Over its three-year lifespan, Notre Shop has grown from a neighborhood store to a dominating force in Chicago’s fashion scene. Carrying an impressive roster of brands ranging from Benjamin Edgar to Visvim, Notre represents an amalgamation of influences, both international and local. Located in Chicago’s blossoming West Loop neighborhood, Notre functions as both a retail and concept space, hosting events like “Notre Talks”, a series featuring local artists, and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. pop-up shop. Check out our interview with two of Notre’s owners, José Villanueva and Michael Jaworowski, below.

How would you describe, from a fashion perspective, the aesthetic of the store?

José Villanueva: It’s a mixture of things, a little bit of an extension of how people dress here at the shop. Some of us are more into streetwear, some of us are more into fashion or Japanese brands. I think it’s a good mix of stuff we’re into – high and low price points and different styles.

Michael Jaworowski: It’s a blend of brands and designers that we currently admire, and I think José does a nice job of styling the different brands together for the website. More or less, I use the shop as an extension of my personal life. Working to keep an open mind, I enjoy learning new perspectives that the designers bring to their seasonal collections. From a Chicago born, LA designer in Matthew William’s ALYX label to the Antwerp designer Stephan Schneider and so on, each of them have a unique story and approach that presents itself in their product.

In terms of your brand roster, there’s obviously stuff you carried right when you first opened, like Maison Kitsuné, that you no longer carry. When you bring a brand into the store, do you see it having a limited life span, such as carrying a brand for 5 years then evolving the roster as the culture progresses? Or do you see something as a more permanent part of the store?

JV: It can be both, or a mix of the two. I prefer to create a good partnership and keep something longer term, but at the end of the day it’s still a business. If something just isn’t working in the market, we have to do what’s right for the shop, even if that means cutting a brand we really like.

MJ: I’ve definitely slipped up on this a couple times, but yeah when we go into signing with a brand, the goal is to build a long term partnership. It means a lot to me personally that these designers and teams trust us with their brand even in a small way. My goal is to present their brand in a positive way that helps tell the story of their collection and provides the customer some insight to the Notre brand as well.

With your average customer walking in, what is their reaction to the store?

JV: I think it’s changed, especially with the change in location too. Notre was always kind of a destination shop, but now it is even more so. The people that come in now, for the most part, know what the product is already and are just here to see it in person. They’ve already visited our website, seen the prices, and are usually looking for specific brands or pieces.

Do you view brands that draw people into the store, like Stone Island, as brands that highlight Notre’s vision? Or do you see them more as brands that simply draw people in to the store, where they’ll see other things that they might not have crossed?

MJ: Some brands are more authentic to Jose and I than others, brands that we’ve grown up reading about and wearing ourselves, but overall we try not to bring in a brand simply on trend. We carried Stone Island back in 2010 at our previous jobs, had an immense amount of respect for Stone Island’s history and the innovations they’ve brought to the apparel industry. Just good timing for us that some of our favorite brands are also respected by a lot of people and aid in driving traffic to the site and shop.

JV: I don’t necessarily want to single out brands, but since you mentioned Stone Island, it’s doing well for us. I guess you could say it’s ‘in’ right now. For me, the goal has always been that someone comes in for one thing, but then is exposed to maybe some stuff that they’ve never heard of.

So you guys started 3 years ago, right? 2014? How has the vision of the store changed over the past three years?

JV: I don’t think the vision has necessarily changed. The product has definitely changed, but the vision has always been to have a good variety of some of the best product and brands we’re into in Chicago. I’m from Chicago and, to me, the city is very lacking—there’s still some good shops here, like RSVP and St. Alfred, and Apartment Number 9 when they were still around—but I still feel like Chicago is a big city and you need more than two to three shops.

Especially compared to New York or LA.

MJ: To me, it’s having a connection more than just the product – it’s standing for something as a retailer, standing for something as a business. Not everyone can get the product, I guess, especially some of the brands and some of the limited releases that we get but at the end of the day I want us to stand for something more than just, ‘Oh, we have cool shoes.’ That’s not really adding anything to the world in my opinion. It’s a platform for creativity, which I think is extremely important for people to continue to evolve how they view things.

How have you balanced having a greater vision and a sense of community with having to sell clothing as well? Do you have a mix of things that you know will sell as well as pieces that carry deeper meaning?

MJ: That’s still a challenge for us right now. The Black Girls Code thing was the first thing we did and it was pretty unexpected. I don’t know if too many other retailers, especially in our genre of the market, would do something like that. With a limited sneaker release, most stores would say, ‘Here’s the raffle, and who knows what happens after that.’ For us, a release like that is when we are going to get the most traffic to our website and social media, so that is our best chance to share something else as well.

So you’re basically channeling that hype and interest into something greater.

MJ: Yeah, and I think it makes sense.

What is your goal with the community projects? Where do you see yourself in the community and how are you deepening your relationship with Chicago?

MJ: It’s definitely a work in progress. The Black Girls Code project was really the first attempt at seeing how our following would react to us mixing a product launch with more of a purpose. The overall response was pretty strong. Customers walked in, got a coding manual that we built and had to write ten lines of code on an iPad we laid out – the code would then generate their randomized raffle number. It was a way to provide people an actual experience of coding that tied back to the story and purpose of Black Girls Code. We ended up having like 280 people from Chicago, the US and even internationally in Asia and Europe reach out to purchase a raffle tee and raised over $8,000.

How did that come about? Did you reach out to them?

MJ: Our friend Ben Gott mentioned the company a while ago. I volunteered a couple months ago when they held a 2-day event here in Chicago and was looking for a way to share what Black Girls Code is doing with our following. Education in general is super important to me and I believe our public schools here in Chicago should be putting a ton of focus on the STEM education programs.

Going forward, do you hope that Notre will become more of a lifestyle brand? Or still just a store that focuses on clothing?

MJ: More of a lifestyle feel. Currently playing around with a couple different paths for where the business will go. Retail and storytelling of product will be a key part of our business for a while since it’s our main revenue stream. I could definitely see us scaling our brand list and product range back more in the future, focusing even more on brand partnerships and creating product and events in-line with our company mission.

All photography courtesy of Paige Fishman.

Tags: a-closer-look, notre-shop, chicago