Chicago's Avant-Garde Guardian: Gallery Aesthete's Stephen Naparstek for Grailed
Chicago's Avant-Garde Guardian: Gallery Aesthete's Stephen Naparstek for Grailed
- Words Gregory Babcock
- Date January 11, 2018
It's not easy to identify what exactly "avant-garde" is; as fashion evolves and changes, brands (and the collections they put out season after season) need to consistently evolve and experiment in order to stay at the cutting edge. Such is the same for retail, especially if your stock and trade is exposing both newcomers and longtime fans to some of the most forward-thinking labels in the fashion industry today. Such is the challenge for Gallery Aesthete and its founder and owner Stephen Naparstek.
With a small shop nestled in the city of Chicago, Gallery Aesthete, in its own words, "proposes a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose to a niche community within the creative world." In real terms, the shop is an attempt to expose shoppers to the craft—and ultimately, permanence—of visionary fashion design. While its neo-brutalist retail location and curated brand list may have average fashion fans feeling slightly intimidated at first glance, Naparstek's aim is hardly pretentious; the way this type of creativity thrives is not through stuffy pretension, but in the open dialogue and appreciation of design.
In an effort to showcase his unique storefront, explain his own creative process and share some of his favorite designers with the wider fashion community, Naparstek has partnered with Grailed to offer incredible garments from both Gallery Aesthete and his personal archive. Ranging from well-known designers like Rick Owens, Julius and Boris Bidjan Saberi, to lesser-known names like Guidi, Lost & Found by Ria Dunn and Forme 3’3204322896 (aka Forme D'Expression), this project aims to not just expose shoppers to some boundary-breaking fashion, but also show how these designers and stores like Gallery Aesthete are enriching the global fashion conversation in their own ways.
Enjoy our exclusive Q&A with Stephen, and scope the items listed below.
Lead image courtesy of Bob Coscarelli.
All other photography courtesy of Matthew Reeves.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get started in the industry and how long has Gallery Aesthete been around?
I’ve worked in fashion as a boutique owner for the last 12 years and launched Gallery Aesthete in 2012. I never received a formal fashion education but studied art all through college. Out of school, I worked as a graphic designer, however my career gradually shifted to working in a less creative capacity. I found myself immersed in a corporate world that I despised. After a decade of feeling creatively stifled, I decided to make a new life for myself, one that would allow me to celebrate my love for art and fashion. I see this change in direction as a continual pursuit, and feel that Gallery Aesthete reflects this journey.
Knowing the shop is in Chicago, why did you choose to open in the Windy City as opposed to a more established fashion metropolis like New York?
Chicago has been my home for the last 30 years and it was a natural decision to open here. The brands I was passionate about didn’t have adequate representation here and I had already cultivated clients through my friends and personal contacts. I knew the landscape and understood the local market I could tap into.
While New York is, without a doubt, the fashion capital of America, if I had opened there, I’d have a much higher overhead and stiffer competition. It would be difficult and in some cases, impossible, to host the collections that I currently carry, since the brands I represent value the importance of exclusivity and maintain strict distribution caps. Chicago was an open market for avant-garde and dark fashion and I embraced the opportunity to share it here.
My love for Chicago has been in big part due to the music scene. I came up here in the late ‘80s when the punk, goth, industrial, house and techno scenes were peaking. Both the gallery and my personal style continue to be influenced by these movements.
Gallery Aesthete has a clear, avant-garde bent to its selection. Do you find that customers in Chicago gravitate to your store, even with more conceptual and unconventional clothing? Does this choice help you stand out among other “high-fashion” luxury boutiques and retailers?
Chicago has a small but strong community interested in avant-garde fashion and it’s been my mission to offer a selection of designers that push the boundaries of conventional design. My seasonal selections aren’t dictated by a corporate office so I can take chances with my curation where more commercial luxury retailers can’t. I think this is one of the great advantages to being an independent boutique owner and it allows me to have a purer representation of my vision.
I’ve always been fascinated with the power that fashion has, to allow someone to express who they are, what they stand for or against, and how they can utilize garments to represent their philosophical self. I also believe that the way we dress can stem from a primitive need for association with a tribe. This sense of tribalism has drawn me to the cult and avant-garde designers that the gallery leans heavy on.
I understand you once ran a store called Bonnie & Clyde’s in Chicago, How was that business different—especially in terms of aesthetics and what brands you stocked—from your current one at Gallery Aesthete? How did you transition from that store into Gallery Aesthete?
Bonnie & Clyde’s was my first attempt at bridging art and fashion in retail. To explain the transition to Gallery Aesthete, I need to give a little backstory.
I studied both commercial and fine art in college, but was never focused enough or excelled with a specific medium. Realizing I didn’t have the natural talent or dedication to become a successful artist, I dreamt of someday having an art gallery. I had a decent eye for talent and was surrounded by some amazing young artists. My big problem was I had no connection to the gallery community. I thought that by incorporating fashion into a gallery setting and selling art that existed outside of the traditional gallery world, I could share a holistic vision that represented a specific lifestyle and philosophy with a community that was underrepresented in Chicago. From this, my first boutique, Bonnie & Clyde’s was born.
I bought a small storefront in Wicker Park, which—at the time—was Chicago’s hipster epicenter, and I established a roster of alternative contemporary brands and ready-to-wear hopefuls. To source my fashion collections, I went to some of the American fashion trade shows like Project and Capsule and found great young brands that I had never heard of. I worked with designers that would allow me to represent them in Chicago exclusively. This included some of the first Project Runway winner designers, Christian Siriano and Jeffrey Sebelia . They gave me Chicago exclusives and helped promote the boutique by coming to Chicago and hosting our runway events. Because of their new-found celebrity status, Bonnie & Clyde’s quickly got attention in Chicago.
A year after Bonnie & Clyde’s boutique opened, I decided to expand sourcing my collections from the European market, so I travelled to Paris for men’s fashion week Spring/Summer 2008. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing! In my beautiful ignorance, I walked right into the Comme des Garçons showroom at Place Vendome without an appointment. They were very polite, although a little embarrassed for me, and suggested I might be able to get approval to start selling the Comme Play collection, and that maybe after several seasons, I could work my way up to Runway Collections. (Graciously they allowed me to carry Homme Plus after three years)
I then attended some of the European trade fairs and explored Paris’ deeper fashion stores. It was there that I discovered the Paris boutiques Colette and L'eclaireur. Colette was the pinnacle of fashion retail and seamlessly merged art, culture, design and fashion. It was possibly the birthplace of hype-fashion, showcasing exclusive collaborations with not only the most elevated of luxury fashion labels like Hermes and Chanel, but also with brands like Nike and adidas.
Where Colette was a billboard, L'eclaireur was a whisper. To me, L'eclaireur was like the secret entrance to a new world. While each of their stores in Paris had a different emphasis, its cult-like exclusivity, combined with/alongside razor focused curation and refined aesthetic, reflected a very precise lifestyle. L’eclaireur exposed me to many of the the cult and artisanal brands I admire today. From Rick Owens, Guidi and Boris Bidjan Saberi, to Carpe Diem and Carol Christian Poell, L'eclaireur definitely gave me the inspiration for a new direction.
That same month, while travelling through Italy, I met up with a relative in Rome who introduced me to his friend Alessandro. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, my Italian language skills were non-existent and his English was almost as bad, but we drank together and talked fashion all night. He told me he had some connections in the fashion industry and that he could get me access to more advanced collections. Through him, the following season, I was able to get showroom appointments with my first runway collections: Raf Simons and Rick Owens.
Inspired by the dark and avant-garde fashion I was exposed to in Europe, I started refining our brand matrix to my newfound direction: Deconstructed, avant-garde and artisanal collections, always touched with an edge of deviance. I became interested in the concept of gender-bending fashion at that time and started exploring brands like Rad Hourani, Gareth Pugh and Comme des Garçons. I began curating almost entirely unisex stories to my seasons.
While the fine art side of the business wasn’t making money, the concept of showing art adjacent to fashion worked well. Having more exposure to international brands, my vision continued to evolve and the need for a new brick-and-mortar location presented itself. I decided to rebrand to the name Gallery Aesthete and reopened at a new location in October of 2012.
Looking at previous coverage of Gallery Aesthete in publications like StyleZeitgeist there’s mention that—at least at one point—you’ve kept your store in an intentionally hard-to-find location. Why is that? Does that have a “curatorial” effect on your customer base—even today?
Gallery Aesthete’s first location was on Oak St., the premiere high-end shopping street in Chicago. The location enabled me to tap into clients that were shopping at a luxury level, but I understood that the collections I was curating were far from the mainstream. I had no interest in connecting with every shopper on the street; I wanted to be accessible, but I didn’t need to advertise to everyone. By having our showroom on the fourth floor of an old professional building, I created a space that was on Chicago’s premier fashion retail street yet, somewhat existed inside its own little universe.
First, you would enter this decrepit old building that simply didn’t fit in with the other high-end luxury flagship boutiques on the street. Then, up a noisy and claustrophobic little elevator that made you question whether it would ever reach the top floor. When the elevator doors opened directly into the center of the boutique, you were transported to a modern minimal masterpiece of raw materials. The crumbling black brick walls looked like coal, and India ink saturated wood floors contrasted sharp angled steel fixtures set against stark white walls. Having no visible windows isolated the guests to a world unfamiliar to the street outside. It was a truly special sensation walking into the gallery for the first time. Sadly, this location only existed for three years. The drawback of opening in a dilapidated building on the most sought after retail location in Chicago was that it was destined for demolition.
When looking for a new brick and mortar, I felt that our local client base had grown strong enough to move away from the heart of Chicago’s luxury shops, and that the exclusive brand lineup that I had established was strong enough to allow for a destination location. I still owned the storefront of the former Bonnie & Clyde’s and good timing offered me a vacant space that both my customers and I were familiar with. In July of 2016 we opened our current storefront, one that I hope to keep as our permanent home.
It was a long time coming, but we just launched our ecommerce platform, check it out at galleryaesthete.com. At this point I can’t see a benefit to not having an ecommerce presence. When I opened my first store I wanted to only sell brands that I could exclusively represent in Chicago, but I quickly found this to be limiting, and felt that I was denying myself some brands that I was truly passionate about. As online luxury shops started popping up even in the dark and avant-garde segments, the brands I carried became more accessible on a global level. Because of this, the idea of a uniquely exclusive brand lineup became an unmaintainable notion.
How do you determine what brands to carry in your shop? Is it an entirely personal decision based on the collections you see, or is it based on your clients’ tastes?
The intersection of my personal interests and that of my customers determines what I buy. I rarely look at trend forecasting and I focus on pieces that have a lifespan past that of a fleeting season. I try to stay away from the word “fashion” in the meaning of trend! Trend-based fashion changes too frequently and often has little substance. I appreciate a garment whose details are more apparent to the wearer than to the audience, and pieces that require a certain intimacy before its true nature is revealed.
Gallery Aesthete carries well-known brands like Rick Owens, but you also stock designers that even fashion fans might not be incredibly familiar with. How do you discover new designers, and how do you introduce them to your shoppers and clients? Is there a certain style or characteristic that you look for specifically in young or lesser-known brands?
Introducing young brands is exciting but tricky. If I find a new designer that shows promise, making sure the brand can meet production deadlines and can maintain quality are the first things to consider. I see the growing need for boutiques to act as advertisers and educators for emerging brands. Because the gallery has a very specific direction, I look for new brands that will have a synergy with brands I already carry and only those with a potential for longevity. Craig Green for instance, is a newer designer to the gallery that we started carrying in Spring/Summer 2016. He had little previous exposure in the U.S. when we began showing his collections, but his obvious talent and unique designs resonated with me. His work is both poetic and utilitarian, and immediately stands out. His pieces fit well into the gallery’s vision and have a great dialogue with our other brands. Since the time we started carrying Craig Green, he was recognized as British Menswear Designer of the Year in December of 2016. He’s definitely a designer to keep your eye on.
You mentioned back in 2007 in an interview with Chicago magazine that, “If another store starts carrying a designer, I have no choice but to drop them.” This was back during the Bonnie & Clyde's days, but does this still apply to Gallery Aesthete?
Definitely not! It was both arrogant and naïve to think that I could continue to evolve that way. I hadn’t had much experience in the business when I made that statement and even now almost 13 years later I still struggle as an outsider who happened his way into the fashion industry.
In your opinion what is better: staying small and keeping a tight roster of regular clients and in-the-know customers, or branching out and expanding to a wider (but possibly less-informed) customer base?
Gallery Aesthete is a small store, both physically and regarding the size of our team. I only have two full-time employees and I rely on my team for input to our buying and direction. We all wear a lot of hats. My wife Chelsea is a major contributor to the gallery and its vision, and does a great job of running our social media platforms and assisting with our women’s buying program. Outside of that small core, I’m lucky to have a group of incredibly creative and passionate collaborators that have been with me since the gallery’s inception. They’ve all had an enormous influence on what Gallery Aesthete is today. I’ve never been afraid to utilize and share the talent of others, and I see the creation of the gallery as a community mission and attribute its success to the support from that community.
In respect to my customer base, it has never been my interest to have as many customers as possible, and I don’t want to sell brands that I’m not passionate about. Staying small allows me to maintain a certain level of intimacy with the brands that I carry, and I wouldn’t want that to change. I love the fact that most of our customers are well informed about our brands, and it’s not uncommon for a customer to have as much product knowledge—if not more so—than myself about pieces that we carry. This creates open communication for everyone in the space and a stronger sense of community.
Now that we have an online voice and e-commerce, we plan on developing editorial and documentary content that takes a deeper look into the brands that we carry, exploring production techniques and creative influences. We will also introduce more lifestyle products and object art that represents our aesthetic. We had a very successful collaboration of exclusive Geobasket sneakers from Rick Owens and Guidi, and I am excited to present more collabs and gallery exclusives to our online audience. Most importantly, now that we are online, we have a vehicle for sharing emerging talent to the world. The most rewarding part of what I do is to give exposure to talent and to share something that people connect with in a positive way.