JC Rags, but DB never took off here.

On current challenges: Challenges are more internal for us. Finding good people to run the store has been a struggle. We’re looking for people who will take it to the next level and continue growing the business. (Every new store we open is between 8,000 and 10,000 sq. ft.)

On e-commerce: The website has allowed us to expand internationally. We have an entirely separate team running our online business. [Editor’s note: Akira only sells women’s online but there are plans to eventually add men’s.] A funny thing happened when I was at the Miss America pageant in Las Vegas. I was talking to a girl and she said to me, “I found the best website. It’s called ShopAkira.com.” And I looked at her and was like, “Let me guess, you bought the Jeffrey Campbell shoes you’re wearing from the site, right?” And she was like “Yes! How did you know?” And I said, “Because that’s my website!”

Isle of Man

Isle of Man co-owners Arthur Holstein and Jim Bechtold wanted their store to look as if Steve McQueen, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Lauren got together and had a yard sale. They’ve succeeded: the store is a mixture of all things “manly,” including an eclectic mix of motorcycles, apparel, accessories, grooming and collectibles. Isle of Man manager Catherine Pham tells us a little bit about how it all came into fruition.

On how they launched Isle of Man: Arthur spent his whole life collecting really cool things and one day his wife told him that he should open a “man-tique.” So one January evening, he met with his friend Jim over whiskey and beers and brainstormed the concept for the store. The soft launch was September 2010 and the grand opening was October 2010, complete with a mobile beer truck, pig roast, burlesque dancers and snow cones.

On their apparel mix: When we first opened, we didn’t want to be an apparel store, but we did want hints of it. However, our customers are asking for more, so we’re expanding our offering for fall. We currently range from about 10 to 30 percent apparel: mostly T-shirts in the summer and motorcycle-inspired outwear in the fall/winter, and we stock vintage leather jackets year-round. Barbour is a brand that matches our store’s aesthetic and is extremely popular with our clients. (Steve McQueen donned Barbour after all…) We brought in the Steve McQueen Barbour line last fall and it performed phenomenally.

On what they look for in a brand: We like anything made in America or locally in Chicago and brands that have cool background stories. For example, Randolph Engineering has been one of the top brands since we opened. They’re an American manufacturer of aviator sunglasses. They actually carry the military contract.

On special events: We have an event/work/office space (Reserve) next door. We rent out the space for private parties (mostly guys’ birthday parties and a few other organizational events). It‘s a fantastic alternative space, and it carries a certain “manly” vibe. So far, we haven’t done any of our own events, but that’s something that we are cooking… We’d like to do a weekly movie night, and there are rumors of a men’s club, but I can neither confirm nor deny those speculations…

Sir & Madame

Sir & Madame was opened in 2010 by husband and wife team Brian and Autumn Merritt. It spawned from their original concept Solemate, a sneaker and streetwear store they opened in 2007. “We always wanted to produce an in-house brand but didn’t think Solemate was strong enough of a name, so we came up with Sir & Madame,” says Brian. “Not long after, a space opened in the Ukrainian Village area, so we decided to move and reopen as Sir & Madame.” The aesthetic and assortment is more classic contemporary than the former streetwear store. Here, Brian gives a look into their business.

On private label: It’s actually grown from private label to a women and men’s wholesale business. In 2010, we were asked to take part in Project 10 and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. We’re now selling the line to Brooklyn Circus in New York and San Francisco, as well as international accounts in Japan and Korea. We make everything in the U.S.: wovens retail from $125 to $140, cargo shorts for $90 and varsity jackets are $375. We also do a strong leather goods business including bags and small leather goods. For 2013 we’re experimenting more with fun woven fabrics like florals and polka dots.

On the merchandise mix: We’re 50/50 men’s to women’s, and private label to branded is about the same ratio, but it does vary slightly by season. We don’t follow trends or bring in anything that we wouldn’t wear ourselves. We carry brands with a similar aesthetic and craftsmanship as our line, like Levi’s LVC, Brooklyn Circus and Strivers Row. We also carry some vintage pieces, accessories and apothecary items like candles and grooming from Baxter of California.

On Special events: We hosted a Boardwalk Empire party at the store; which was a lot of fun. Everyone dressed up like the characters and the time period of the show. It was sponsored by Grey Goose and we had burlesque dancers and a magician. Now we’re planning a barbeque to celebrate the store’s anniversary in August.

Apartment Number 9

Sarah Blessing opened Apartment Number 9 without any menswear experience (her background was in art). At the time, she didn’t think anyone in Chicago was doing menswear justice, so she took a chance. That was 10 years ago. She admits that Chicago style has changed a lot since, but she’s managed to make Apartment Number 9 stand out as a must-stop shop.

On e-commerce: We’re in the process of launching an e-commerce business. I recently hired Marc Moran, formerly of RSVP Gallery (another Chicago retailer), to head it up. [Editor’s note: Marc told us that at RSVP Gallery, he noticed how critical online sales were in growing the business and wants to do the same for Apartment Number 9.]

On how to get guys shopping: We showcase a different brand at various times throughout the year. One of our most successful events was during holiday with Rag & Bone. Highlighting a brand to our consumers really gets them to take a special interest in it.

On other best-selling lines: Wings + Horns is another brand that our guys just love, mostly because of the beautiful cozy fabrics and great fits. Guys are also responding to the custom shirting program that we launched with Hamilton shirts. And then there are those brands that we’ve carried since we opened, like Paul Smith, that always do well.

Mark Shale

Mark Shale opened in 1929, and, at its peak had 13 stores in the Midwest. Three years ago Mark Shale was bought by a private equity firm and now has three locations in Chicago: Michigan Avenue, Oakbrook Center and Northbrook Court. Phil Borntrager, furnishings and sportswear buyer, gave us an inside look into the Oakbrook Center store.

On contemporary business: It’s a growing category overall for us. Our Michigan Avenue store does the most contemporary business, but all three stores do well with brands like AG, J Brand and LBM 1911.

On current best sellers: Shorts are doing particularly well, especially slimmer styles from Tailor Vintage and Paperbacks. The sweet spot is between $88 to $98. Trim-fit has finally caught on in the Midwest!

On grooming: We’ve always done a small grooming business but now we’re working on an exclusive offering from Lucia Bay. Guys really love it. The products have a soft, silky feel, they don’t use any alcohol and it’s all made in the U.S.


Adam Beltzman and Jerry Kamhi, owners of Haberdash, are shaking things up! They closed the original Old Town location last February, and in November opened EDC, an accessories and apothecary store one door down from the Haberdash store in River North. Beltzman says the move was essential to growing the business. “River North is a busier, livelier neighborhood, so we’re getting much more exposure just by the amount of foot traffic everyday.”

On EDC: EDC is an accessories, apothecary and shoe store. We’re having a lot of fun with it because we can try out new products and brands. We even put a vintage barber’s chair in the back of the store and are giving guys straight razor shaves. And then we’ll sell grooming products like Baxter of California.

On what’s selling: We’re doing well with tailored pieces from brands like LBM 1911. We’re also selling a lot of Nikes, boat shoes and leather pieces from Tanner Goods.
On what’s next: The apothecary business is definitely a growing area. We’re also trying to partner up with more brands on exclusive goods that guys can only get at Haberdash.