The Evanston, Illinois-based fabrics giant is closing its flagship retail location, marking the end of an era (but not the company)

By Susie Pratt

Three days before Vogue Fabrics is set to close its flagship store, in Evanston, Illinois, I come by for a visit. I bring along my friend Joey, a photographer, as the moment calls for documentation. Extinction, we fear, is in the offing.

Vogue occupies a former A&P grocery space on the bustling downtown corner of Main Street  and Sherman Avenue. At once both cramped and expansive, the store is comprised of five sequential rooms: Main, Silks, Notions, Drapery, and Upholstery, connected by a single central aisle, each room following haphazardly on the one before. With its squeaky linoleum floors, fluorescent lighting and tattered posterboard signage, the space appears frozen in time.

We wax nostalgic on our bike ride over. Joey and I both grew up in Evanston and harbor fond memories of the store. We are sad to see it go and attempt to convey all this to an apprehensive store manager when explaining what we hope to do. “Don’t worry,” Joey reassures her when she frets that we are documenting a store in disarray. “I promise to make it look good.”

Despite the manager’s concern, on the day we visit you would be hard-pressed to identify Vogue as a store in transition. Bolts of fabric and spools of thread pack the walls. Jim Borden, Vogue’s resident sewing machine repairman, is busy at his station, sweating through his gray work shirt, changing the lightbulb on a small black Singer. Two customers loiter nearby, waiting to ask questions about their machines. In Upholstery, a woman in a black fleece and leggings attempts to haggle with the clerk over the price of her fabric. “I’m sorry,” the clerk replies, “that’s not up to me.”

That the woman believed she could sway the store on price suggests something not only about Vogue’s customer base, but about its very DNA. Founded in 1949 by traveling fabric salesman Sy Sussman, Vogue Fabrics made a name for itself offering designer fabrics at affordable prices.  The store’s history, posted on its website, notes that when Sy and his cousin Sol first headed into Chicago’s fabric distributors for their inventory, Sol, in particular, “enjoyed seeing if he could make some great deals for new fabric.”

Vogue Fabrics 3

Photo by Joey Garfield.

These ‘great deals’ will still be available to customers; Vogue is not closing for good but rather relocating retail operations to its nearby warehouse. “If you want to stay in business,” Sy was known to quip, “stay in business.” But although it will still be possible to buy fabric from Vogue, the store will no longer anchor a downtown shopping district. The widespread grief over the store’s closing is not confined to the sewing community. No one, it seems, wants Vogue to go.

 

The Vogue Fabrics plotline follows a familiar arc: Entrepreneurs Sol Farber and and Sy Sussman take a successful home fabric delivery operation and establish a retail site. Business booms during the post-war era. The 1970s and ‘80s bring expansion and a mall presence, with a second generation of Sussmans opening one store in Chicago’s glamorous Water Tower Place and another on Roosevelt Road. More regional stores open; a video series and catalog launch. Eventually, under the leadership of a third generation, online and wholesale business expands.

And then, over time, the regional stores close. The Chicago locations close. The original Main Street store closes. In November 2021, only the warehouse remains. In bricks and mortar contraction, common to retail everywhere but particularly acute in the fabric industry, Vogue is not alone. 2016 saw the closing of Mississippi’s Hancock Fabrics. Portland Oregon’s beloved Fabric Depot shut its doors in 2018, and Yardage Town, a San Diego favorite, was shuttered in 2020.

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Despite the obvious cultural forces at work, the trend is not as inevitable as it may seem. After years of sustained decline, home sewing is once again on the rise. Millennials and Gen Z youth are investing in sewing machines and classes. Young people are making clothes, gifts, home goods, and—most recently—masks. Modern sewists (the preferred term for today’s seamstresses) have podcasts and large social media followings. In Evanston alone, three different storefront boutiques offer sewing workshops, design support, and high-end fabrics and yarn. The pandemic brought record numbers of customers through their doors.  And these customers need fabric

But while their grandmothers took to their machines to repair clothes or recreate department store fashion at a fraction of the cost, today’s sewists are complicating questions of both motivation and demand. Moved by concern for sustainability and craftsmanship rather than thrift, these sewists see all-natural, high-quality material as an investment worth making. “There is a hashtag on social media: #sewingonabudget. So you do still have that,” explains Rogie Sussman Faber, Vogue’s third generation owner, “but then you also have the #sewingmillennials.”

These sewists, she notes, are sewing recreationally, for purposes of fashion, and not looking for deals in the same way earlier generations did. They are, she told me, “downloading patterns from indy pattern companies. They are looking for things like cool tie-dye French terry knits.” In her position as Vogue’s primary buyer, Faber is trying to respond. “I am looking to see what they are buying on social media. I’m listening to what it is that they want and that they need…I’m trying to crowdsource it.”

 

Standing in Silks on our final visit, I overhear a sewist who appears to fit the profile. She talks with a clerk about the fabric she’s considering for a holiday cocktail dress. They are not discussing price, but instead how the fabric will behave in a gathered section near the waist. The clerk is pulling out fabrics and snipping small samples for the woman to consider.

The other customers in the store that morning, however, fit the profile of a second demographic still sewing in the Upper Midwest: immigrants and refugees. I talk to a young Nigerian who takes out her phone to show me her most recent creation, a brilliant green and purple dress. A mother and daughter speak Creole as they discuss a white trim of interlaced crosses intended for the sleeves of a choir robe. The store manager and some of the clerks wear traditional Indian and Pakistani dress, appearing as inadvertent advertisements for the very fabric they sell.

Faber responds affirmatively when I ask her about this second group of customers. Yes, immigrants and refugees make up a substantial part of Vogue’s business. “Right now,” says Faber by way of explanation, “you still can’t get a salwar kameeze at Target or WalMart.”

“Hey,” she jokes when she sees me write this down, “don’t give them any ideas.”

Borden, the repairman, who talks with me while he works on the Singer, confirms Vogue’s connection to the immigrant community. During his time at the store, he has repaired sewing machines from around the world. When I ask, with an incredulity that marks me as a non-sewist, if women are bringing their machines with them when they immigrate, he looks surprised. Sure, he says—it’s a way to get started. He points me to a metal sculpture at the front of the store. Two abstract figures, forged in what appears to be metal rebar, stand next to one another. One holds a large pair of scissors upright; the other, a small iron.

Vogue Fabrics 4

Photo by Joey Garfield.

Later, Faber would explain the sculpture: “This is the flat iron and scissors that my great-grandparents brought with them from the old country because they knew if they had this, they could get work. That was important. And so my grandfather had the sculpture made like American Gothic.”

 

The idea that immigrants and refugees can use sewing as means to economic independence is both enticing and incomplete. In Threads of Life, her exploration of sewing across cultures, author Clair Hunter writes, “Emerging from the fragmentation of war women often take up a needle and thread as a practical occupation…but their motive is not solely financial.  Sewing,” she explains, “has a deeper resonance. It rethreads a sense of identity, reclaims a culture, anchors a community adrift from their social history, and generates a community spirit.”

In a recent article describing their sewing studio, Helen Sweitzer, Director of Resettlement at Chicago-based RefugeeOne, confirms this same dynamic, noting, “Our classes have helped refugees—especially refugee women—create new friendships.” This in turn, she notes, helps mitigate “the social isolation that often sets in after arrival in the U.S.”

Until about two years ago, this same community vibe could also be found in the sewing classes held at Vogue’s Main Street location. Offering classes at affordable rates, Vogue attracted a cross-section of those learning to sew. “The women I met at Vogue are the coolest, most supportive, most diverse,” explains Kim Barbaro, a home sewist who learned to sew taking classes at Vogue. This sense of connection helped Barbaro keep at her sewing projects. “They were like my community during a time when I needed people to be supportive and didn’t really have anyone else.”

Online sewing communities will increasingly meet this need for many sewists, including Barbaro, who began posting her creations on Instagram during the pandemic and has since developed a healthy following and a new group of sewing-supportive friends. But the happenstance diversity and sense of connection brought about by a trip to Vogue may be hard to replicate. And here, perhaps, a first clue to the widespread mourning over the store’s relocation.  In an increasingly siloed society, Vogue Fabrics is a crossroads.

 

The emergence of the virtual has changed not only the community, but the act of shopping itself.  “Back in the 1950s the women would come in during the day,” Faber recalls. “They could spend a couple of hours going through pattern books, smoking their cigarettes in the fabric store.” Today, she observes, “we have the Amazon mentality. People want to run in, get it, run out.”

As with much of retail, the need for convenience has not translated cleanly or entirely into online buying. Talk to any sewist and they will tell you they do not prefer to buy fabric online. Instead, they will say, it is imperative to touch the fabric, feel its “hand,” see how it drapes. In fact, press a bit farther, and you will find that most everyone who sews can identify an item or article of clothing they were inspired to make by a fabric too beautiful to leave in the store. Engagement with the tactile reality of the object itself seems necessary to the craft.

And yet, online fabric sales are increasing. Industry giant Mood Fabrics—known for its destination stores in both New York and Los Angeles—realized twenty percent of its overall revenue from online sales in a pre-pandemic world. They, along with a host of high-end boutique retailers, are working to cultivate steady demand by curating their online offerings and pursuing email marketing strategies.

Vogue, on the other hand, has a more ambivalent relationship to its online business. The store’s website runs a bright banner displaying its new bricks and mortar address. And while careful consideration is being given to the physical arrangement of the warehouse space, one does not get the sense that the website architecture receives the same attention. When I ask Faber about it, she says quickly, “Well, I don’t talk much about our online…For me, I do the catalog, so that goes up online.”

Vogue Fabrics 2

Photo by Joey Garfield.

The “catalog” Faber is referring to is a collection of swatches, Vogue’s ongoing attempt to bridge the gap between our need for convenience and the desire to experience a fabric firsthand. At the height of the chain’s 1980’s popularity, Vogue’s Water Tower location drew tourists interested in the latest designer trends.  Returning to their hometowns, many of these tourists would write to Vogue requesting swatches of a fabric they had seen in the store. Encouraged by the potential of a larger customer base, Vogue began sending out a swatch catalog. The practice continues to this day and has a devoted following.

“They wait for those,” Faber said of the catalog’s loyal customers. “It’s funny,” Faber remarked. “Right now we’re at the end of the fall issue. I’m working on the winter.  And we will start getting the phone calls. ‘Did I miss it?  Did it come out? Did it get lost.’ I’m like, ‘No, no. We’re mailing it on Friday. Don’t worry. It’s coming.’”

Historically, fabric has served as proxy for power, wealth and class. It has a seductive quality and, in ways both practical and figurative, has changed the very course of history. It’s not surprising to Faber, or anyone else who sews, that the swatch catalog engenders an emotional response. It’s a powerful source of inspiration delivered directly to your doorstep.

 

When I ask Faber why people are sad to see the store go, she points first to the obvious suspect. “It’s the nostalgia factor,” she tells me. “There are so many people who went there with their moms when they were little kids.” Like Joey, these people recall happy hours spent in Vogue, hiding among the bolts of fabric and playing in the boxes of buttons while their mothers shopped. Evanston friends of mine remember prom dresses and wedding gowns made with material from Vogue. Curtains for their first apartment. Halloween costumes for their own small child. The Main Street store holds a town’s worth of memories.

But I also suspect another loss at work. As both a student of nostalgia and a frequent practitioner, I believe Faber and Joey when they tell me we are mourning the disappearance of the past, of all that faded posterboard and uneven flooring. My hunch, however, is that we are grieving not only the vanishing of what was, but of what could yet be. Vogue is a world of tangible, vivid abundance: spools of colorful thread, yards of gauzy linen, binders full of patterns. To pass through its doors is to enter the land of creative promise where, with nearly infinite permutations of fabric and color and design, almost anything is possible.

The act of sewing, Hunter writes in Threads of Life, is not only “mental and physical comfort, but also a channel for knowledge, imagination and passion.” To move Vogue off Main Street is, in some measure, to decenter this creative potential. Even when we ourselves are not sewing, Vogue stands as a critical reminder that we are a people of capable of creation and not simply consumption.

If you want to stay in business, stay in business. Vogue isn’t going anywhere. The same raw material that holds us in thrall, that inspires, has moved just a little farther down the road, off the main drag. The staff is still there, standing behind the cutting table, waiting to talk shop. But the question remains: will we make the trip? I worry, but Faber continues to think the best of us. “We’re still here. We’ll make new memories,” Faber says as she gestures reassuringly around her new space. Best of all, she says, “The floors don’t creak here!” ■

 

 

Susannah Quern Pratt is an Evanston-based writer who wishes she sewed. Her forthcoming book, More or Less: Essays from a Year of No Buying, is the winner of The 2021 EastOver Press Nonfiction Prize and will be available February 2022.  For more on her writing, please visit her at: www.susannahqpratt.com.

Cover photo by Joey Garfield.

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