Third Coast Style

Eric Green

The floor-length gowns and pleated jackets on mannequins sitting in the storefront provide a stark contrast to the barred windows of the liquor store next door. Away from the traffic of 18th Street, this is the studio of fashion designer Horacio Nieto.

The seemingly odd placement of this studio, in a neighborhood not recognized as a high fashion epicenter, is a result of the recent economic downturn. Though he originally planned to open a studio in 2007, Nieto decided he could wait a few more years after watching many of his colleagues close up shop. But it was the same economic conditions that forced some of his colleagues out of business that allowed him to find a cheap studio to rent. “I am able to survive here,” Nieto says in regards to why he chose Pilsen.

He received a BFA in fashion design from the International Academy of Design & Technology-Chicago and went on to work for various design companies, gaining experience while harboring dreams of opening his own studio. His hopes were realized in October 2011, when he opened this Pilsen storefront. Since opening, it has attracted clientele and attention both as a standout in the design field, and as somewhat of a hidden Pilsen gem.

Cheap rent only solved a few problems for the fashion designer. As a result of dwindling  funds, the city has privatized once-public fashion expos and severely cut back on the promotion of Chicago fashion. “Chicago designers have to work twice as hard as those in other parts of the country,” Nieto laments. In Pilsen though, the lack of fashion studios has proved to be a boon for Nieto. “Some of my customers walk in the door simply because of how surprising it is to find a studio down here,” he says. “While all of the people who walk in may not be able to afford the clothing in my store, that exposure is still beneficial for me.”

This sort of exposure, combined with his talent, drives a big portion of his business in Chicago. “I don’t have to promote myself as much as you would think,” he says. His participation in a few local fashion shows has helped raise his city-wide profile. Chicago media has been quick to support Nieto’s business, and from there, he says, “Word of mouth has been my biggest way of getting clients into the studio.”

Despite the success, Nieto still struggles against the lackluster state of Chicago’s place in the national fashion industry. The city has plenty of notable artists and architects in residence, but its fashion scene is small, with designers scattered throughout the city. “You think we would have great fashion here, but we don’t,” he says.

He attributes the dearth in part to stereotypes held by fashion hubs in coastal cities about Midwestern tastes–one he has actively disproved. In 2008 Nieto was the winner of the AOL Latino Fashionista Design Competition, one year after a win by fellow Chicago designer Anna Fong. Since then, Nieto has gained coverage in both local and national press.

Yet Chicago, as a city, has room to grow as an incubator of fashion houses and ateliers. Nieto is skeptical that great strides will be made in the next few years, but has enough hope for the long run to stick around, using his Pilsen studio as his base of operations.

The existing arts scene in Pilsen provides a good community for him, and he hopes that his presence there will begin to attract other designers. “I can use the attention that I get through this store, and channel it into the neighborhood,” he says. However, he hopes the neighborhood does not become as commercialized as Wicker Park. “I want the people who have been living here for fifty years to still be able to live here, its part of what makes the neighborhood what it is.”

But Nieto is not waiting–he’s staying busy. The walls of his studio are lined with racks of clothing, the tables in the back full of projects and orders in progress. The studio provides an anchor not only for the small Chicago fashion industry, but also for Nieto’s future in this city.

2151 W. 21st Street. Monday-Friday, 9:30am-5pm; Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, 10am-4pm. (872) 232-5909.