Let's go to the mall
Water Tower Place is suddenly a hip place to shop again. No, seriously, it is.
What a difference a few months make. It was just the beginning of summer when TOC lured three shoppers away from Water Tower Place. We deemed the Michigan Avenue mall a tourist trap and were looking to take them to neighborhood destinations with more authentic Chicago shopping—or at least somewhere that didn’t house shops easily found in any suburban American mall. But guess what? Things seem to be changing at Water Tower.
The Gap is gone, and storefront vacancies have been replaced by some smaller boutiques with no other Chicago locations. Don’t get us wrong, Water Tower Place still has a very mallish feel. (American Eagle Outfitters? Check. The Limited? You betcha. The Territory Ahead, a store featuring western wear for the menopausal crowd? Uh…yeah.) But ever since General Growth Properties Inc., a local mall operator, purchased the venue four years ago, it’s been taking steps in a cooler direction.
Sure, on a recent visit to the shopping center, we saw the same old suspects: European tourists taking advantage of the weak U.S. dollar, Croc-clad families from Iowa and suburban teens playing with the dancing water fountains lined along the escalators. But we also noticed other groups of shoppers: fashionistas wearing designer denim and carrying high-end bags, as well as hipster dudes in skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors. It’s the anti-mall type of shopper who usually avoids places with food courts and favors designer boutiques along Oak Street or indie shops in Wicker Park.
“Our goal is to put together a new retail collection that appeals to sophisticated shoppers,” says Katie Lindsay, assistant marketing manager for General Growth. MNG by Mango—the Barcelona-based boutique known for delivering shipments of budget-friendly women’s clothing twice a week—was one of the first stores that fit that bill in 2006. At the time, the shop had no other Chicago locations. It’s since opened outposts in Northbrook and Oakbrook malls, but the Water Tower store remains the only Mango on Michigan Avenue, which fits in with General Growth’s plans to keep a majority of the shops in Water Tower exclusive. “We’re always looking for stores that are unique, with some of them not even having other locations in the Midwest,” Lindsay says.
The plan seems to be working. Betsey Johnson recently moved her boutique from Halsted Street in Lincoln Park to the mall’s second level. Aritzia, the trendy Canadian chain, just opened. And the only Chicago location of Hollister and Cusp, an offshoot by Neiman Marcus, is set to open this fall. According to Lindsay, Water Tower currently has the largest number of exclusive stores that have no other locations in the city. “When you think of any of the other shopping centers [and buildings along Michigan Avenue], they always have the same old stores,” she says, referring to shops like Express, a former Water Tower tenant. “We’re looking for special boutiques.”
The mall also appears to be courting a few local stores looking for a bigger, more diverse customer base ranging from the boutique shoppers of Bucktown to tourists. Skinstinct, the eco-friendly boutique based in Lakeview, opened a location on the fourth level earlier this year, and Lindsay hints that more Chicago-based shops could be on the way. Local retail giant Akira had a space in the mall but vacated in May because its temporary lease expired. “Without a doubt, malls are not cool,” says Akira co-owner Eric Hsueh. “But, it was an awesome experience.” Akira was supposed to occupy the space only during last year’s holiday shopping season, but Hsueh says he had such a great relationship with Water Tower that he signed a lease for another six months—and suggests Akira could be back sometime next year. “You can really see the effort,” he says of the mall’s planners. “They have a certain game plan and are focused on fashion.”
The only thing that doesn’t seem to fit in with the mall’s new, more fashionable image is American Girl Place, set to take over the former Lord and Taylor space next month. According to Hsueh, the doll mecca—which currently occupies digs just down the street from Water Tower—is the highest-grossing business on Michigan Avenue. The addition of American Girl Place is all about bringing in more money, which in turn, allows General Growth to focus on bringing in more specialty boutiques. As long as the fashionistas don’t mind stepping over life-size dolls to get to Betsey Johnson, it shouldn’t be a problem.