How One Chicago Building Became a Monument to Menswear
A trio of high-end ateliers stake a claim in The Monadnock Building
Image is everything. Especially when it comes to fashion. And when you are in the business of making men look good, where you set up shop can say as much about your brand as what’s on the shelves. Just ask Ralph Lauren, who set a standard when he opened his flagship store in Madison Avenue’s Rhinelander mansion back in the ‘80s.
In Chicago, bespoke players Zeglio, Optimo, and Leffot have all taken a page from that playbook, establishing themselves in one of the city’s most historic early high-rises: Burnham & Root’s The Monadnock building.
For a building that went up in 1891, the Monadnock is a pretty streamlined affair. But step inside and you enter a world of mosaic tile floors, marble staircases with ornate grillwork, and Edison bulbs in floral-inspired pendants. William S. Donnell acquired the property in the late ‘70s and began an extensive restoration which he has lovingly maintained ever since. The place is pristine.
When it comes to the retail arcade that runs the length of the building, Donnell says, “We want tenants and visitors to be able to see everything in each shop, and through the shops to the streets. To do that, we minimize interior partitions and limit signage to lettering on the windows. We think this was how these spaces were used in the 1890s, partly because the gas and electric lights that were available then weren’t very bright, so the building was designed to let daylight flow through the shops to the lobby.”
“This is pretty much the zoo and we’re the exhibit,” laughs David Han, of custom clothier Zeglio. The building is a popular stop on architectural tours, so it’s not unusual for Han to look up from his work and see a crowd of people peering through his window. Once a custom shirt shop, Zeglio’s understated space fits the brand just fine. Customers appreciate it, too. “It’s old fashioned, but good old fashioned,” observes Han. “People always say it reminds them of the spy thriller The Kingsman, where a tailor shop serves as a base of operations.”
With commuters heading to and from trains nearby, and LaSalle Street and government offices within blocks, The Monadnock is ideally situated. Customers stop by on their lunch hour or pop in after seeing clients upstairs, says Han. “Our repeat customers are usually working professionals who wear a suit regularly. Lawyers, especially, want something clean-cut and professional, nothing flashy. Then there are customers who are fashion forward and want to look good all the time, or are slowly expanding their wardrobe.”
“We’re here because of the aesthetic of the building,” says Alexander Utz, sales associate with Optimo, the Chicago-based hat maker. “Bill Donnell curated the building to evoke the feeling of the era when it went it was built, with the bespoke suits and shoes, and we really fit within that. Our styles could exist in the past, but do not look out of place today.”
Anchored by a long counter inspired by the diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (the store’s interior was orchestrated by designer Angela Finney), the shop displays vintage blocks and flanges on one wall, and an array of fedoras, pork pies and homburgs on another — all made in a former firehouse in the Far South Beverly neighborhood.
“Our clientele is pretty much across the board,” says Utz. “But they all appreciate well-designed things, hand made things, where they can see and feel the quality. We have a lot of architects. Designers, musicians. But then we get a lot of lawyers from upstairs. While most clients are generally older — because they can afford to make this investment — we see younger guys too, who care about how they look and want a hat that is going to last them the rest of their lives.”
The Monadnock’s prestige as a historic building with a unique physical profile dovetails perfectly with Leffot, too, the luxury shoe purveyors. “Our focus is heritage footwear and this location really underscores that,” says Sean Moran, the man you want to see when you are ready to get serious about your shoes. Launched in New York in 2008, the company carries select footwear from Alden, Edward Green, Saint Crispin’s, Corthay, Quoddy and Wolverine. If you cannot find exactly what you want in the in the shop, not to worry: they’re happy to file a custom order on your behalf. “If you come in and want an aubergine dress loafer with a rubber sole from Green, it will be here in 12 weeks,” reports Moran.
Like his colleagues in the building, Moran’s customers range from the guy in the corner office to the newcomer who can’t wait to get out of his cubicle. “A lot of guys are moving up in their careers and moving up in footwear,” says Sean. “And interestingly, it’s often law clerks — rather than attorneys — who are better dressed.”
There was a time when high-end menswear shopping was all about the experience. You came in, sat down, read the paper, maybe enjoyed a drink. And all the while, someone waited on you with great care and attention, diligently taking down your measurements and looking after your every need.
In the age of drunk Amazon-ing, it’s easy to forget that that type of experience still exists — but you’ll find it at The Monadnock, which offers almost one-stop shopping for the man who wants to look his best. And Donnell is happy to have them in the house: “The quality of their merchandise and presentation says great things about the building. We are very proud to have them.”