Heiji Choy Black and April Francis join forces to launch a full-service fashion and design consultancy.
Heiji Choy Black’s hejfina marked the beginning, and eventually the end, of an era in Wicker Park shopping. When the store opened in 2004, it came with an international entourage of avant-garde designers, and a few neighboring boutiques followed suit; by the time it closed in fall 2009, it left a strip of newly arrived chain stores and otherwise empty storefronts in its dust. The big question on shoppers’ minds: What would Black do next?
Turns out she’s still working on bridging the gap between Chicago shoppers and fashion designers of the world, but on a much larger scale. Barely six months after shuttering hejfina and having her second son, Black’s new project is up and running: a full-service fashion and design communications and consulting firm she spearheaded with stylist and identity consultant April Francis.
In January, when the two friends got together to discuss work ideas over a casual lunch at Fred’s at Barneys New York, they realized their plans looked remarkably similar. They both wanted to get involved in wholesale sales, public relations and designer representation. They decided to join forces.
“People who are passionate about style and fashion and being on top of what’s avant-garde in Chicago are being underserved,” Black says. “From a producer end, it’s a matter of [requiring] prudent planning and managing, and [from a consumer end], it’s like ‘get us something new!’”
In addition to the aforementioned services, black/francis—no relation to Pixies frontman Black Franics—offers everything from setting up photo shoots (for designers) to financial advising (Black worked as a consultant before opening hejfina) to website design and even fine-tuning design products. For example, they’re currently collecting their favorite T-shirts on the market to help a local designer create a new line.
“One of our goals is to [help] open a few stores for designers I used to carry from New York,” Black says. “These designers we’re talking to are saying ‘Oak Street is in shambles, so who is shopping in Chicago?’ It’s not true. There are people here who want to buy, who love authenticity and creativity. We’re trying to highlight [those shoppers].”
In that vein, black/francis’s mission focuses on fostering a sense of community within the world of style and design through events and its blog, where the pair profile stylish Chicagoans including jewelry and object designer Gillion Carrara and visual artist/gallery owner Dan Devening.
As for their business model, they compare themselves to New York agencies along the lines of the News and Launch Collective—the two major differences being that black/francis is working for designers and boutiques and, in Francis’s words, “we’re paying attention to Chicago.” That means bringing outside designers into the city as well as garnering national recognition for locally based brands.
For now, the pair’s clients include N PRPA (a women’s clothing line launched by designer Samantha Sleeper with SHE Boutique owner Nicolette Prpa), Toki Collection jewelry and the Antonio Lupi showroom, plus two more on deck.
“We’re driving it forward [approaching these designers] saying we believe it’s a great time given where real estate is, and there are not enough indie boutiques carrying great labels,” Black says.