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Chicago’s Relaxed, New Style

“If you don’t like the weather, wait three minutes,” a friend told me soon after I landed in Chicago. This is one of the most frequently uttered clichés about the Windy City, and now I know why. I arrived to fine spring sunshine, and in no time was treated to cloud banks advancing in a gloomy armada, followed by a rain squall, a mini heat spell—and snow. The shadow falling over the window as I unpacked in my room at the Peninsula was caused by a flurry that abruptly turned the area into a snow globe. This micro-climatic event lasted roughly 10 minutes and then cleared. It was May again.

I had come to Chicago to check out the celebrated food scene and to see the stores where Michelle Obama buys the clothes that have transformed her into if not the most fashion-conscious First Lady ever (that would be a toss-up between Mary Todd Lincoln and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), then certainly the only president’s wife to have worn Commes des Garçons. And, of course, I planned to explore the spectacular new Renzo Piano–designed addition to the Art Institute of Chicago.

I already knew about Chicago’s world-class architecture and world-class art collections, that it was the American birthplace of molecular physics and is ground zero for molecular gastronomy on this continent. I was aware that its fecund political scene somehow birthed both the Jerry Springer–style train-wreck governor Rod Blagojevich and … that other guy, the leader of the free world.

Still, for me Chicago had too long been terra incognita, which is why I understood when Erin Hogan, public affairs director of the Art Institute, told me too many people “still have this misconception that Chicago is all crooked politicians, guns, and gangsters. You know, Al Capone. Bang, bang.”

I will give you this. The odds are long that not 20 minutes after this exchange occurred I would stumble across a shoot-out in the middle of Michigan Avenue, specifically the swanky retail stretch of it called the Magnificent Mile. A thing like that could happen anywhere in our gun-happy country. But until I hit Chicago I had never seen a cop draw a gun before. Now I have. The event served to illustrate how paradoxical Chicago can be, and not just in the imagination. The city is, as advertised, staccato, chic, dynamic, and like something out of a cartoon.

The Chicago I encountered turned out to be less the monolithic Second City than a congeries of neighborhoods, entirely unalike. It is a surprisingly mercurial place operating under the marine influence of Lake Michigan, a body of water so vast and oceanic you could sink Vermont and New Hampshire in it all but invisibly.

As Shane Gabier, who, with his partner and boyfriend, Christopher Peters, runs a design collective called Creatures of the Wind, told me, “Chicago is a really casual place these days.” Over roast chicken one night at Lula Café, a bustling restaurant in Logan Square, Gabier remarked that Chicago has become “kind of like Portland or Seattle, but with some edgier moments, at this halfway mark between the Pacific and New York.”

In style terms, that mash-up quality is embodied at the upper reaches by Blake, a minimalist retail temple where the Martin Margiela clothes are displayed with ecclesiastical reverence, and also by Ikram, a crammed Rush Street boutique owned by Ikram Goldman, the woman who acts as Michelle Obama’s unofficial style consigliere, not that you would ever get Ms. Goldman to admit as much in print.

At a more accessible point on that arc lie stores like Hejfina, the Wicker Park emporium that some claim has the best fashion selection in the Central time zone and others accuse of having passed its hipster use-by date. Certainly Hejfina is well stocked with the limited production labels like Loden Dager and Adam Kimmel (jumpsuits, anyone?) that give the fashion-addicted the vapors.

Read more: Travel and Leisure

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