"Chicago used to be a huge hub of fashion," Katerina Helebrantova tells me when we meet at the River Room lounge. We are in a building formerly known as the Apparel Mart, subsequently renamed 350 North Orleans. Behind us, a pedway above Orleans Street joins 350 North with the Merchandise Mart, the 4,000,000-square-foot behemoth with its own zip code. Before the construction of the Pentagon, the Merchandise Mart was the largest office bulding in the world. It was also the center of Chicago's booming apparel industry. "The Merchandise Mart," Katerina tells me, "used to be filled with fashion companies' manufacturing and offices. Unfortunately in the late '80s and heavily in the beginning of the '90s, everything started to move to China." Today the Mart's fashion legacy continues to deteriorate. In late 2018, the for-profit Illinois Institute of Art (not to be confused with the School of the Art Institute), closed its Apparel Mart campus, where students had pursued B.A. and associate degrees in media arts, including fashion. Earlier that same year, the Sun Times reported:
When Katerina arrived in Chicago from Prague via Munich in 1992, she struggled to find stable employment, designing at three companies in as many years. "One by one," she says of those early employers, "they died." In 1996 she took a job with a company that made work uniforms. "They did more traditional uniforms," Katerina says, "but they were starting to specialize in the hotel industry and doing more tailored clothing." Katerina initially designed for casino staff, but shifted her focus to the hospitality industry. The work demanded extensive collaboration, not only within Katerina's team, but across the entire organization and even extending to outside resources like interior-design firms and trend forecasters. Katerina thrived. She tells me, "It's so engaging to work in a process where you interact with people from a different field." When a larger uniform manufacturer acquired her employer in 1998, Katerina stayed aboard. Today she is still at the company, working as a creative director. Her focus remains on hospitality, an industry where the traditional corporate uniform faces a forced early retirement.
Uniforms kind of remind me of Helvetica. People talk about Helvetica as being a container for information, because it's such a neutral typeface. If you print a sign in Helvetica, you're just conveying information, but if you print a sign in Comic Sans, you're saying a lot about yourself. I can see how in some instances a uniform just contains an identity, like "hotel worker." But I could also see how the uniform could actively communicate the hotel's brand. Is there kind of a blending in / standing out dynamic in all this?
Yes, there definitely is, but it really all depends. When you are designing for one property, you are just going off the environment. Maybe you see the front desk and there's a mosaic behind it, and that's the only place that people will be working. You can think about what will look good in that environment, but when I have multiple hotels, we are probably going much more from the brand. What is their message? For example, Hyatt Hotels are tied to the Pritzker family and architecture has always been so important for them. There is a certain feel for a Hyatt hotel. They could be built in a different period of time, they're remodeled at different stages, but they still have a certain feel. You walk in and you will say, "This is Hyatt," or Grand Hyatt or Park Hyatt. We use that approach quite a bit because the apparel fits within a whole visual brand identity.
If the uniform exists inside a larger brand ecosystem for the hotel, I wonder if that brand ecosystem exists inside an even larger system of signs, including the retail industry, like you were saying earlier.
It's so much tied into what is going on in retail and interior design and fashion. I also have quite a fascination about color. Colors are really the first thing that people see, even if they don't have an art education or visual training. Colors are very powerful and they have a huge impact. There is color forecasting established by the Pantone Institute*, and color is really very cohesive, if it's fashion, if it's interior design, if it's graphic art. When you see colors in retail fashion, you see the same color combinations or the same ideas about colors in architecture and interior design. Once you pay attention to it, it's really cohesive.
*(Editor's note: The Pantone Institute has declared Living Coral as the color of 2019.)
When we first walked into this room, you made a comment about the colors, that they are very trendy right now. It reminds me of the scene in "The Devil Wears Prada" when Meryl Streep's character breaks down the amount of decision-making that resulted in Anne Hathaway's character wearing a particular color of dress, without her being aware of any of it.
My whole life, I was in an art or design environment. Then I met this incredible gentleman, who is my husband now, and he is a medical scientist. For the first time, I was in a very close relationship with someone who doesn't see any of that―but he has brilliant taste, I have to point that out. We spend all our lives to try to create, and when you live in that environment, you are just so focused on it. Then you become aware that for so many people, it doesn't mean anything for them. I sometimes wonder how many guests coming into the hotels really see (the uniforms) because now with social media and Instagram and everything, there is an overload of information. People used to compliment my clothes or my jewelry, and it was, "Oh, my God, this is just so beautiful. I love the fabric." It was very much about an appreciation for the clothes. Today somebody will give me a compliment and say, "Oh, this is a great look. I just saw something like that on Instagram." I actually find it offensive. I mean, where is the person? Clothes are an expression of you. You make your choices based on your taste and who you are and how you live, not to look like another 50 people on Instagram.
After our conversation at the Mart, Katerina and I walk down Wacker Drive toward Michigan Avenue, along the Chicago River. We're headed to One Illinois Center to visit the Chicago Architecture Center. Along the way we pass the red-brick Encyclopaedia Brittanica headquarters with its turreted clock tower; the Marina City honeycombs; a blacked-out IBM tower that stands distant and remote on its plinth like a Doctor Who nightmare machine on twiggy legs; the languid, rounding facade of the Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist; the London Guarantee Building and its frontside that bends inward, away from the river, cupped like a hand around an ear turned towards the Mag Mile; and directly across the river, sadly, that monstrous carbuncle of parvenu excess.
As we walk, Katerina talks about her admiration for Modernist architecture, particularly Bauhaus, and its ability to combine beauty and practicality into "good aesthetics for everyone." This idea―inclusive beauty―is key for Katerina. "Things need to be beautiful," she says. "There is no excuse for ugliness in life. Companies like Ikea and Target did a great job in making good design accessible for all. For ages, beauty was really made for rich people. It was a status symbol to have beautiful things. Everybody deserves to be surrounded by beauty―functional, beautiful things."