The Lake Effect

Courtesy Freshwater Chicago

It’s been a whirlwind year for the guys of Freshwater Chicago: developing and designing a clothing company, targeting a niche market, networking with boutique owners and musicians–and starting college.

Freshwater Chicago is the brainchild of Hyde Park resident Grant Chappell and Wrigleyville resident Graham Winn-Lee, who opened the label in 2009. The Freshwater team has since doubled, and a successful business model is in the works. Today, Winn-Lee serves as the head graphic designer. Andre Muir and Oscar Salinas take care of everything on the business end of things, including the new website and market research. With a budding business model, it looks like they have things pretty much figured out–impressive for a crew comprised entirely of college freshmen and sophomores.

While scattered across the Midwest–Chappell and Muir attend University of Missouri, Winn-Lee is at University of Illinois, and Salinas studies at DePaul University–the group has managed to maintain ties and momentum.

The ability to seamlessly meld design consciousness and wearability is to be expected of a well-established group of designers, and Freshwater is already exhibiting signs of this maturity. No neon or noisy graphics can be found in Freshwater’s domain. Their first few designs are fairly stark: solid color tee, tank, or crewneck with a clean white graphic print. The quintessential Y-shaped Chicago insignia–the intersection of the Chicago River at Wolf Point–is restyled to look like a clock face. Other designs pay homage to Lake Michigan, featuring aquatic images such as a brass scuba diving helmet. This summer, they released a loose-fitting tank top in dusty red and blue with a large anchor in the center, the letters F and W framing it on either side. “We don’t want the designs to hit you in the face–subtle designs and simplicity are what catch your attention,” says Salinas. “We want our designs to speak for themselves.” And they apparently have. Freshwater’s Facebook page had 25,000 hits in its first month, and their first batch of anchor tanks sold out a week after its release date.

Courtesy Freshwater Chicago

So what’s with the name? While it’s apparent that Freshwater designs are decidedly “fresh,” the story behind the moniker goes deeper. “New York and L. A. are by bodies of water, but they are near oceans, saltwater. Chicago is different because we have Lake Michigan and it’s freshwater. Chicago and the lake inspire us, and we feel that it goes overlooked,” Salinas explains.

The designers draw design inspiration from sources just about as diverse as their market. Salinas cites rock legends Mick Jagger and Morrissey and local legend Kanye West as personal style icons, but he also admires high-end designers such as Dior Homme. The Freshwater Facebook page states: “From the Punks, to Bikers, to Hip Hop heads, Streetwear, to casual, anyone can relate. What is Freshwater? It is whatever it means to you.” Salinas reiterates this point: “We want to stress that we’re not just a clothing label but a lifestyle brand. We don’t want to cater to just one demographic.”

Freshwater’s distribution model is still on the rough side; in order purchase a shirt, customers shoot Freshwater an e-mail, and one of the guys delivers it personally. “Yeah, our delivery system is still in the works.” Salinas pauses, and then adds, “But as soon as our website is up, it will be different.” They currently outsource their printing to an Alabama company called Mammoth Print Shop, but would like to find a local Chicago printer.

Though only a year old, Freshwater is looking to make it big. “You have to network, and we know a lot of people.” No surprise, Salinas is a business major at DePaul. They gave three anchor tanks to M.I.A’s DJ–“Who knows? Maybe one will get into the hands of M.I.A.,” says Salinas. Muir’s father was Kanye West’s manager in the beginning of West’s career, and the company also has connections with St. Alfred’s, a well-known boutique in Wicker Park specializing in urban wear.

Juggling schoolwork and a clothing label isn’t easy, and these complications have drawn out the company’s progress. But in spite of a slow start, Freshwater has a new batch of designs in the works, and both the young entrepreneurs and their fans are excited to see the outcome. For the guys at Freshwater, good design is an insatiable thirst.

Click here to visit Freshwater’s Facebook page

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