“Chicagoans are not renowned for their fashion sense at all,” says Evelyn Buckley-Browne, who hopes to open a store of local fashion designers’ wares in the weeks before Christmas. But she thinks we have potential. She remembers the early days of the Design Centre, an incubator and outlet for Irish designers that set up shop in her hometown of Dublin 20 years ago. Dubliners aren’t known for sartorial elan any more than we are, but that didn’t turn out to be an obstacle. “They had Irish woolens, they had crochet, they had linens, and really good quality, unique items. There was absolutely a great buzz about the whole thing,” Buckley-Browne says. “We’ve a lot of fashion shows in Dublin now, and it was that place that got it on the map.”

The 39-year-old Buckley-Brown doesn’t look like a fashionista, and she doesn’t have any background in design or retail. In 1992, after graduating from college in Ireland and winning the visa lottery, she moved to Chicago and got a job waitressing at Kitty O’Shea’s, the Irish pub in the Chicago Hilton & Towers, while she studied to be a stockbroker. After stints in stocks and commodities, she got into real estate. “I bought my first two-flat and realized that hey, this beats working,” she says. She helped Century 21 open a rental division in Chicago and is now working on developing artists’ studios in Logan Square. “I would like to push all of the artists who are kicked out of Bucktown and Wicker Park over there,” she says.

Her new venture, she admits, was “a copycat idea,” modeled on the Dublin Design Centre. She knew there was no lack of local talent. “A lot of designers go to design school in Chicago and then they end up going to London, they end up going to New York,” she says. “Why go there when you’re going to be one of millions when you can stay here and be one of thousands?” Through business networking clubs she met the owners of local high-end clothing stores like Ikram and p45, who told her they wondered why someone hadn’t already opened a place like the one she was plotting. “They have to go to London to get fashion for their clients. I mean, that’s crazy,” Buckley-Browne says.

She rounded up a small group of investors and last year began looking for a space big enough to grant each of 30 designers a ten-by-ten-foot area. The designers would decorate and maintain their own space within the space and could choose one of three rent/commission plans; the company would provide the building, pay utilities, and supply sales and support staff. Buckley-Browne hoped the arrangement would help smaller designers launch their careers: “To set up a boutique is a fortune,” she says. But “I don’t know what else a designer could do if they want to be successful, and if they haven’t got the funds, what do they do? If you just concentrate creatively you can’t advance. If you concentrate on business you can’t do your creative work.”

Last March, Buckley-Browne took out a classified ad in the Reader. “Budding fashion designers wanted,” it said, and listed her phone number. Those few words generated a lot of calls, but she had trouble finding designers who met all her standards. “Some, their product is not good enough. And some designers are fantastic but they don’t have the motivation,” she explains. “You get the personality but you don’t have the product. You get the product but don’t have the personality. In order to make this work, these people have to be all-round.”

Two respondents she did approve of were Annie Bangs and Kay McNally, friends and part-time bartenders in their mid-20s. Together they design funky versions of closet staples under the name Heroine, selling mainly to friends. Bangs and McNally were enthusiastic about the concept, not only for themselves but for others like them. “It gives the designers a little more of an opportunity to shine than they’d have in a little boutique,” says Bangs. “These kids are not going to be able to go out and get their own store at $1,000 in rent every month.”

When they joined her, Buckley-Browne had recruited only a few other designers. Bangs and McNally offered to help step up the search, going to every fashion show they could find. “Every gallery in this city has a show–we couldn’t get to all of them,” says McNally.

Over the summer they put up flyers about the project in cafes and bookstores, and by September Buckley-Browne had signed up 28 designers of women’s clothing and accessories. The group decided to open a coffeehouse within the store and settled on a name: Chicago Fashion Launch. Bangs and McNally came up with a plan to pool information about everything from sewing contractors to suppliers of zippers and buttons in a resource library and functioned as contact people and cheerleaders for the other designers. “Kay and I, we’re go-getter kind of girls, so we started thinking about all these ideas for the business,” says Bangs.

Meanwhile, Buckley-Browne had found a space she liked, a 10,000-square-foot warehouse at Lake and Western. But not everyone was happy with the location–across from the Illinois Youth Center, a juvenile correctional facility. Buckley-Browne says the area was too gritty for some of the designers: “I really feel that location could work, but I have to have them in agreement. I was outnumbered.” So she moved on to 1438 W. Cortland, near the shopping corridor on Armitage in Lincoln Park. On the river by the A. Finkl & Sons die-forging facility, the 5,000-square-foot space is hardly geared toward foot traffic, but Buckley-Browne says the Design Centre flourished despite being similarly off the beaten track.

Then, about seven weeks ago, Bangs and McNally, along with Jodi Ingham, another designer, left the group to open their own store, taking a lot of the other designers with them. The trio won’t specify what caused the split. “We were all in a position where we were running a business that wasn’t necessarily how we would want to do it,” says McNally. “It was just a bunch of little decisions.”

Bangs says she felt a responsibility toward the other designers. “I wasn’t looking out for number one. I was looking out for 22 or 23. And I wanted to make what I thought was the right decision for us and then ultimately offer it to any of the other designers.”

Buckley-Browne says the three weren’t up-front with her about why they were leaving, telling her only that they thought the enterprise would fail because costs were too high. “I guess they liked the idea so much they decided to do it themselves,” she says. She’s hired a business consultant to help her run things and has replaced most of the designers who left. Still, she’s had to push back the planned November 18 opening date to sometime in December.

Bangs and McNally say they feel bad but were forced to be pragmatic. “When you work with someone so much you create a personal relationship with them, and we personally really, really liked Evelyn,” says Bangs. “It was really hard to make that decision….You don’t want to hurt feelings, and of course when things like this happen sometimes feelings will get hurt.”

Cut off from their original source of start-up cash, Bangs, McNally, and Ingham have had to reengineer the concept somewhat. For one, their store, Operation Co:op, will be smaller. “We can’t afford a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. We’ve been looking at about 2,500 square feet,” Bangs says. “But every designer will still have kind of like their racks, their little area.” They’re scouting locations around Damen and Division, currently a hot boutique area, and hope to open in February. Operation Co:op held a preview show for friends and family in Bangs and McNally’s Lincoln Square studio last Sunday. A bra festooned with peacock feathers hung alongside colorful nubby knitted dresses and hand-dyed silk tunics.

The competition doesn’t seem to worry either party much. “I think it’s good,” says McNally. “Because then all of a sudden people are going, What is this all about? What have we been missing out on?” Buckley-Browne predicts that “we’ll be fine.” Her designers are a mix, she says, so “students can shop there, and Lake Shore Drive people can shop there.”

“We still like the idea of launching designers, helping to create a home for people to come to and sell their lines and hopefully to make names for themselves,” Bangs says. “If you’re financing us don’t listen to this, but we’re not opening a store to make a lot of money in our own pocket. We’re opening a store…to bring together the talent that’s out there in this city.”

Marsha Brenner, executive director of the Apparel Industry Board, Inc., which promotes the local garment industry, says she wants local designers to succeed but that some jump into business without enough preparation. “You must do your demographic, you must know your product, you must do your research,” she says. “It’s a very complicated formula.”

Both Buckley-Browne and the Operation Co:op designers are confident of success. “I’m talking stupid here,” says Bangs, “but I feel like something’s really happening, and it’s really exciting, not only to have that feeling but to know that you’re part of it and you’re kind of on the ground floor.”

“The future Versace is out there,” says Buckley-Browne. “It’s just a matter of getting public recognition.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, Eduardo Ximenez.