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While following her own dreams, Michelle Gertzman has also been making the dreams of hundreds of brides come true. Recently opening her own storefront in Chicago’s West Loop named Michelle Rahn, this North Shore native has brought the couture experience here from New York.
Photographs by Jon Cancelino
Michelle Gertzman style a model in one of her most popular designs—the Priscilla Dress.
While growing up in Northbrook, Michelle Gertzman always had a penchant for fashion. Since she was in second grade, she knew she wanted to be a fashion designer. With a few detours along the way, she constantly found herself magnetized to all things related to clothing, style, and design. “I’ve followed Valentino’s career since I was 8 years old,” she remembers. “When he retired, I almost cried. It was the end of an era. Valentino is my version of some people’s Michael Jordan—he’s the epitome of fashion.” Enthralled with the industry, she followed her heart and last April opened her own bridal boutique in downtown Chicago, Michelle Rahn.
It wasn’t a short journey for this North Shore girl. After graduating from Glenbrook North High School, she started school as a communications major at the University of Arizona. But one day she decided to make the leap; she left her liberal arts school in the Southwest and moved to Florence, Italy, to study fashion design. “That’s where I really honed my skills and was shown how to look at things with a refined eye,” she explains. “I learned there that you don’t have to create overly complicated designs to represent a fabric the right way. Instead, you can achieve that with simplicity and attention to detail.”
From there, she applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. She analogizes getting accepted into the one-year intensive design studio program to winning an Oscar because it had always been her ultimate dream. The next 12 months of her life were devoted to school. “I don’t think I saw daylight. After moving to New York, I didn’t meet anyone outside of school,” she remembers. “We all worked incredibly hard and learned so much.” At FIT she worked with French couturiers and learned how to make a dress the way it was done in a classic European design house. Her final project was perhaps not so coincidentally a wedding dress—completely done by hand.
Several years later when her sister got engaged, it seemed like a natural transition for Michelle to make her sister’s wedding gown and that’s when the idea of a bridal line sprouted. After following a different career path for a bit, it was the perfect opportunity for her to get back into fashion designing. “I fell in love with the whole process of making the dresses. It allowed me to work with gorgeous fabrics and create to my wildest imagination,” she describes. She began wholesaling her dresses in boutiques across the nation, but decided to move back to Chicago where she opened her own studio and started designing her collection as well as doing custom, couture work. “Although New York is technically the fashion capital, I wanted to bring something like this—the atelier experience—to Chicago,” she says.
More than a dozen different dresses hang on a suspended metal rack in her pristine Green Street storefront. Made with the finest French silks and lace and Swarovski crystal beading, these are what Michelle refers to as “couture ready-to-wear” and can be customized to a bride’s preferences. While each dress has its own personality, they all share two characteristics: a modern aesthetic and exceptional quality.
But what truly makes Michelle unique in Chicagoland are her custom, couture gowns that she designs from scratch upon a client’s request. This will typically begin with a sketch created by Michelle with the client’s input and will transform into a fantasy dress after six to nine months of designing and constant fittings. Before jumping into the custom process, Michelle advises brides to get out there and try on dresses. “Go look and see which styles work on you,” she suggests. “You’re wearing a type of gown that you’ve never worn before. You have to try things on to get the feel for fabrics, colors, and silhouettes. Then once you know what you want, we can sit down and put a sketch together.”
Michelle doesn’t just stop at wedding dresses anymore; she recently added a mother of the bride and a “ladies of luxury” (for black-tie affairs) line. After having many mothers and friends of brides in the store, she began receiving such a large number of requests for custom work that she decided it was something she had to offer to the customer who wanted to have that unique experience. She also is hoping to be one of the first designer labels to make her couture dresses available online. It won’t be a traditional shopping Web site where customers click and buy, but instead an interactive site that will guide clients through the dressmaking process. Each client will have a private customer consultant in Chicago and will be sent fabric swatches and high-quality photographs.
“At the end of the day, we’re really just trying to figure out new ways to make the experience pleasurable and memorable,” Michelle says. “And when they come here, whether through the Web site or in person, we want them to know they’re in good hands, have nothing to worry about, and will feel gorgeous on their wedding day.”
For more information on Michelle Rahn, located at 211 N. Green Street in Chicago, visit www.michellerahn.com, or call 312-243-1919.