“Streetwear in Chicago” evokes such names as Leaders 1354, Jugrnaut, Joe Freshgoods of Fat Tiger Workshop, and Virgil Abloh. These brands and individuals carry the torch internationally for Chicago streetwear, but while the titans are making their waves, there is a bubbling undercurrent of designers whose creative work brings definition to the city’s fashion scene. It is in that undercurrent that Amanda Harth, founder of the online fashion resource Runwayaddicts, stumbled upon the inspiration for the Museum of Streetwear.
The Museum of Streetwear, a two-day pop-up in East Garfield Park, is a first-of-its-kind exhibition that aims to bring attention to a Chicago streetwear scene that is teeming with creative designs and ideas. “I’ve always been drawn more towards exhibitions and presentations as opposed to traditional runway shows,” Harth says. “I don’t think a [fashion] market here needs runway shows or a fashion week. They need something that allows them to interact and lets them explore things.” In comparison to other major fashion markets, Harth believes that Chicago is unique in that way. “[Chicago’s] a much more practical market,” she says. “Chicago lacks a lot of glamour, and that’s not a bad thing. Here it’s like, ‘We’ve got work to do,’ so it requires something more casual.”
That need for “something more casual” is why streetwear thrives in Chicago. Originally an outgrowth of the NYC hip-hop and LA skateboarding subcultures in the mid-70s, streetwear is characterized by an emphasis on comfort over formality, an unbuttoned look that combines baggy clothing; graphic tees with creative designs, characters, and logos; sturdy sneakers; and a rejection of the old-guard fashion brands. “Streetwear brands in a traditional sense are independent ones, like Leaders and Fat Tiger,” says Harth. “Early on, brands like Nike and Adidas were key in the foundation of streetwear as well.” Now the movement also includes the young Chicago designers who will be featured in the Museum of Streetwear, such as We All We Got, PerryCo Shoes, and Little High, Little Low.
Harth is a native of the Pullman neighborhood. Her desire to pursue fashion led her to the Illinois Institute of Art; she graduated in 2010. “I was trying to start my own brand and I realized I didn’t really know how to run a business,” she says. “I began interning, first with my uncle, who is a designer.” Harth’s uncle, Elhadji “Haj” Gueye, a renowned tailor and owner of Maison de Haj, a tailor shop located near the corner of Van Buren and Michigan, has designed suits for Bernie Mac as well as for TV shows and films shot in Chicago. “I went back to working in the retail business, learning hands on how to market, how to promote, how to do payroll, etc. I became a sponge around people in the branding world of, like, Leo Burnett.”
Realizing she was sitting on a mountain of untapped knowledge about the fashion industry, Harth started Runwayaddicts in 2012. “First it was a platform for independent and emerging designers to promote their work,” she says. “Then we were very events focused for about a year. Now we’re a fashion media company created for designers to use as a resource to get connected with the resources that they need to thrive. [It’s] pretty much something that I felt like would’ve helped me when I tried to start my own brand.”
The idea for a museum dedicated to streetwear came in a most unlikely way, as Harth tells it: in April she was nearing the end of a self-expression and leadership course at the Landmark Forum—a personal and professional growth, training, and development program—and she was required to come up with a final community project. “We had to come up with projects by the end of the day for this program, and I just made it up on the spot. Everyone thought it sounded cool, and I was just like, ‘All right, we’ll see how cool it really is,'” she says. “I’m creating this with the goal of connecting communities that are fashion focused and creatively focused in Chicago. I want us to come together to talk about building something here. For this weekend, I want to get as many people in fashion in one space to start that conversation.”
That includes a panel about owning your own business featuring Diego Ross of Leaders 1354, and a discussion on women in streetwear led by blogger Taylor Justin and featuring Brittney Perry of PerryCo Shoes.
Rico Acoff Jr. is one of the 13 featured designers Harth invited to be a voice in this conversation. Acoff is the founder of Hooligan Brand, a streetwear company he started in 2015. “I was really in need of a job around the time I started in fashion, and I couldn’t find one,” he says. “Then my mother told me, ‘If you can’t find a job then make one.'” Acoff had been an avid consumer of local streetwear brands. “Starting a clothing brand was a way to express my creativity and my love for streetwear,” he says.
Acoff sees the Museum of Streetwear as an opportunity for budding designers to become more connected. “It’s building a light for people that are up-and-coming in this industry,” Acoff says. “We’ll get to meet and communicate and share ideas within this community. This kind of thing is fundamental for the growth of the creative community.”
With ComplexCon in Chicago this year, hometown designers have been invited to collaborate with nationally recognized brands and create capsules for the occasion—like Joe Freshgoods teaming up with west-coast streetwear brand the Hundreds. Acoff and Harth both expressed major concern for what will happen to this sudden creative boom in the wake of ComplexCon. “I call it the ‘Wakanda Effect,'” Harth says. “When people first saw Black Panther, everyone wanted to go out and do amazing things for their community, then two weeks after they were just back to their same old ways. All of these people are coming from around the world to see [ComplexCon], but what happens when they leave?”
But Ron Louis, a designer and founder of Phera brand and another featured artist in the Museum of Streetwear, sees both events as just symptoms of a positive growth in the creative community. “I think it’s more so a reflection of what we’ve already been doing here in the city for years,” he says. “I think that events like the Museum of Streetwear and ComplexCon are going to inspire creatives to go harder.”
Since April, Harth and her team have been busy connecting the dots to make the Museum of Streetwear come together as quickly as possible: booking a venue, getting sponsors, and connecting with brands she hoped to feature. “Now it’s all about sharing this with as many people as possible,” she says. “With this event, I just feel like Runwayaddicts is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
A few years down the line Harth hopes to build a permanent space on the south side that’s dedicated to streetwear, one that won’t just include an interactive museum but also work spaces for designers to create in. For now, though, the Museum of Streetwear is all about building the community up. “Fashion is a trillion-dollar industry, and the fact that Chicago hasn’t been able to capitalize on it is ridiculous. Designers are constantly overlooked here, and they feel like they have to leave to become successful,” she says. “I just really want for people in Chicago to start investing in the designers that they have here.” v
The Museum of Streetwear Sat 7/27-Sun 7/28, 11 AM-6 PM, Lab on Lake, 3450 W. Lake, runwayaddicts.co, $20-$25 day pass, $65-$110 VIP weekend all-access pass.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Brittney Perry as part of Her Notoriety. She is the founder of PerryCo Shoes.