In Store: Steve Starr's deco dreams | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Store: Steve Starr's deco dreams 

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"I have a different look every year," says art deco collector Steve Starr. "If you go out in the world and even if you know everything and don't have style, nobody will talk to you. Style is the culmination of everything inside of you."

Starr, owner of the vintage boutique Steve Starr Studios, has a personal collection of over 950 photos of icons of style, such as Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr, and Greer Garson. They're mounted in authentic deco frames and hung on the walls of his Lincoln Avenue store, but neither the photos nor the frames, which Starr has been collecting for years, are for sale. The store does, however, offer an abundance of jewelry and accessories from the golden age of glamour: rhinestone pins, bracelets, and necklaces; rings set with semiprecious stones; compacts encrusted with crystals. He's got vanity mirrors, cocktail shakers, martini glasses, men's watches, and a glittering array of perfume bottles. And while a few high-ticket items might cost several hundred dollars, many are priced between $45 and $55. "People who need to spend more to feel good are either stupid or naive," Starr says. "It doesn't mean it's better if it costs more."

Born in 1946, Starr grew up in Lakeview. His father, Sam, was a well-known divorce lawyer. "Dad was a 'nice guy' lawyer," he says, "who mostly represented women and was voted one of Chicago's ten best-dressed men." His mother, Gloria, threw legendary Halloween parties in their lavishly decorated Roscoe Street apartment. "She always had an aura around her. She glowed," says Starr. "Ma used to say, 'If you wanna live, you gotta get older, but it doesn't mean you can't look good.'"

Starr opened his first shop in 1967, on Sheridan Road. In 1970 he moved to Clark Street near Diversey and started collecting vintage clothing from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Between 1970 and 1974 he wrote, designed, costumed, and produced five musical revues at the Athenaeum--each titled Vanity--featuring fashion sequences with elaborate dance numbers and vintage costumes and props. "A Busby Berkeley kind of thing," he says. "I still can't believe I did all I did. The last show was spectacular, with a woman singing on a crescent moon, and to take my bows I rode out on a shooting star."

Starr stopped producing in 1974, then in '78 decided to try again with a bowling-themed extravaganza at the Auditorium Theatre. "Everything went wrong," he says. "The photographer couldn't come. The seats were messed up and oversold. I thought maybe I had a curse. There was a huge, monstrous snowstorm. The set or sound guy was in an accident and never made it....I was so depressed. Someone sent me roses sprayed black."

Starr never did theater again, but he has produced several decorative-arts shows around town. He started collecting vintage picture frames in the mid-1970s, and in 1991 Rizzoli published a glossy 160-page book documenting his collection, Picture Perfect: Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946. A self-published, updated edition with 250 new photos and an embossed fake Moroccan leather cover bearing a glass reproduction of a frame is scheduled for next year. It'll also feature letters and photos Starr received from old-school movie stars--Jimmy Stewart, Olivia de Havilland--after he wrote requesting their autographs. "One very big star wanted five dollars," he says. "Why even ask? I sent it. It's sad. They were so beautiful once."

These days, he writes columns for the Windy City Times, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and The Modern, the magazine of the Detroit Area Art Deco Society; in them he tells stories about old-time glamour girls such as Pola Negri, Lupe Velez, and Clara Bow. Contemporary celebrities have dropped by the store from time to time, including divas like Bette Midler, Diana Ross, and Patti LaBelle--all of whom Starr recognized immediately. But "when Harrison Ford came in, I didn't put it together," he says. "Instead I said, 'You look so familiar. Have you been in before?'"

Steve Starr Studios is at 2779 N. Lincoln and is open Monday through Thursday from 2 to 6, Friday from 2 to 5, Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5, and by appointment. Call 773-525-6530.

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

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