Chicago streetwear bou­tiques adapt to COVID-19 and em­brace so­cial jus­tice — but not the loot­ing

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY EVAN F. MOORE, STAFF RE­PORTER | @evanF­moore

The Jone­ses try to keep up with South Sider and “cul­tural ar­chi­tect” Dave Jeff. When Jeff opened PHLI — pro­nounced “fly” and an acro­nym for “I Love Hyde Park” spelled backward — in 2002, he was one of the folks who set a streetwear trend that spawned Chicago bou­tiques and cul­ture stores such as Lead­ers 1354 (also launched in 2002), Saint Alfred, Fat Tiger Work­shop, Suc­cezZ, Pil­lars, Sweats X Stew and Ju­gr­naut, among oth­ers.

Jeff, 45, a cul­tural part­ner with Puma who also made his own shoe with Nike (PHLI Air Max 90) and other brands, was ahead of the trend when COVID-19 shut down in-store pur­chases, since he nor­mally op­er­ates on­line. But as some­one who does a lot of net­work­ing in pop-up spa­ces where cur­rent fash­ion trends are launched, he too has made the pivot to stay afloat in un­usual times.

“The neg­a­tive part of it is things stopped,” said Jeff. “I’m a peo­ple guy; I like touch­ing, ex­plain­ing the new shoe, ex­plain­ing the new T-shirt — that kind of in­ter­ac­tion with the peo­ple stopped.”

Even as Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Light­foot were giv­ing the go-ahead to re­open stores while ad­her­ing with so­cial dis­tanc­ing guide­lines, the cloth­ing/shoe bou­tiques were grap­pling as well with the ever-con­stant threat of bur­glary.

Some of them were looted dur­ing the protests in the af­ter­math of the May po­lice killings of Ge­orge Floyd and Bre­onna Tay­lor, the Aug. 9 shoot­ing of a 20-year-old in En­gle­wood by Chicago po­lice and the protests over the po­lice shoot­ing of Kenosha, Wis­con­sin, res­i­dent Ja­cob Blake. Some were bur­glar­ized dur­ing the weeks in be­tween.

Brit­tany Ste­wart, owner of Chatham’s Sweats X Stew (5 East 83rd Street), had been hit a few times be­fore mov­ing from her 75th Street lo­ca­tion.

“Be­cause I am a woman and I sell men’s clothes, I can’t be in­tim­i­dated by men be­cause 60% of my cus­tomers are men,” said Ste­wart, whose store has been in Chatham since July. “This time around, we were ready, but luck­ily it didn’t get bro­ken into.”

And Ste­wart, 30 — the daugh­ter of Diego Ross, co-owner of shoe/cloth­ing bou­tique Lead­ers 1354 — says would-be bur­glars aren’t think­ing of the col­lat­eral dam­age loot­ing does to Black busi­ness own­ers.

“This can be your sis­ter or your brother’s store, or your cousin’s store,” said Ste­wart. “It’s up­set­ting be­cause th­ese are my peers. ... Af­ter I got hit, I could’ve moved down­town or to the North Side. I wanted to stay in my com­mu­nity.”

The own­ers of Pil­lars, a bou­tique with lo­ca­tions in the West Loop (1167 W. Madison St.) and Calumet Heights (2006 E. 87th St.), dis­cov­ered both stores had been hit as co-owner Michael Wil­lis went to check on the West Loop lo­ca­tion, while his busi­ness part­ner An­dre Weaver drove to the South Side store.

“You al­most for­got about COVID [-19] be­cause so much more is go­ing on,” said Wil­lis, 31. “By the time I got to this store, it was crazy. It seemed like the movie ‘The Purge.’ All this from the front [of the store], all the way to the back door; ev­ery­thing was ba­si­cally gone.

“It’s very up­set­ting. You sit back and you’re like: ‘Why me? Why us?’ At the end of the day, I un­der­stand the rea­son — not par­tic­u­larly [the loot­ers’] rea­son­ing — with the loot­ing go­ing on, but you never want some­thing that’s yours be­ing dam­aged or taken away from you, es­pe­cially when you busted your a-- to get it. If it hap­pens next time, we’re pre­pared.”

Fat Tiger Work­shop (836 N. Mil­wau­kee Ave.), led by Joe Fresh­goods, Ter­rell “Rello” Jones, Des­mond Owusu and Vic Lloyd, re­opened while ad­her­ing to so­cial dis­tanc­ing guide­lines by al­low­ing a lim­ited num­ber of cus­tomers into the store, while keep­ing in mind the re­al­ity of the times as the May loot­ing pushed back the re­open­ing date from June to July 3.

“Orig­i­nally when it [COVID-19] hap­pened, we weren’t try­ing to push clothes down peo­ple’s throats when they re­ally don’t know how they’re get­ting their next meal, so we calmed down for the first cou­ple months of it,” said Vic Lloyd, Fat Tiger co-owner and owner of the cloth­ing line “Big Homie Sen­sei.”

“I wouldn’t be up­set if we were get­ting hit be­cause peo­ple were an­gry about what’s go­ing on in the world — we got hit by crim­i­nals. We un­der­stand it as a part of the game when peo­ple are stressed out, but it’s cool if [loot­ers would] be a lit­tle bit more in­formed. It’s a Black-owned busi­ness and we do a lot of stuff for the com­mu­nity. But when you’re up­set, you’re up­set.”


PHLI owner Dave Jeff poses at his South Loop store­front at 2014 S. Michi­gan Ave.


Brit­tany Ste­wart poses inside her store, Sweats X Stew, at 5 East 83rd St.


Michael Wil­lis, co-owner of Pil­lars, a shoe/cloth­ing bou­tique in the West Loop, poses for a pic­ture in the shop.

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