UPDATE: This story was originally published on January 21.
The story of someone leaving a job in corporate America to pursue a lifelong dream never ceases to inspire us. So, you can imagine how downright floored we were to learn that go-getter Mallory Ulaszek left her sales job at AT&T to start CB and cityblue apparel & denim at the beginning of the most recent recession. Thanks to her knack for filling the shop with fly-off-the-shelf goods and her amazing personal-styling service, the entrepreneur has raised her brand into a Chicago powerhouse.
Naturally, we felt the need to track her down for a sartorial spill session. And Ulaszek didn't disappoint. She showed us how she seamlessly mixes and matches labels to create one-of-a-kind ensembles — exactly what she would do if you were shopping at one of her stores. She also shared advice on the key pieces you need to invest in, the jeans you should never wear, and so much more. Wardrobe and career inspiration? We're sold.
Was opening a retail store always a dream, or did it occur by accident?
"A little of both. I called it a quarter-life crisis at the time. I was planning on quitting my corporate job for a while, and I had saved up quite a bit of money. I was interviewing around, but I only had experience for a sales job — and making a career change would prove difficult, as it was the start of the recession."
"I always wanted to work in fashion and retail, but I thought I needed to prove myself in some way and pay my dues. So, it was surprising when my father asked me out of the blue, 'Why don’t you open your own store? Isn’t that what you want anyway?' It seemed so simple then. The next thing I knew I was signing a lease and cold calling brands. Truthfully, I had no idea what I was doing, and I spent my time researching and making educated guesses. My first big break was getting a well-known brand that was represented by a college friend of mine, which ultimately opened a lot of doors."
Mallory is wearing Hudson Nico skinny jeans, a Fluxus t-shirt, Sisley coat, and Valentino shoes.
What are some accessories that every gal should own to complement a variety of ensembles?
"A pair of black non-platform pumps, a simple designer belt, and a piece of simple, yet personal jewelry. These items pretty much go with anything. I love designer belts from Ralph Lauren, Gucci, and Hermes. I am not big on luxury logos, but I wear my black Gucci belt all the time and it takes jeans and a T-shirt to another level."
We know you have an affinity for C/FAN, since you have a recent design collab, but what other local designers do you admire?
"I have such a great relationship with Christina and the C/FAN girls that is based off of admiration and respect. I feel the same way about Jules Vance of jules jewelry
. Those are two amazing women, let me tell you. I am lucky to have gotten to know them and include them among my friends. They are so creative and push themselves to do something meaningful every season that tells a story. How can you not love a piece that tells a great story? The best part is when they give me sneak peeks into future collections or concepts, I get giddy. Their creativity is inspiring."
Mallory is wearing a David Yurman bracelet.
Let's talk jeans. Can every woman really pull off skinny jeans? Really?
"Yes. Ha ha! Seriously though, if women stopped thinking they couldn’t pull them off and focused that energy into finding a pair of well-fitting slim jeans they would say, 'What was I thinking?' If not skinny jeans, every woman should own a pair of straight-leg jeans. Hem them at the ankle and wear heels. That, to me, is the most chic denim look around."
Is there a denim style you hope never returns — ever?
"High-waisted skinny jeans — they just do not look good on anyone. They draw attention to certain, ahem, areas. I can get on board with high-waisted flare or trouser pants, but the skinny counterpart needs to go away forever."
How many pairs of jeans do you own, and do you have a favorite?
"I try and rotate them in and out, but on average around 20 or so. I have a stack of pairs I can never throw away because of their uniqueness. I have a shredded pair of Current/Elliot from the brand’s first season. I also have this pair of lace Genetics I could never part with. For some reason I never hold onto the basics, which is what I am always searching for."
Describe your personal style.
"It ranges from classic and modern to edgy and androgynous depending on my mood. Since I am 5’4”, there’s a solid chance I have heels on — or wedge sneakers that I call my 'lifts.' I wear a lot of black, too. I am trying very hard to step outside of that box, but black is what I feel the most comfortable in. I have always said you know I am busy when I show up to a meeting in black heels, black skinny jeans, and a black shirt. It takes no thought and you always look chic."
What are three pieces you own that you'll probably have forever?
"A beautiful diamond necklace my mom wore in her wedding — I am hugely sentimental about some things. I have worn two bracelets on my right arm for over ten years. They are simple chains, one gold and one silver. The gold represents my family and the silver represents my friends. I always wanted to make sure they stay on the forefront of my mind. Lastly, my jules ID tag necklace with me and my boyfriend, Bryan’s, initials. Meaningful items never go out of style and it makes me happy to keep these items close."
Mallory is wearing a jules ID tag necklace.
What are you looking for when you are choosing items and designers to include in your boutiques?
"I am always looking for a combination of what the customer wants and needs. It has to be a delicate balance of brands they know and love and brands they don’t know yet but will love. I try to mix it up so I am not carrying ten different brands that are similar in style — but also have the same general direction or aesthetic. Sometimes it doesn’t work and you phase them out. That is what's so great about fashion; there are so many new fashion lines to discover."
"Markets are one of the most daunting trips of the year, and I always over-prepare and research. It is essentially eat, work out, flip through clothes for eight hours straight, attend vendor dinners, sleep, and repeat for about two weeks. I promise it's not all it is cracked up to be, but still one of the most rewarding parts of the job."
Mallory is wearing a Fluxus T-shirt, Theyskens Theory skirt, Chanel belt, and Prada shoes.
You just returned from sunny Mexico. What did you pack in your suitcase?
"Whenever I go anywhere warm, I adopt a beach-bum mentality. I packed a bunch of bathing suits, jean shorts, a wide-band headband a la Brigitte Bardot, and my camera and 200-millimeter lens. I am an amateur photographer at best, but I love being able to experiment with anything creative as an outlet from the business aspects I focus on daily. Besides those items, I always like to pack gladiator sandals, which ironically are making a strong comeback in the spring. It adds an element of style to any simple jean and tank top."
What trends should we try out this spring?
"I am a huge advocate of protecting your skin, so I love that baseball hats are back with a vengeance. It’s fashionable and a great way to protect your face and eyes. I also love the black and white combos and a return to a sort of minimalism that is on the rise again. Just as fashion exploded in the fall, I am expecting it to return to simplicity in the coming seasons. I also like rocking a little midriff when possible — giving a peek of a little skin is sexy. Keeping in mind the rule, keep it in check. If you’re going to do midriff, don’t do a micro-mini as well."
Are you headed to Fashion Week in February?
"I'm still undecided. I will surely be sending my Director of Operations, Megan Finn. We were lucky enough to be invited to Paris last season, as well as New York. As exciting as that is, I am adopting a puppy later this month, something I have looked forward to for over a year, and I think my heart will need to stay with him and my boyfriend in our home."
Do you get a lot of inspiration from going to the shows?
"I do get very inspired by the shows. There’s so much talking and everywhere you turn you see faces you know, but have never seen in person. Cameras are flashing non-stop, and then there is the music — the music is the best part. Yigal Azrouel chose 'The Grimes' for his spring 2013 show, and I just couldn’t get the song out of my head after!"
"Also, the locations are also incredibly varied. Milk Studios is so small and you’d never think that from the photos, but Lincoln Center is a circus, let me tell you! I almost prefer some of the warehouses in the Meatpacking District for the presentations. You feel more involved and connect better with the designer, and you’re able to talk to some of those directly involved in the collection while viewing."
Mallory is wearing a Helmut Lang coat, Graham & Spencer skirt, Helmut by Helmut Lang shirt, and MM6 boots.
You recently went from being a blonde to a brunette! What salon do you go to?
"I have been seeing Leslie Shores at Maxine
for a few years now — she is incredible. One of the first times I saw her I said, 'I want you to give me grey roots and she thought I was crazy. A few months ago I asked her to dye my hair dark brown (I am a natural dirty blonde) and she thought I was marginally less crazy. With my insane requests for hair dye, I have spent 4-5 hours there tossing back prosecco — and I wouldn’t do it with anyone else."
"When it comes to getting my hair cut, I have only had my hair professionally done maybe 2-3 times in the last ten years. I usually cut my own hair — I have serious scissor phobia. Stylists always end up taking off way more than I like. I grew up with my aunt doing my hair, so I have picked up a few tricks along the way after spending afternoons hanging out in her salon."
Do you still have a lot of personal shopping clients? Would you say there is a general "look" the Chicago gal is seeking?
"Yes, one of the things I am having all my girls do is build up their own client base. I would say there is a range in what the Chicago girl is looking for, but generally it falls somewhere between minimal and preppy, as well as practical and wearable. The Chicago girl is non-fussy, educated, driven, and creative. She wants something she can wear everyday, but has an element of surprise to it. Chicago fashion is stepping out of the shadows of New York as we realize we don’t need to be wearing avant garde looks to be fashionable. It just takes one solid statement piece and confidence to create your own personal style."
If you could style anyone in the world, who would it be and why? What would you choose for her or him?
"Honestly, I don’t have a particular dream client other than someone who is open to me about what they are looking for and lets me have carte blanche. Being able to step a bit outside his or her comfort zone in a way that makes the client happy in the end is always the goal. I always love saying 'just try it on,' and when the customer is pleasantly surprised, you know you’ve done your job."
Tell us about your average male customer. What's he like?
"Definitely the typical Chicago guy who likes sports and hangs out at bars with his guy friends. He likes plain jeans, button-downs, and Ray-Bans. We have a very loyal clientele of men and whenever they come in, they have a purpose. I hate to say it, but guys are simple. They do not want to spend time browsing our racks. They seek our advice, try on some items, and then they are out the door. I have actually been able to spot some of our clothes on guys all around the city and it makes me so happy I almost cry!"
What's one of your favorite "runway to real way" looks we should be copying right now?
"For fall and winter, I love the idea of print-on-print and the print pantsuit. There was a great editorial shoot for Vogue where Emma Stone was wearing Prada’s fall 2012 hexagon-print pantsuit. It was so whimsical, it just makes you smile. Incorporating structured print pieces like that into your wardrobe is a great way to give it a shot of adrenaline. A printed blazer or suit pant don’t need to be worn together, but would serve as a great statement piece alone that would inevitably stay in your closet forever."
If we were to invest in a couple key pieces right now, what should they be?
"Christian Louboutin Pigalle pumps and a Chanel bag."
What are three of your favorite pieces acquired from your own store?
"One of them has to be my C/FAN cardi wrap from last year's spring collection. It was the first collection of hers we carried and I loved the print she appropriated and the colors she created them in. Another is my Theysken’s Theory combat boots. For some reason, I love his Olivier’s shoes, which they don’t always mass produce. I got my grubby hands on the last pair in the company. Lastly, I would say my Helmut Lang wool and leather coat. Those coats always depart just enough from mainstream, generally with the asymmetrical cuts that flatter without sacrificing tailoring."
If and when you have downtime, how and where do you like to spend it?
"I always make time for downtime — it is the only way I can recharge and stay creative. I generally spend it with my friends and family — the most time being spent with my boyfriend, Bryan. I have known him since I was 14, we have dated for over two years, and just moved in together. We actually worked together at my last job, as well, and our story is nothing short of serendipitous without sounding too cheesy. He is my best friend and the only person that can pull me away from work and being an all-around nutjob."
"A lot of times we stay in and cook dinner together (or order Chinese from Takie Outit
), drink wine, and watch movies — mostly dorky sci-fi for me. Otherwise, we love going out to eat. Our favorite places are Friends Sushi
, Kuma's Corner
, Big Star
, Old Oak Tap, and Joe’s Stone Crab
. When we go out, we like to stick to our old favorites with the staff we know and love at Butch McGuire’s
and Suite Lounge
So, what's next for Mallory Ulaszek?
"I am throwing around ideas for a personal blog that would serve as a mentoring website for aspiring boutique owners, as well as give insight into the industry. I never had a mentor or background in retail, and I feel there is some advice and insight that is invaluable and should be available to all — and
paint a realistic picture."
Mallory is wearing MM6 pants, BLANK leather coat, Theyskens Theory boots, and a concert T-shirt.