Left to right,  Sean Sussman, Aaron Sussman and Rogie Sussman Faber at the Vogue Fabrics retail store on Main Street.                                         Photo by Tom Benz

Vogue Fabrics has come a long way since founder Sy Sussman began driving through neighborhoods in the mid 1940s, honking his horn to alert housewives he was outside to take their orders for cloth.

He had learned his trade as a pattern drafter for the wings of World War II planes. Mr. Sussman found that the women of the day preferred to make their own clothes, and making that possible has been a family tradition ever since.

Today the warehouse on Hartrey Avenue and retail store on Main Street are managed by Rogie Sussman Faber, her brother Aaron and Cousin Sean. 

“Things really changed in the early ’80s when the Chinese market opened up,” Ms. Faber said. “Clothes became less expensive, so the people who made their own began doing it for more cultural than economic reasons. It became a form of creativity and self-expression.”

Over the years, mom entrepreneurs, home decoration, ETSY online users, costume shows and clubs, science fiction conventions, historical reenactments, and theater have bolstered the fabric market. Making various items from cloth has has come to represent a sort of three dimensional canvas. 

The “Do-it-yourself” crowd has exploded, partly driven by popular TV shows like “Home Makeover” and “Project Runway.” Ms. Faber said things sometimes came full circle, as when famous designer Cynthia Rowley began her career buying fabric from Vogue, and now sometimes it is the other way around.

The warehouse handles the wholesale and catalogue side of the business but is open to the public twice a year with special offers.

The two main types of fabric are “quilt” and “fashion.” The former is usually most in demand in rural areas, where there is a tradition of sewing quilts and retail prices tend to be lower. Fashion fabric comes in more variations of texture and style.

Also of note is the wide range of available sewing machines. These run the gamut from the seemingly archaic “treadle” devices that require no electricity and are powered, as they were a century ago, by a foot pedal, to computerized makes with all the bells and whistles.  

The boom in “cosplay” (costume play) is typified by groups who enjoy fantasy narratives like Anime, Dr. Who and Star Wars and are impelled to represent the characters’ garb at various special events. The “Steampunk” phenomenon which Ms. Faber characterized as “Victorian with laser guns” is an example of a trend that shows getting dressed up is not just for masked balls and Halloween anymore. 

Vogue has helped replenish its customer base with education programs. They sponsor regular classes for sewing, how-to-use material, and forums limited to 10 to 14-year-olds, which are especially popular. These may involve learning how to make sweatshirts, dresses, T-shirts, or wedding dresses. Ms. Faber stressed that a lot can be done with home fabrics, even when people do not know how to sew.  

Many fabric companies have closed, but Vogue’s ability to cater to both large and small buyers, coupled with Chicago’s vibrant design scene, has helped them thrive. The company maintains close ties with the School of the Art Institute, Columbia College, the Renaissance Faire, the Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera, Joffrey Ballet and many other cultural institutions. So for those who do not want to be caught in the same outfit a bunch of other people are wearing, it might make sense to head to the local fabric store, where style is limited only by one’s imagination.