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Chicago’s streetwear boutiques weather COVID-19, social unrest

Many of the shoe and clothing stores are in solidarity with the issues at hand — but not the looting.

Brittney Stewart poses for a portrait inside her store, Sweats X Stew, at 5 East 83rd St in Chatham, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020.
Brittany Stewart poses inside her store, Sweats X Stew, at 5 East 83rd St.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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.

Nike’s shoe brand “PHLI Air Max 90,” a collaboration with Dave Jeff.
Dave Jeff

“As for the launch of a brand or the ability to shop for something new, you couldn’t really do anything but go online,” said Jeff. “It [online shopping] works for me, in a sense, because then all I had to do was come in and use the space and facilitate on my online orders. ... The negative part of it is things stopped. 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.”

PHLI owner Dave Jeff poses for a portrait at his South Loop storefront at 2014 South Michigan Avenue, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.
PHLI owner Dave Jeff poses at his South Loop storefront at 2014 South Michigan Ave.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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 duirng 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.”

Michael Willis, co-owner of Pillars, a clothing store in West Loop, poses for a picture in his shop Thursday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2020.
Michael Willis, co-owner of Pillars, a shoe/clothing boutique in the West Loop, poses for a picture in the shop.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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.”

Terrell “Rello” Jones (from left), Vic Lloyd, NBA player/West Side native Patrick Beverley, and Desmond Owusu.
Fat Tiger Workshop

“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.”