By Carol Jackson

Rush hour, Monday night, May 15. Photographers gather on the el platform at Clark and Lake, poised with cameras focused on the doors of each passing train. At 6:12 the anticipated load of color, gloss, and soft puffy things finally arrives. Some of the clothes have a futuristic appeal, with skintight vinyl ribbing; others resemble toddler jammies, making the models wearing them look like they’ve been caught in the midst of an oh-I’m-at-the-office-with-only-my-undies-on dream. Several models are rendered mute by electrical tape in cartoonish puckers over their mouths. Many are simply elegant in trendy clothing.

The quest for style is made affordable and fun: for $1.50, commuters survey outfits almost tailor-made for those of us too lazy, fat, or broke to participate in the world of high fashion. The crowd parts, forming a runway down the middle of the platform. This is the “CTA Rider Beautification Project,” a fashion show and the latest installment of GoodLookin.

GoodLookin is both a magazine and a series of fashion shows embracing both haute couture and DIY aesthetics. In 1998 Aviv Kruglanski and Andrew Natale discovered a mutual interest in all things modish after a former roommate accumulated a pile of fashion magazines. “Vogue, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, but especially Jane and Seventeen,” explains Kruglanski. “He could indulge himself in socially acceptable, or at least legal, kiddie porn.” Kruglanski and Natale stuck to higher ground, becoming both critics and fans of this Vaseline-lensed world. They divined rigid formulas behind the layouts with the grand narratives and outrageous clothing. Stylistic breakthroughs were just inventive enough to resemble transgression without breaking any windows. Natale says spectacular appearances “distract the consumer from any political or social concerns initially present in the spreads borrowed from real-world occurrences.” The pair wanted to fill that resulting void, reuniting these images with their “real-life context.” Within a year, both the magazine and fashion shows were up and running.

“At first people wondered if we were serious or just into meeting chicks,” says Natale. “But at $3,000 dollars an issue and anything from $100 to $4,000 for the events, we are serious. Our antagonisms toward the fashion establishment are friendly. We feel irony is passe, and we prefer juxtapositions over parody.” Their approach is perhaps best illustrated by their willingness to don matching undersized nylon running suits while seeking advertisers among the appropriate shops on Michigan Avenue, confronting the sanitized world of high-end fashion with a poorly dressed, poorly funded, and openly desperate version of itself.

“The magazine aspect of GL admittedly has a ways to go if we’re going to achieve even a passing likeness to a fashion mag,” admits Kruglanski. But, Natale adds, “we’re making the most of our budget.” The publication resembles a fanzine parody of its glossy counterparts, due as much to its low-cost production values as to articles eager to giggle at their own jokes. Yet the jokes are funny and the fashion spreads seem genuine. In “Olga and Alberto, Comfort on the Coast,” two models are wiping their noses throughout a vacation-inspired photo feature. The despair caused by unrealistic cultural ideals is underlined in Carlos Trujillo’s semi-suicide notes. Trujillo’s prose reveals the deepening depression of a man burdened by societal demands to exhibit a fashionable lifestyle he can no longer bother to aspire to–in his heart of hearts he knows he “can’t cut the mustard.”

GoodLookin’s fashion shows are more expansive, drawing an increasing number of fashion-world cognoscenti who are eager, no doubt, to co-opt the rebels’ ideas for next year’s lines. Participating designers include those actually promoting their work on legitimate-looking models as well as artist-types whose clothes are flung onto the nearest friend or relative in the manner of a makeshift Halloween costume. The revolving list of designers includes Benoit of Noir, Cat Chow, Denise Dietz, Sarah Staskauskus, Evelyn Weston, and Krista and Hillary of Polka Dotti. Kruglanski shows his own work as Aviv K.

“Our first show,” Kruglanski recalls, “we invited everybody we knew to go onstage, outfits unseen.” It was part of a variety show at the Hideout arranged by Amanda Ross-Ho, and amid the poetry readings and performance art appeared GoodLookin fashion statements in the form of AstroTurf attire or prosthetic breasts. Successfully utilizing chance, the organizers have continued to maintain a fairly hands-off editing stance for each successive edition of both the magazine and the show. Risk has ruled, from the “Shoplifters Issue,” which featured testimonials from the sticky fingered, to the “Slip ‘n Slide Water Show,” in which well-heeled models traveled down tarpaulin runways into baby pools. “But we aren’t performance art,” Kruglanski adds. “We’re way shorter and we don’t get naked.”

Bodies on display vary, from the ever-popular emaciated coke whore to pretty young boys to flabby men with nipples the size of tulips (their lack of stage presence makes them exceedingly present). Inflatable safety devices, torpedo-tit bikinis, and dresses knitted from pharmaceutical vials have shared the runway with tasteful plaid skirts, cashmere sweaters, and linen pants. “As long as you can put together an outfit or two and provide models who can show up to the one, two rehearsals, your submission has been accepted,” says Kruglanski. “It’s not that we’re democratic, we just wallow in our own schizophrenia.”

Themes thus far have been vaguely cinematic, underlined by garment-specific music provided by a DJ. There’s espionage, beach party, or combat. One runway resembled a military obstacle course, with barbed wire, tires, and an abusive drill sergeant armed with a megaphone. The next issue’s theme is celibacy, with discussions of heavy metal, hard-to-access clothing, and the closing of Whites Fabric. Gary Coleman is interviewed while eating crab. Then it’s on to the war issue. Fashion shows under consideration include “Dueling Barbecue Pits” and a lakeside “GoodLookin After Dark,” which will have models on bikes while the audience sits behind rocks with 40-ouncers. Then there’s “Chicago Social vs. GoodLookin,” a joint magazine and show event. “There’s only room for one of us in this town,” Kruglanski says.

“Chicago is the perfect place for this,” says Natale. “The normalcy is deafening and it’s easy to get noticed. Many other self-starter galleries are sustaining a name with an itinerant existence similar to ours.” He refers to such local contemporary art venues as Temporary Services, the Law Office, Suburban, Dogmatic, Standard, and the now-bound-for-LA Chicago Project Room, which were all started with a certain humility. Once these exhibition sites win legitimacy (if press is a measure), they sometimes turn into proper galleries without losing their intelligence or verve. For now, Kruglanski and Natale are happy moving between the publication and their shows. As their “CTA Rider Beautification Project” demonstrated, a modest revolution can occur when routines are even momentarily ruptured.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Shaina Boone.