They could've gone shopping much closer to home. Instead, Tomo Adachi and Lauren Kennedy packed up the car, drove six hours from Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago, got a hotel and made a weekend of it.
This wasn't your typical outlet mall excursion or antiquing road trip. The pair of 20-something graphic designers were in the market for quality American-made clothing and accessories, and they wanted to meet the people behind the goods.
They arrived in town late Friday night and were among the first to show up on a recent crisp October morning at a warehouse in Chicago's Fulton Market area. Music by Band of Horses played softly in the background, giving the airy, white-washed loft space an ambiance equal parts gallery opening and trade show. A large vintage American flag looming over the showroom signaled the common domestic origin of the clothing, accessories, shoes, bicycles and skin care products for sale.
Adachi and Kennedy were already fans of some of the brands at NorthernGRADE, a pop-up menswear market of American-made goods making its Chicago debut two years after launching in Minnesota. Meeting the crafters, designers and small-business owners behind the brands added to the appeal, they said.
"I like the idea of craftsmanship. I feel like the brands are doing it because they care and there's something about that that's very commendable. I'd rather support that than go to the mall and buy something made overseas," said Adachi, 25.
"We had to come, especially since events like this don't happen much in the Midwest," said Kennedy, a 23-year-old self-described "made in America freak" who was turned onto the concept by her boyfriend. "It's so awesome to see people doing what they love. It's evident in the quality of their products."
About 800 people turned up for NorthernGRADE Chicago, according to organizers' estimates, from across the Midwest and beyond, underscoring the growing popularity of the made in America movement in style and fashion, especially among younger consumers.
The markets are fueling the movement beyond the country's major fashion markets, where the concept has proven successful. NorthernGRADE is modeled after New York City's annual Pop-Up Flea, which began in 2009 as a showcase of brands mostly from the United States known for their quality goods. The creators of NorthernGRADE adopted the model for a Midwestern audience by focusing on brands from region. But the focus on quality brands hasn't changed, said Katherine McMillan of men's accessory line Pierrepont Hicks, which co-founded NorthernGRADE.
"I would not feel comfortable producing this market if I didn't believe in all of the brands we invite to take part," she said. "We all have similar philosophies and ethics about our products. If someone's products don't turn out to meet (our standards), we don't invite them back."
It's a phenomenon that draws comparisons to the slow food movement, farmers' markets and food and wine festivals as venues for showcasing artisanal approaches to crafting goods. By allowing consumers to touch the materials and talk to vendors about where the products came from, brands can educate them on why they're worth the markup.
"The Midwest has long history of manufacturing, but no one was cheering it on until now," said fashion and brand consultant Noah Zagor, who showed up at the market dressed the part in a vintage denim Levi's jacket and Alden "Indy" boots, both of which were made in the United States.
"There's a new generation of men learning about basics of getting dressed, and they want knowledge. They want to know where their stuff comes from."
It's tempting to want to stereotype supporters of American-made apparel as either a bunch of trendy urbanites who want to look like lumberjacks on the weekend or blue-collar workers expressing patriotism through their work boots. But this event brought in visitors of all stripes. Teenagers dragged their parents along for their wallets while middle-aged men scanned the displays for unadorned pairs of jeans and silver-haired couples, who remembered the days when manufacturing plants dotted the Midwest, tried on trapper hats.
One thing they all seemed to share was nostalgia for an era when clothing and accessories were made to last, regardless of whether they were actually alive during that time.
One man came from London in search of "a few bits of inspiration" for a potential American-made and UK-made retail concept in England, which is also experiencing a wave of nostalgia for a time when clothing was made closer to home.
"People like me want to stray from goods made in the Far East," said David Swetman, a 27-year-old freelance designer who resembled a menswear model in a Barbour jacket and fisherman's sweater over a flannel shirt, JW Hulme duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
"We're swinging away from fast fashion, and we're willing to invest and spend more on quality," he said. Sure enough, he left the market about an hour later with a $300 Archival waxed cotton vest, a $195 shawl-collared Pendleton sweater and leather shoelaces of different colors. "A nice way to accessorize your brogues," he noted.
For anyone who might use the words "classic," "structured," "Americana" or "heritage" to describe their personal style, there was plenty to covet: colorful racks of Oxford cloth button-ups, thick shawl-collared sweaters, jeans from some of the hottest names in premium denim and all manner of vintage.
Footwear fanatics had their choice of leather boots and shoes in every imaginable color and texture from Red Wing and Oak Street, two boot makers representing old and new school establishments. Tables displayed unisex accessories, from sturdy canvas rucksacks, shoulder bags and pencil cases to wool trapper hats and candy-colored assortments of neckties, bow ties and blankets.
Like other market-goers, Adachi was dressed as though his outfit had come from the showroom: Red Wing Heritage boots (made in America), Raleigh Denim jeans (naturally), flannel shirt (no) and Hill-Side scarf (yes) over a henley (no).
Kennedy also looked the part in dark jeans, vintage pullover sweater and boots, though none of it was made in America, underscoring arguments that clothing made in America can be prohibitively expensive or hard to find.
What would make her wardrobe more patriotic, so to speak? "More shows like this would help," she said. "It's hard to find this stuff in person."
Maybe it's the election season or the state of the economy or the approaching holiday season, but industry insiders agree an increasing amount of products and services are coming out with the made in America tagline.
Radio host Glenn Beck last month announced his line of American-made jeans, which gets its denim from the same North Carolina mill used by many premium jean brands. Made Collection, an online flash site sale, launched this fall offering American-made products at discounted prices. In time for the holiday season, luxury and mass market retailers such as Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Barneys are continuing the trend of partnering with independent brands and designers who make their products in America.
It's also been a busy year for pop-up markets. The Chicago show marked NorthernGRADE's first incursion into another city, two years after it was started by Pierrepont Hicks and J.W. Hulme. Another show is scheduled for Minneapolis in December, which will be its third there this year. In 2013, it plans to expand to San Francisco, Nashville, Denver and Moscow.