The fashion industry in Chicago, already smaller than its coastal counterparts, was hobbled further with the budget cuts to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) last year, which eliminated funding for Chicago Fashion Week and Fashion Focus. And despite having a few high profile names come out of the city, such as Cynthia Rowley, Eileen Fisher and makeup artist Bobbie Brown, many young designers have headed to the coasts for better opportunities.
But that doesn’t mean all is lost.
Local accelerators and incubators (from WiSTEM to the Chicago Fashion Incubator) have accepted startups that blur the lines between apparel, e-commerce and tech. A rising maker-entrepreneur movement has provided another home for emerging designers and apparel creatives to work on their wares.
And while these fashion startup founders may not all showcase their products on a runway, they combine technology, social media, crowdfunding and local manufacturing to create products and platforms that could change the way we get dressed in the morning.
Here’s a look at seven fashion and apparel tech startups to know in Chicago:
This peer-to-peer marketplace, cofounded by Sarah Perkins and Bill Meyer, allows women to rent designer clothing and accessories from one another. Lenders post their items (which must have at least a $200 retail price), set the price and time period for the rental, and keep 75 percent of the transaction. Renters get free shipping on items. DesignerShare has a pre-approved list of designers they accept, but also evaluate listings on a case-by-case basis. Since launching at the end of March, they have over 175 items listed on their site and facilitated 15 rentals. The bootstrapped team of four is focusing efforts on Chicago at the moment, but they hope to expand to new cities in the future.
This menswear label has been locally manufacturing its line of affordable, fashionable men’s clothing since 2012. Since then, Stock Mfg Co has experimented with crowdsourcing designs, collaborations with brands and opening a brick-and-mortar storefront in Fulton Market. Most recently they expanded into designing and manufacturing uniforms for the hospitality industry, amassing over 50 clients (including Alinea and Soho House) without marketing (they’re also in talks with several additional restaurant projects that founder Jim Snediker couldn’t yet name). They also just opened their own manufacturing facility in West Fulton Market’s ICNC, where they are producing their shirts and some aprons. They hope to eventually move all their manufacturing to the new facility.
This startup provides flexible, stylish apparel for breastfeeding moms. Their sweatshirts, tunics and dresses include strategically placed zippers along the bust that allow for easier, more discrete nursing. Founder Andrea Newberry sold out her first six production lines with 800 customers on six continents, and ran a Kickstarter in 2016 that raised $50,000 for her first large-scale production run. Newberry is currently working through WiSTEM and will run another Kickstarter to fund her “Plus” line in August 2017.
This startup has developed proprietary tech for fitting jeans. Users input their measurements on the ZipFit Denim site, the platform searches their inventory database to find the jeans that are most likely to fit a user’s body type, and users can purchase directly from the site. If the fit isn’t perfect, they offer free tailoring, and they have a Chicago showroom for fittings. There’s also a “Quick Match” tool, where customers can search for a pair of jeans similar to ones they already own. While ZipFit started with men’s jeans (a less crowded market, founder Alex Batdorf said), they expanded to women’s jeans last year and added brands such as Citizens of Humanity, Frame, Current Elliot and Parker Smith, among others. According to a regulatory filing, ZipFit recently raised $2 million, but Batdorf declined to comment citing securities laws. She did note that they’re hiring for several positions.
This athleisure startup, founded by tech entrepreneurs Lotika Pai and Wen Yao, creates colorful, affordable, sports bras inspired by Chicago architecture. They launched their first line of six sports bras last fall, each retailing for $36. They’re now gearing up to launch their second line of apparel which will be a “visual representation of women taking up space in their lives and being unapologetic for it,” said Pai. This will include both sports bras, open back tops, and full-sleeve tops. While they currently sell through their online store, they’re in talks with boutique fitness studios and e-commerce platforms to carry their merchandise, and are planning to launch in Asia.
Last year Portefini founder Ramzi Assaf successfully raised $68,000 on Kickstarter for their line of casual blazers. While they’re set to deliver orders by this July, their foray into apparel helped them realize that men want easy, fashionable outfits. So the founders are now working on a new fashion tech endeavor: A menswear shopping aggregator, curated by Instagram fashion influencers. On the Portefini site, men can browse by item or occasion (such as work, everyday, or active), and shop pre-selected outfits created by the influencers. They’re also planning on integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence to curate clothes that match the shopper’s style.
This jeans company, founded by former trader Rob McMillan, is focused on creating quality, long-lasting jeans at an affordable price through local manufacturing. They offer mens and women’s jeans in five different fits and three washes (as well as black) total, ranging from $49 to $65 in price. Since launching sales on an e-commerce platform last September, Dearborn Denim has sold over 5,000 pairs of jeans. Next up, they’re opening a brick-and-mortar store in Hyde Park.