In Store: dressing up, au naturel | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Store: dressing up, au naturel 

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Lauren Murphy and Celeste Bayer began their partnership over a box of wine, tossing ideas back and forth in their San Francisco apartment. Murphy knew she wanted her own business--any business--and Bayer had trained as a designer at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, so they decided to design and manufacture clothing for children, which they thought would be less cutthroat than designing for adults.

While lots of ideas are generated through the combination of chitchat and alcohol, Murphy, 31, and Bayer, 32, have followed through on this one. Their company, Laurenceleste, now based in Ravenswood, currently produces elegant children's clothing made exclusively from organic cotton, recycled cotton, and Ecospun fleece, a fiber produced from recycled plastic bottles.

They began in 1994 with very little capital, sewing in their apartment after their day jobs: Murphy worked as an office manager and Bayer for an established children's clothing company. As their plans and materials expanded throughout the space, they paid extra rent while pressing their four other roommates into service as cutters. "But our ideas really came into focus in a bar," says Bayer, "where we kept dreaming about the future. We had to escape our apartment once it was taken over by fabric and swatches and thread."

At first they didn't market to stores. They sold dresses and cardigans at flea markets and directly to customers on a made-to-order basis, with the help of their handmade catalog, which included poetry and prose as well as photos of the clothing taken by friends. "The idea was to have more of a showcase of our other friends' talents, since we'd all just gotten out of college and were floundering a bit," says Bayer. As orders increased, Murphy and Bayer relocated to Chicago in 1996. "It was very difficult for us to continue to work out of San Francisco," says Bayer, "because we were three hours behind the east coast, we were far from our fabric manufacturers in Texas and North Carolina, and San Francisco was beginning to be very expensive. We wanted to be able to quit our other jobs."

In order to do that, they learned to combine their green aesthetic with more savvy marketing and distribution, and began selling to shops such as Cradles of Distinction, Wear Me Out, and the Red Balloon Co. Over time Bayer noticed they "did well in newer stores which are geared toward younger families. We also appeal to people in their late 20s, early 30s, who don't have kids but are buying gifts for other people." So they designed gift kits--three- and five-piece layette sets in a reusable basket. "We didn't want to be on the racks stuck in with everyone else; we wanted something where stores would have to set up a display....And most larger cities have environmentally conscious stores--general stores where they have a little bit of everything. With the basket, we're able to get into those stores and not just exclusively children's stores."

The Laurenceleste line also differs from much of the other children's clothing available in that it features predominantly muted shades and neutrals. "I think it looks a lot better on the baby's skin than something really bright," says Bayer. "If you think of daily living as a landscape painting, and you think of all the different colors that are involved in people's clothing, it really could affect a place if everyone wore the same color, or the same assortment of garish colors." Prices range from $20 for a T-shirt to $65 for a coat. The newborn gift basket retails for about $45. The business has grown in the last seven years; Bayer and Murphy sell to stores across the nation as well as in London and Tokyo, and do a brisk business on their Web site, www.laurenceleste.

com. But they go back to their flea market roots this weekend with a booth at the Bucktown Arts Fest, which runs Saturday and Sunday from 11 to 7 in Senior Citizens Park (Oakley and Lyndale, just north of Holstein Park). Call 773-281-1960 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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