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Elements of style:
With dash, daring, and determination, entrepreneur Jessica Darrow, X'93, is bringing fashion to the Chicago masses. (print version)

Written by Kimberly Sweet

They say it's not what you know, it's who you know, but most of the time a combination of the two works best. . Witness Jessica Darrow, X'93. Armed with several years of retail management experience and a knack for connecting with everyone from bank presidents to basketball players, Darrow and friend Tricia Tunstall opened their own clothing boutique in Chicago's oh-so-hip Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood in October 1997. Right from the start, the store, Phoebe 45, had plenty of hype--mentions in Vogue and Elle magazines, visits from Dennis Rodman and musician Liz Phair, fashion shows drawing the local beautiful people.

Two years after the store's opening, in--store sales are three times what the owners had projected. Phoebe 45 now includes clothing lines representing 35 mostly female designers from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, plus jewelry, scarves, hats, and bags. Recently, Darrow and Tunstall branched out by adding a men's section and a Web site for on-line shopping.

The store's success brought with it what could have been the death knell of the young business: a lawsuit for trademark infringement filed by Kay Unger New York, owner of Phoebe LLC, a women's clothing line. Though the Phoebe clothing line started up after Phoebe 45 opened its doors, Darrow and Tunstall had neglected to trademark their store's name. Unger's lawyers pressed charges June 1; four agonizing months later, Darrow and Tunstall agreed to an out-of-court settlement requiring them to change their store's name to p.45 as of January 1.

"We were not scared, we were pissed off and sad," says Darrow. "Having to settle was difficult. It was clearly a good business decision, because fighting the lawsuit would have cost a fortune, but the lawyers and judge thought we had a good case, so it was hard to walk away."

Taking risks seems to come naturally to Darrow, a native New Yorker who strides across the bustling intersection of Damen, North, and Milwaukee virtually daring cars to hit her. Tanned from a three-week trip to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Paris, Darrow wears an Amy Zoller long-sleeved gray matte jersey shirt with lace-up V neck and a blue-gray, floor-length, bias-cut skirt by Paul & Joe--both from Phoebe 45, as are most of her clothes--and chunky black shoes. She tops this with a sleek black leather jacket and silver accessories--a thick bracelet, plus three rings for her fingers and a fourth for her nose.

Like many people her age, the 28-year-old sees herself not as a disillusioned Gen-X slacker, but as part of a generation "taught to keep asking questions, questioning systems, pushing boundaries, making changes." She credits her parents--Katharine P. Darrow, AB'65, a U of C trustee and recently retired senior vice president of the New York Times Company, and lawyer Peter Darrow, JD'67--with encouraging her to make changes in her career, helping her to see that they didn't have to be lifelong choices. Even starting a business.

"My parents weren't scared at all," Darrow laughs. "Nothing scares my parents--I've tried really hard. They can withstand anything. And laugh later. I put my parents to the test. Over and over again. And they passed. I failed, but they passed."

The second of three children, Darrow came to the University in 1989 and studied literature, primarily Russian literature in translation. She got her start in retail while a fourth-year student, leaving school to accept a full-time job as assistant manager of an Orland Park, Illinois, Body Shop store. The Body Shop, an international manufacturer and retailer of hair- and skin-care products, uses all--natural products, campaigns against animal testing of cosmetics products and ingredients, supports fair working conditions and wages, and works with Amnesty International.

"After being at the U of C for so long, and so focused on--this sounds terrible--the trivia of intellectualism," Darrow explains, "it became so much more important to me to be involved in a practical experience like a retail business that was making local changes in the community, huge social changes worldwide."

In 1994, she met Tunstall, a marketer based at the Body Shop's U.S. headquarters in North Carolina, when Tunstall was in Chicago on business. Between long phone calls and occasional visits, the two became good friends--friends who spent a lot of their time together shopping--and eventually started to discuss opening their own business. In the meantime, Darrow left the Body Shop in 1996 to become director of retail at a theme store in the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex in New York.

Still, she wanted to start her own venture and wanted a partner. A friend in New York wanted to start a restaurant; Tunstall wanted a boutique. Darrow chose Tunstall, feeling she would be more dedicated. They got together for two weekends to talk out their plans. "We just drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and brainstormed," Darrow recalls. "We have the funniest notebooks that we wrote, full of these crazy, really good ideas that were completely half-baked."

In the end, she decided to forsake her hometown for her adopted one, the Knicks for the Bulls. In early 1997, Darrow and Tunstall moved out to Chicago, sharing a studio apartment with Darrow's yellow Lab, Wheeler, and waitressing while they crafted their business plan for a women's boutique. They decided it would be called Phoebe 45: Tunstall had always wished she'd been named Phoebe. In honor of Michael Jordan, Darrow contributed the 45, Jordan's jersey number when he returned to the Bulls from retirement in 1995.

Name picked, they scrambled to make Phoebe 45 a reality.

"We had to have our inventory committed in spring in order to get it in for fall. We didn't have a dollar to our names," Darrow explains. "Then we had to have a lease so we could start construction, but we still didn't have our loan approved. It was so scary."

First came finding the designers, which they did by reading Women's Wear Daily, interviewing designers, and visiting showrooms. "The heart of our store," says Darrow, "is that we work with these phenomenal young artists who are scrambling at the opportunity because we give them room to do whatever they want to do." She and Tunstall ordered about $80,000 worth of inventory--COD, naturally--that had to be stacked in the tiny kitchen area of their studio until fall.

With advice from the Women's Business Development Center, they completed their business plan in July. Then they applied for--and received a week later--a loan from the Small Business Administration, financed by North Community Bank, whose president they'd met. "We did a really thorough, well--researched plan, and I think that's what got them," Darrow says, noting that being under 30 and being women probably helped rather than hurt.

They saw their store's future home while eating breakfast one day, about to sign a lease on a different space. "It had more character, more risk, and therefore more potential," says Darrow. Several friends recommended the same young architect, Suhail, who agreed to design their space for a nominal fee and the chance to make his stamp in Chicago. He accented the long, narrow space's high ceilings and brick walls with unfinished steel and large curved sheets of fiberglass.

To celebrate Phoebe 45's opening--hoping also to garner some attention and begin a tradition of social service--its owners organized a November 1997 music-and-fashion bash held at the Double Door, a nearby music venue and bar. Dennis Rodman and drummer Matt Walker, who's played with the Smashing Pumpkins and Filter, attended the party, a benefit for the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Women's Wear Daily covered the event, beginning a run of good publicity. A story in InStyle brought a rush of out--of--state business. Rodman--a Filter fan who met Phoebe 45's owners through Brian Liesegang, AB'91, then a member of Filter--helped to generate plenty of buzz by talking the store up, buying clothes for friends, and wearing some of the jewelry.

Buzz aside, the philosophy behind Phoebe 45 has remained constant: to bring customers' attention to original fashions by up--and--coming designers and to help the customers feel fabulous. That means getting to know individual personalities and tastes, and being honest about what clothes work on which bodies. "We have so many customers who use us as their personal shoppers," says Darrow. "One customer who has become a friend of ours asked us to come over to her house, drink some wine, and tell her what she could use in her closet and what she should just throw away. That's a huge compliment, being invited into a woman's life to help her revamp it, basically."

Though the clothes aren't cheap--a tank top could cost $30 or it could cost $210--Darrow says Phoebe 45 has a varied clientele, ranging in age from 14 to 60, from the North Shore to the city. "One customer who just broke up with her boyfriend is half in tears and has got to buy something to make herself feel better," she cites as an example. "The next customer who's there with her two kids is dying to get home to get dinner ready for her husband, and the next woman who's waiting on line is on her way to get to work stripping. It's a really funny combination, and I think they all get a kick out of the fact that they're all there together."

With the hiring of two other employees, Darrow and Tunstall now spend five days a week instead of six or seven in the store. In Darrow's new spare time, she's taken on duties as secretary of the Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce. "I have enough of a reputation with this business that I'm listened to," she comments. "That's amazing at 28, to be able to have an influence."

Having other hands to help also means that Darrow and Tunstall can now do the shopping for Phoebe 45 together. They attend two major New York shows every year, once in February, and again in September, when hundreds of vendors display their latest lines at a big convention center. This fall, Phoebe 45 put on a show of its own, Black & White 2000, featuring the designs of Amy Zoller and Kwiyun. Guests attired in black and white paid $10 or $30 to enjoy hors d'oeuvres or dinner, followed by a medley of multicultural, rail--thin models strolling in black beaded skirts, white handkerchief halters, and gray leather pants to the strains of "The Girl from Ipanema." The most exciting news in fashion this fall, Darrow says, was year 2000-inspired parachute, metallic, chain-mail, and reflective fabrics.

As for Phoebe 45's owners, the year 2000 will bring not only a name change but also decisions about when and how to expand their business. Darrow is counting on their Web site,, to advance the business further and faster than a catalog. Though the Internet accounts for only 5 percent of Phoebe 45's sales to date, Darrow predicts that's how most of today's high-school and college students soon will do their shopping.

"It seems like every time Tricia and I decide to take a real risk and we know that we could really flop, it turns out well," Darrow muses over her usual morning latte. "But you have to go through the fear period in order to earn the success. So we'll see. We're still in the fear period here."

"Jessica's the horse that goes," chuckles Tunstall. "I'm the one who pulls..."

"She's the reins," Darrow finishes for her. "Fortunately, I pull harder than Tricia."

"True," Tunstall concurs.

But as much of herself as she's put into the shop, Darrow doesn't know how long she'll stick with it. She has more risks she wants to take, like living in Africa for a few years, or starting her own restaurant, which she thinks would be an even bigger challenge.

"By the time I'm 55, I'll have had four or five careers," Darrow predicts. "I won't have to retire--I'll have burned myself out."

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