Robin Richman and her atelier collaborate with PAGODA RED on a one-of-a-kind project: reimagining our collection of 1940s Chinese clothing for men + women.
A vanguard of fashion and design, Robin Richman is celebrating her namesake boutique’s 19th year in Bucktown, an anniversary that speaks volumes. Chicago may be perennially on the verge of becoming fashion-forward (no thanks to endless gray months spent in puffy black armor), but Richman dresses daring women for every season.
This month, we launched an exclusive collaboration. The first of its kind for both parties, this special series delves into PAGODA RED’s vintage 1940s Chinese fashion collections. Richman’s lush interpretations include 18 one-of-a-kind garments, from subtle, hand-sewn additions to major sartorial face-lifts.
Richman debuted her creations in a spellbinding fashion show (her first in nearly 15 years) in our gallery, where the darkly poetic styling and neoteric soundtrack brought to life an idea that originated earlier this summer. When we caught up with the boutique owner and kindred creative spirit, she was in between New York Fashion Week appointments and deep in the process of creating the garments.
It began with a private tour. PAGODA RED owner Betsy Nathan hosted Richman for an after-hours creative session, and unveiled an elegant collection of robes and garments collected over 20 years in China. The pieces were classic, 1930s-1940s vestments: a skirt, a dress, a pair of women’s pants, men’s vests, silk robes and coats. Richman says, when she saw the clothing for the first time:
“I had this immediate, crazy vision of cutting some of them up, or applying leather to them.”
A lifelong lover of materials and graduate of the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied textiles, Richman has been gathering fabrics, threads, and inspiring global finds for years.
“One of my professors said, ‘You need your studio full of materials,’ and I do! I have so many supplies—I have a complete studio where we can pull Spanish lace, old French lace, silk threads and metallic threads.”
Drawing from her trove, Richman went headfirst into the work. With her team at the boutique, she started to reimagine the clothing, adding, subtracting and in some instances reversing the pieces into new renditions. For one robe, she hand-crocheted frogs (elaborate braiding used to fasten a garment in the front) from metal 1930s thread and embellished the sleeves with sequins.
“One robe is red and magenta inside, so we turned it inside out. And you see this gorgeous fuchsia polished cotton. So, I overlaid old, French, burnt orange chiffon with gold metal embroidery, but it’s attached in a funky way with this beautiful orange silk ribbon that’s very thin, like half inch. And I just covered it in bright pink French knots.”
Ornamented with cotton velvet tassels, rare ombré fabrics, Bakelite circa-1940s buttons and a few surprises, the collection merges each garment’s fascinating past life with Richman’s creative concepts. Finding the line between artistic indulgence and restraint was simple for Richman.
“Some of the pieces were deconstructed and then put back together. For others, we didn’t touch them. Like the first one I did; it’s literally quilted inside and so gorgeous. And that’s where I just appliqued. If they are that beautiful, then I just appliqued.”
From runway to real life, everything from the collaboration is available to purchase. Richman envisions the pieces as special occasion dressing—“this not something you’d wear everyday”—though the choice is entirely personal.
A Personal Process
Richman’s clients are the style-conscious sort, who want her signature selection of unique, independent designers—and they want Richman to edit it for them.
She spends countless hours on the lookout for new designers. Taking fashion pilgrimages to Paris four times a year, along with constant trips to New York during and in-between Fashion Week, Richman is forever sensing the next style direction.
“It’s just very personal. That’s what it is—what I have is a personal store. It’s not just clothing. There are some things I make, and I’ll throw in little antiques. Even our displays are funky and a little off. So it’s very personal. I’ll visit other stores and so many are sterile. We’re not—we’re very soft and textural.”
The Fantastic World of Robin Richman
Richman’s own fashion biography started in childhood, when she was that creative kid with encouraging parents who always had her in an afterschool art program. Knitting became her professional mode of expression. She started with handmade knitwear—everything from tops to skirts and dresses.
“I would knit crazy scarves with metal rings from France. I buy these old pieces that look like jewelry findings from the 1960s. Some people think they’re washers. They give weight to scarves.”
The entire Richman aesthetic—from the shop’s interior to the collections and vintage items—feels like a discovery. This is no accident. The designer’s own tastes favor the past.
“I like pieces with history. Especially when you see technique, which is what I love about like the old way of sewing. I really love hand-sewing, I love stitching threads, but I also I collect everything: I collect pieces of paper; I don’t throw them out! I love shades of paper—they often inspire me to do a piece.”
While her favorite era in history is the Victorian Era—“the eroticism of hands covered in lace to the knuckle and the fabulous clothing”—Richman welcomes visual surprise in every form.
Shanghai Style & Other Inspirations
Richman’s own home blends antique and vintage pieces, like a 1960s Italian table and French Moderne finds from the days when she owned an antique store. The vibe harmonizes with PAGODA RED’s philosophy of mixing and blending eras.
“What I love about Pagoda Red is that it feels like Shanghai in the 1930s. I could imagine living there when I walk into the space—I just go into my own world and absorb it all. And Betsy’s knowledge of history is incredible. She is so informative, I love that about here.”
How does a fashion boutique owner with a penchant for vintage ephemera like skirt forms, hat blocks and glove stretchers advise homeowners with anxiety about whether or not to procure an Asian piece?
“Buy a strong piece and it will fit in if you love it.”
Much like her suggestion to anyone with fashion nerves:
“Buy a nice pair of shoes—it upgrades your outfit, no questions asked.”