"What are those dresses doing in the dirt?" a young girl asked out loud as she walked down North Michigan Avenue one afternoon, dawdling behind her mother.
Two women nearby stopped to reach out and touch a garment seemingly growing among the trees. Another circled a red-white-and-blue ball gown covered in red roses, scrunching her brow.
Quizzical expressions and curious looks are common along the Magnificent Mile these days, thanks to a collection of 32 dress forms that appear to have sprouted from the sidewalk gardens along the shopping boulevard.
A canary yellow cocktail dress has bird-like wings that morph into a shawl. A simple red shift is covered in large white daisies and finished with a yellow rose hem. A butterfly-shaped strapless gown is perched for flight.
The forms, fashioned by local student designers and retailers, are part of an exhibit called the Gardens of the Magnificent Mile -- the latest effort from local merchants to generate excitement along Chicago's most famous, and increasingly mall-like, retail street.
The hope is that the exhibit will spotlight the city's budding design talent and rival the Cows on Parade, the popular fiberglass bovines that generated national attention eight years ago.
"We wanted to infuse a fashion message into this campaign, and we wanted to tie it into the theme of our gardens," said Ellen Farrar, vice president for marketing and communications at the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, the merchant group that organized the exhibit with the help of main sponsor Nokia.
About 20 students from the Illinois Institute of Art and the International Academy of Design and Technology as well as a dozen professional designers from Mag Mile stores took part in the effort. They were directed to design a garden-inspired garment and make sure the result could withstand the outdoor elements.
The students, in large measure, stuck to the garden theme more closely than the retailers, who let their own marketing themes take over.
Crate & Barrel used materials from table linens and patio furniture to create a dress and topped it off with an outdoor umbrella for a hat. American Girl Place created a mother and daughter pair in the store's colors of black, white and pink. Tiffany & Co. also relied on its hallmark blue and white theme, sculpting a crisp white sleeveless button-down shirt with Tiffany blue locks for buttons over an A-line skirt accented with blue circles and a blue scarf.
The exhibit began two weeks ago and runs through Oct. 15. Details are available at TheMagnificentMile.com.
SHOE STORE GETS BOOT: Hanig's Footwear, one of the last local merchants on the Mag Mile, plans to close its store at 660 N. Michigan Ave. on Aug. 31. The upscale shoe store has been operating on the boulevard since 1978.
The store lost its lease in the landmark Farwell Building, where construction of Ritz-Carlton luxury condos is scheduled to begin in September. Owner Peter Hanig said he is looking to open a temporary location nearby before the holidays.
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