Out of Fashion

“When you’ve been working in retail your whole life, I think everyone thinks the ideal job would be to have your own store instead of working for someone else,” says Janet Moran, owner of the Wicker Park clothing store Toshiro. But at the end of March, after seven years of being her own boss, Moran is closing her store. “I love fashion, I love dressing my customers, and I still want to do that,” she says. “But it just really isn’t worth the headaches anymore.”

Moran’s first experience with Toshiro was as a customer. She used to shop at the store’s original location, at 3309 N. Clark, a Victorian three-flat next to Mia Francesca. When Roger and Nana Sullivan opened the boutique in the mid-1980s, it carried a mix of Japanese kimonos and textiles and clothing by then-unknown designers such as J. Morgan Puett and Robin Richman.

The store’s early merchandise had a distinctive look–delicate, antique, vaguely exotic. “She had the tatami mat–you had to take off your shoes,” says Moran. “It was really beautiful.”

By the time Nana Sullivan was looking for a new store manager in 1994, Toshiro had expanded into the second and third floors, adding antiques and home accessories. Sullivan hired Moran, who’d been managing the Niedermaier furniture store at 900 N. Michigan. Three months later, tired of running the business and going through a divorce, the Sullivans sold Moran the store.

With 20 years of retail experience under her belt–including some time in couture, selling Chanel and Armani–Moran had her own ideas about how to run Toshiro. She changed the store’s offerings to reflect her slightly more contemporary, clean-lined taste, and prices went up a bit. Her niche would be fine fabrics and workmanship and more high-fashion clothes. She also sought out designers not carried in Chicago department stores.

Two years ago, she concluded that the Clark Street location wasn’t attracting the clientele it needed to–it was “too congested, parking was impossible,” and the typical neighborhood resident “couldn’t afford our clothes.” So she packed up and moved to Wicker Park, condensing three floors’ worth of merchandise into a spare one-room storefront at 1719 N. Damen.

Then suddenly this January, while on vacation in Mexico, she decided to close the store. “I’d been really stressed-out, not very happy, and not enjoying what I was doing,” she says. “I decided not to sell the store. I just don’t want to go through the negotiations.”

She got tired of dealing with difficult customers. “My husband’s favorite saying is, ‘Men buy, women shop,'” she says. “Department stores have done a lot to ruin things for small specialty stores.” She explains that shoppers weaned on Marshall Field’s expect to be able to change their minds at whim about purchases, returning four-month-old mer-chandise or clothes they’ve worn. The big stores frequently get rid of damaged items by selling them at a loss to discount stores like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx–something specialty stores can’t afford to do.

Department stores get a discount when they place orders with designers because they’re buying for so many stores, and an additional discount to ensure that when they put garments on sale later in the season they won’t lose money. Specialty stores don’t get those deals. “You’re paying full price, and you’re not getting the mark-down allowance,” she says. “People come in at the end of November–prime buying season–and say, ‘Why aren’t you on sale?’

“There’s also the problem that you go to the shows and you ask someone, ‘Who do you sell to in Chicago?’ And they say no one. A lot of them say no one–and they’re selling to five stores. Just recently a new store opened up over on Webster, and she had three of my lines. Some [designers] will sell to anyone–they’re just out for the buck, without thinking about the long term.”

On top of that, she says, spring merchandise generally arrives in stores in January or February, even though it’s cold here through April. “And the same thing happens in the fall,” she says, noting that by the time people want to buy, department stores have marked their clothes down, forcing smaller stores to follow suit if they want to compete. “There just isn’t enough time to sell merchandise at full price. That frustrates me.”

Toshiro isn’t the only clothing store in the area with a Going Out of Business sign in the window. I’m Lu, at 2042 N. Damen, and Hot Damn, a used and vintage store at 1937 W. Chicago, are both about to shut their doors. Vintage Fiber Works, a vintage clothing and textiles store at 1869 N. Damen, didn’t even bother with a sign when it closed in late January.

“Since I put the sign up,” says Moran, “my customers are coming in very upset, saying, ‘What am I going to do? Where am I going to shop?'” She’s reticent to name stores she thinks might be Toshiro’s peers, but she lists a couple she likes: Jolie Joli and June Blaker. And she thinks there’s still a market for small designers with undiscovered names. “My very good customer has always been interested in very unique things.”

Moran has already lined up work as a freelance personal shopper for some of her regular Toshiro customers, but she worries about the fate of the specialty store. “There’s such a big difference between a department store and a specialty store, and I don’t think people understand the business,” she says. A specialty store “knows you, and shops for you, and treats you well when you walk in the door. If you really want [that kind of service], then you’re going to have to be supportive of that store.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.