#916: The Order

April 18th, 2018

She likes punk, industrial, new wave, goth, the macabre. Long black streams of mesh trail from the ceiling in her Pilsen artists loft. She has a framed photo of designer Alexander McQueen posing with a skull on the desk and a pair of brass knuckles suspended over the kitchenette sink.

She’s done seven clothing lines of entirely black. She works in vinyl and lace, mesh and satin, safety pins and fishnet — all black, down to the thread used on inside stitching. The eighth line branched out from all black all the time. Three of the new pieces are as white as a desert-bleached rib cage.

She smiles and laughs all the time.

“Why do I have to be this angry person covered in skull tattoos to wear black?” she said.

Clothing designer Nicole Marét of The Order isn’t black and white herself, even though her clothes have all been one or the other. She has long hair dipped purple at the tips, bright bright bright red lipstick, various costume jewels and gems shining from gold and silver jewelry. She likes that her personal fashion doesn’t match gothy, punky, industrialy stereotypes any more than her laughter does.

“Whenever I’m out and about and somebody asks what I do and I say that I’m a clothing designer, you immediately get the up and down,” she said. “A lot of times I just end up wearing leggings and a sweatshirt or something because I get covered in paint, I snag everything. And I’ll be in a coffee shop and tell someone I’m a designer and they’re like…

[Here Marét jumps into a tone of frenemy sarcasm and scrunches her face skeptically.]

“‘Ohhhh… Really?’”

The Baby-Sitters Club

Purple-tipped, red-lipsticked, black-designing Nicole’s early inspiration came from 1980s/1990s tween-before-they-were-called-tween novel series “The Baby-Sitters Club.” Marét, now 33, would slice apart her leggings, repinning them in funky new ways to be like her fictional idol.

“I was a massive, massive Baby-Sitters Club fan. There was a girl in the Baby-Sitters Club named Claudia Kishi, who was this super-artsy girl and she was always hiding junk food under her bed and making ridiculous things,” Nicole said. “I can’t remember if she did anything to her clothes, but she was kind of my muse, I think, at a very young age, and I wanted so desperately to be her, or be like her, that I think [slicing leggings] was my interpretation of her artistic tendencies.”

College took her to California and an eventual art degree — not the original intent, but after years of course-hopping, a guidance counsellor told her she was closest to graduating if she declared an art major.

Other than elaborate Halloween costumes — one year she covered a ball gown in old vinyl LPs and went as “Music” — fashion was more hobby than passion. Her desire was to be a beach bum.

Back home in Illinois and working full time as a graphic designer, Nicole Marét was miserable.

“I was making clothes in my spare time — poorly, I have to admit. I had no idea what I was doing. I was taping and safety-pinning things together. My mom actually encouraged me to go back to school. She was saying ‘You really hate what you’re doing, you want to do this instead, then I think you should go back, learn how to do it right and see where you can go from there.’”

She went to “one of those chains” for fashion school, the type of college that advertises on buses and designed its name to be uncomfortably similar to more prestigious institutions.

She loved it. She wasn’t there to put a fancy name on her diploma, but to put technical skills into her clothing.

“If this industry, nobody really cares,” she said of falutin’ names, high or otherwise. “If you have a great portfolio and you can do what you say you can do, that’s pretty much all that matters.”

Goth Glam

Black isn’t just black. There are cooler shades, warmer ones, matte, shiny, clear, opaque, mesh, vinyl, satin, cotton, crushed and painted organza so you pull it out and the moment you let go the skirt recrinkles into the exact same folds and wrinkles scalded into paint and silk. She makes giant anime bows, willowy lingerie, fun tops for going out on the town. Every piece slinks around a woman’s body, every stitch is black as a sinner’s soul.

“One of the fun things about working in such a simple color palette is you get to play with texture — a lot,” she said.

She calls it “goth glam” when people press her for a term, but her clients include stay-at-home moms, real estate agents, her own mother.

“I think I’ve always liked the creative limitation, having boundaries of some sort,” she said of her one-tone playlist. “It forces you to look for opportunities where you might not otherwise.”

The fashion grad’s typical career path goes from graduation to working as a pattern-maker or sample-maker for a designer in New York or Los Angeles “eating ramen every night and living in a shoebox.” Neither the shoebox nor spending years stitching together someone else’s vision appealed to Nicole, so, funded by her graphic design work, she hung a shingle in Chicago, working in secret until her first launch in 2010.

“My parents knew. My friends knew I was working on some kind of fashion thing, but that was about it. Nobody really knew what to expect,” she said.

The release party in the back room of a Wicker Park steakhouse was a hit. Each of the seven subsequent lines have come with a launch party in a different space. Florists, photo studios, an interior design office and her own Pilsen loft have hosted past dos.

She didn’t want to make someone else’s clothing, and she doesn’t want anyone else to make hers.

“I did actually try working with a sample maker. She did a beautiful job, but I lost so much of the process that I enjoy, and it forces you to commit to something before it’s done. ‘Here’s the sketch, this is what I want,’ and then they bring it back and you don’t get to experience that part where you change it as you go and you maybe do a different fabric, and I love that.”

Love hurts at times.

“I think my neighbors in here probably hear my machine, tons of profanity, then the machine again, then tons of profanity,” she said, laughing again.

To Business

After The Order’s 10th line is released — she’s guessing fall of next year — Nicole Marét is going to rethink her life.

Is The Order her future? Will she take another career path and make clothes on the side? Will she focus on her profitable lingerie line? Will she hire staff? Will she call it a day? Will she run off to California to reread Baby-Sitters Club books by the Santa Barbara beach she still misses? [Editor’s note: That last one’s the least likely.]

Nicole has given herself until The Order’s 10th outing to decide how this passion should stay a business.

Making a go of fashion has hurdles. Cost is one — people give lip service to Made in America, but check the label on the shirt you’re wearing right now. Even as I’m writing this sentence, my typing fingers say “Buy American,” my collar neck says “Made in Mauritius,” a country recently in headlines for sweatshops paying $1 an hour and sleeping 16 workers a room to crank out “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” tees.

Marét hand-stitches every piece by herself in Pilsen. She’ll outsource big orders to local sample-makers, but she jokes on her website that “Made in China” means CHIcago, North America.

Knowing this keeps Marét’s line edgy. She won’t get people to pay handmade costs for factory product.

“Are you going to spend more on a body suit because I made it here in my studio in Chicago and it’s kind of cool and there’s a concept behind the brand? Are you willing to spend more on that than something kind of similar that was made in China that you can buy in Zara?”

But being too edgy is a concern as well. Another of Marét’s foes is “fast fashion,” exactly to-the-moment on-trend finery that will line the bottom of stylish dressers in six months.

From a black-swaddled artists loft in Pilsen, Nicole Marét doesn’t want unique. She wants singular. She wants to clothe the women who see what she’s doing and fall in love.

“One of my big goals is to find the people that want the piece that they’re going to keep wearing, that they celebrate, that they think of as a piece of art they bought for a reason,” she said.

And then she smiled and laughed.

Meet the perfume magician who introduced me to Nicole

Meet a (now Nashville-based) lingerie designer getting inspiration from grandma

Meet two women creating art in video, now in development by HBO

And art on the trapeze

What's this?

You are currently reading #916: The Order by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • Get Stories by Email

  • Chicago Corruption Walking Tour

    Join the email list for tour dates and info.