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  Written by
  Kimberly Sweet

  Photography by
  Matthew Gilson


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Elements of style

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image: "Elements of Style" headlineContinued... 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."

image: A look inside Darrow and Tunstall's p.45 boutiqueFirst 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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