Chicago Escape: The Culture of Artistry Retail

Photo of Chicago Escape courtesy of A Non-Agency

Chicago has been nicknamed “The Second City.” However, it is at the top of the U.S. market when it comes to the funding of public art and the support of artist communities, gallery camaraderie and knowledgeable collector groups. Chicago artists and the collectors of their art are the driving force behind community revitalizations and long-term success for local restaurants, businesses and gallery spaces. Visitors photograph, video and socially share their Chicago discoveries which, in turn, shines a light on the city’s retail stores, galleries and hospitality industry.

A Non-Agency (A\N/A) hosted its third Brand Closet Showroom Social, the Chicago Escape, in partnership with the Kimpton Gray in November 2022. Unlike prior Brand Closet Showroom Socials, Chicago Escape’s hyperlocal strategy was designed to unite the art and fashion communities, cultures and two cities: NYC and Chicago.

In Chicago, our community programming featured a unique collaboration with NYC fashion industry leaders from CFDA Connects, Chicago Fashion Coalition and local stylists and artists spanning performance art, fashion and multimedia art.

We opted to demonstrate how “Artistry Retail” experience design can change the narrative from retail and hotel into a true Hospitality Retail destination, which can bridge cultures and disconnected communities. 


Our methodology:

  1. Hyperlocal artistry retail: We took a cue from the Chicago consumer culture, which views artists as the pulse of the community, when we took over the vacant street-level “retail storefront” and transformed it into an Artist’s Creative Utopia “Street Dream Suite.” The design of the interior space by A\N/A’s experiential spatial design team and programming were tailored to showcase and champion true Chicago artistry with street performers The Chicago Bucket Boys.
  1. Cultural space versus hotel: The challenge fashion designers and retailers face in Chicago is directly associated with the distinct cultural and social dynamics and barriers between the geographic communities. Traditional retail outside of the tourist zone tends to be hyperlocal in terms of how the merchandise is curated, space designed and events planned.  As a result, communities tend to stay within their communities.

    In order to bridge the gap among communities, we focused on partnering and hiring local Chicago talent, artists and organizations that would benefit from the use and programming of the space as well as the publicity and the dialogue we provoked through the Champions of Success Panel Discussion.

    We replaced the traditional “step and repeat” with the Dream Suite Artistry Retail Storefront and curated a community social hour that featured CFDA President CaSandra Diggs, CFDA Connect Consultant Elliot Carlyle, Season 18 Project Runway Finalist and local Chicago Designer Delvin McCray and Dionne Williams, Founder of Emerge Fashion Week NY.
  1. Support and empower authentic conversations: Chicago has a challenge with retaining fashion and design talent who struggle with resources, media coverage and public funding. The paradox of this talent exodus is that many current cultural icons have Chicago roots (i.e. Law Roach, Virgil Abloh). The Champions of Success Panelists represented the Fashion Gen X and millennial talent, while the attendees were at the intersection of Chicago style influencers in the fashion, media, arts, education and entertainment industries. It was a first and a unique room of tastemakers, uniting and openly discussing the challenges of funding, support and opportunity in Chicago.

The concept of cultural destination as a means to transform shopping has been a signature of European brands and retailers, unlike U.S. retailers that still seem to approach local stores as pared-down versions of their flagship stores. Chicago art culture and hyperlocal retail tactics suggest that other markets may be missing opportunities to identify new talent and create incubators for Gen Z and Gen Alpha consumers of tomorrow.

Three key learnings for retailers and brands:

  1. Hyperlocal stores can offer unique opportunities to operate creative and design incubator hubs for new programs, products and emerging talent.
  2. The physical store has transformed into a cultural and education portal for product, art and technology-fueled designs (NFT, AI, 3D printing, sustainable engineering).
  3. It’s the new age of the Creator Community and they converge through technology, fashion, art and performance artists.

There are so many local artists, designers and creatives who can fuel experiences for retailers and brands alike. The key is to invest the time, share resources and commit to elevating the culture of the city, community and space. The next generation is the epitome of diversity in all things technology and culture. Building the stores or experiences of the future requires a cultural alignment that starts with appreciating artistry and community building.

Michelle Collins is President and CXO of A Non-Agency, a consumer experience consultancy based in New York.  Contact her at


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