June 2, 2011 – It’s just past 8 a.m. on a cool Friday morning in late May and I’m speed walking down a leafy side street in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. I stop in front of an adorable brick house surrounded by a well-groomed garden, walk up the stairs and knock on the door.
“Hi! Come on in,” beams a cheerful Elise Bergman as she simultaneously opens the door and shoos her dog, Sadie, into the living room. “The studio is upstairs.”
At just 26 years old, Bergman is already a well-known name in Chicago’s fashion world. Her classic, vintage-inspired dresses are sold in dozens of local stores, several of her accessories—namely headbands, necklaces and bobby pin sets—are featured at Anthropologie stores worldwide, and brides regularly come to her for custom gowns and wedding party dresses.
I follow her upstairs into an angled-ceiling studio, sun-drenched by windows on two sides, and peppered with racks of multi-colored dresses in various levels of construction. Light-colored hardwood serves as the floor, a sewing machine sits perched against one wall, and in the corner there is even a little dressing room for visiting customers. It’s the ideal designer’s studio.
We sit down on stools next to her worktable and start chatting.
It soon hits me that, even at her age, she’s been sewing for a whopping 20 years.
“I learned to sew from my grandmothers; we would make Halloween costumes and various outfits,” Bergman says.
As a kid, she would ride her bike to the library, check out books from the craft section, and teach herself things like weaving and the intricacies of making the perfect knot.
In middle school, Bergman made jewelry and sold it to friends—her backpack served as her storefront. She created her first wrap in a seventh grade home economics class—a harbinger of things to come; Wraps are some of her most popular items today.
Bergman went to college at the University of Michigan and kept making her own clothes. Soon, friends caught on and asked for pieces of their own.
“I remember one lady stopping me in the street to ask me about my skirt,” she says. “When I told her that I’d made it, she said she wanted one and wrote me a check right there. That’s when I started thinking I could do this for a living.”
After graduating, she made dresses and sold them on the weekends at her aunt’s shop in Western Michigan. Customers introduced her to shop owners in Chicago and her business took off.
In 2008, she was chosen as one of the top five new designers in Chicago and invited to showcase her collection at the GenArt show.
Back at the studio, Bergman tells me of her plans for the future.
“I want to keep my business independent, local, and sustainable; I am all about growing organically and within my means,” she says.
Even so, she isn’t opposed to following in her idol’s footsteps.
“I am really inspired by Ralph Lauren; he started with one incredible piece—the necktie—and built it into a huge empire; it shows that if you have an excellent foundation, you can support a business,” Bergman says.
We walk around her workspace and I asked to see some of her in-progress pieces. She picks up a baby doll sundress with a summery print.
“I really like this one,” she says, twirling it around. “The print was created by a designer in Chicago—which is a testament to me staying local in all aspects of my business—and the design is very simple, but still has a few touches of flair, which is true to my aesthetic.”
Advice for budding fashion designers
Bergman offers three words of advice for aspiring designers: “go for it.”
She says nothing beats just putting yourself out there with your designs and testing the market.
“Make something and wear it; see if anyone responds,” she recommends.
If they do, she advises making five more of the same thing and introducing them to independent shops.
Additional pieces of advice: start a blog, contact fashion bloggers, show your items on Etsy, and conduct focus groups.
“Remember to take risks and believe in yourself,” she says, adding that the work is worth it—she loves her job. “I really enjoy bringing something artistic and creative into the world.”
Katie Morell is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Over the past 10 years, Morell has covered topics ranging from business and politics to travel and social justice. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org), and a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism.