Chicago’s Street-Level Creativity
Discover the innovative, independent enterprises that give America’s “Second City” its unique flavor.
While not as well-known as New York or Los Angeles, perhaps, the Windy City is a major hub for creative talent. From fashion to food, art to architecture, Chicago offers visitors a plethora of opportunities for unique, world-class experiences.
Though a relative late bloomer, only incorporating in 1837, Chicago quickly became America’s fastest-growing city — a title it would hold for several decades, thanks to its favorable geography and weighty industry potential. Indeed, in the 19th century, what was then known as the village of Chicago became a busy trading center due to its proximity to the nation’s booming Midwestern agricultural production region, as well as its location at the intersection of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. By the 1920s, the city boasted the nation’s second-largest population and had become a major hub for manufacturing and industry. Only decades later, Chicago played home to several of America’s largest corporations, including Boeing, Sears, Motorola and McDonald’s. ¶ Today, Chicago has expanded beyond its manufacturing roots to now host a thriving startup technology sector and chart-topping musical talent, as well as award-winning art, architecture and design. Drawing from both the city’s industrial background and multicultural diversity, Chicago’s creative industries have blossomed over the past two decades to rival those of any other major global metropolis — making the Windy City a wonderful place to visit, full of colorful, stimulating and entertaining experiences. Here, we introduce a selection of those pioneers who are continuing to spearhead Chicago’s street-level creativity:
—1152 W Madison Street
When Chicago-born streetwear designer Virgil Abloh took his position as head of Louis Vuitton’s menswear division earlier this year, it seemed that the fashion world’s growing infatuation with street style had reached its apex. Long before major fashion houses paid notice, however, urban streetwear boutiques were cultivating an independent culture of style and design curation. One of the pioneer streetwear shops in Chicago is Leaders 1354, founded by Corey Gilkey in 2002. Serving as both a retail outlet and cultural hub, Leaders 1354 sells limited editions of national and local brands, as well as its own special collections of sneakers, T-shirts and hats. While countless celebrities have adorned the Leaders brand, Gilkey’s goal is primarily to serve the local community. In addition to shopping for unique items unavailable nearly anywhere else, visitors to Leaders 1354 may encounter a pop-up event by another local brand, a musical performance from a budding area artist, or an in-depth conversation with the founder himself.
—738 N Clark Street
When St. Louis native and longtime Chicago-area resident David Choi liquidated his life savings to start a food business, his aim was financial independence — not necessarily creating a multi-million dollar business. With no formal culinary training, Choi filled Mexican-style tacos, burritos and quesadillas with his Korean grandmother’s bulgogi beef and spicy pork recipes and began selling them out of a humble food truck in 2011. The food was an instant hit, and now, less than a decade later, Seoul Taco has expanded to a group of five restaurants across Missouri and Illinois, which includes a popular location in downtown Chicago’s River North neighborhood. Taking a casual, tongue-in-cheek approach to the Korean-Mexican fusion concept, the restaurant presents a feast for the senses. From the painted vintage boombox stereos and humorous original wall art to the inventive menu, the only things that Seoul Taco seems to take seriously are the flavors of the food and having fun.
—Low Res Studio
As a major global business and education hub, Chicago hosts numerous large business conferences every year that seek to stimulate innovation. Some of the most interesting conversations, however, happen at smaller-scale, more intimate events such as True Chicago. Started last year by photographer David W. Johnson, True Chicago seeks to connect Chicago’s emerging artistic talent with local creative leaders. The 2017 True Chicago workshop featured a diverse lineup of speakers, including entrepreneurs, writers, filmmakers and designers. In addition to sharing thoughts on creativity and business success, True Chicago aims to challenge the city’s creative professionals to make a positive social impact on the community. The next edition of True Chicago will be held on September 8, 2018, at Low Res Studio.
—300 West Grand Avenue
The pinnacle of menswear is said to be the bespoke, or custom-made, suit. Made from luxurious fabrics and intricately stitched together by master tailors, these garments normally require multiple fittings and cost many thousands of dollars. However, an innovative crop of businesses has recently emerged to bring the cost of custom suiting within the reach of an average professional. In Chicago, Nicholas Joseph is the leading bespoke suit maker, offering custom shirts, suits and tuxedos at a fraction of the price. After selecting fabrics, customers at Nicholas Joseph get fitted and photographed, and Nicholas Joseph tailors produce custom pieces within four to six weeks. After an initial order, each customer pattern is kept on file so that future orders can be made without a fitting. Nicholas Joseph also offers worldwide shipping, so international travelers can make orders from anywhere across the globe.
WABASH ARTS CORRIDOR
—Wabash Avenue from Van Buren to Roosevelt
Over the past five years, the buildings lining Wabash Avenue in Chicago’s South Loop area have seen their exteriors gradually transform from dull brick and concrete to a vibrant canvas for colorful graffiti art. Far from being an expression of vandalism, these artworks represent part of the Wabash Arts Corridor, a project spearheaded by Columbia Chicago College that seeks to create “an urban lab for creative expression” in the city. Some of the world’s most gifted street artists, as well as local talent, created a diverse body of artwork along the avenue. Currently stretching for eight blocks, the Wabash Arts Corridor is a must-see for fans of street art or anyone seeking large-scale artwork outside of a traditional museum setting.
—1501 N Kingsbury Street
Chicago is home to numerous performance venues, presenting virtually every type of music and theater. Second to jazz, however, the type of performance that Chicago has perhaps become best known for is improvisational comedy, commonly known as “improv.” Numerous comedic actors who got their start in Chicago have gone on to success in Hollywood and frequently dominate the cast of NBC’s Saturday Night Live sketch comedy show. The iO Theater is widely considered to be the epicenter of Chicago’s improv scene, boasting an impressive list of former cast members that includes Bill Murray, Mike Meyers and Tina Fey. “If it wasn’t for the iO Theater and the people that perform there, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today,” says recent iO alumnus and actor Ross Kimball. “What’s great about the theater is that you can walk in any night of the week and see a great live comedy show. It’s a must-do activity if you’re visiting Chicago.” The iO Theater hosts several simultaneous shows on its multiple stages every night of the week.
—2354 N. Milwaukee
While Chicago knows no lack of nightlife venues, a monthly dance party in the Logan Square neighborhood became particularly popular by taking a decidedly old-school approach to music. Soul Summit, founded in 2010, features local DJs Dave Mata, Sloppy White and Duke Grip playing classic soul records from the 1960s and ‘70s, as well as the occasional retro live band. With a reputation for drawing a friendly and cheerful crowd, and frequently charging no entrance fee, Soul Summit presents itself as a surprisingly accessible underground party with a positive vibe that strives to be “all about the music.” Soul Summit is held on the third Saturday of every month at the East Room in Logan Square.