The Shape-Shifter

Designer Christina Karin Monley unveils a brick-and-mortar store in Wicker Park—and treats Chicagoans to a fiercely feminine shopping experience.

By Amalie Drury

Photos by Anthony Tahlier

July 19, 2019 10:00 AM

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Christina Karin Monley has to give Wall Street some credit for teaching her how to run a successful clothing line. She spent a decade working in the futures industry in what she calls a very “structured and rigid” environment, dressing the “stiff and predictable” part. But, she says, “I learned how to communicate, how to work on a team, how to talk to people, how to focus and really get things done.” And while it’s easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of corporate America, Monley says, “I couldn’t be where I am today without that experience.” 

Where she is today is in Wicker Park, the Chicago neighborhood she calls home with her husband and two young children, where she just opened the first Christina Karin collection store on North Avenue eight blocks west of the Damen Blue Line stop. After seven years of selling her line through the brand’s own e-commerce site, www.christinakarin.com, as well as online retailers and independent boutiques in New York, Los Angeles, London and other European cities, Monley has poured herself into the design of the 1,500-square-foot brick-and-mortar retail space. “I curated every detail,” she says, right down to the decorative sign with the word “Chicago” spelled out in blazing pink neon. 

An elegant, edgy blonde who set out to transport clients to a place that feels like a dream home (“at least in my world,” she laughs), Monley wants customers to be inspired to stay, hang out in the store, play dress-up. “Everything about this place really represents the line and our aesthetic. It’s sophisticated and clean, with a little rock-and-roll rebelliousness.” 

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“Everything about this place really represents the line and our aesthetic,” says Monley. “It’s sophisticated and clean, with a little rock-and-roll rebelliousness.”

The same goes for the clothes. The Christina Karin brand is divided into 3 categories—the heritage collection of bold leather, styles that offer convertible functionality and day to night standouts, all of which embody a seasonless, effortless approach to dressing—a rejection of the conventional boardroom clothes Monley donned for many years. These are modern looks defined by details like black mesh cutouts placed to expose a little shoulder or midriff, striking asymmetric hemlines and athleisure reimagined in luxe satin. Some of the pieces have romance in their DNA—think rich watercolor prints, lingerie-inspired cuts and draped, flowing tunics and dresses. But they all have an undercurrent of toughness, the appearance of fashionable armor—almost like a wardrobe for the modern urban superwoman. (There’s even a gray sweater dress with cape attached.)

“I love that combination of soft and hard,” says Monley, who looks to architecture and music, rather than other clothing designers, for style cues. “It’s a really fun thing to play with because I think that’s what most women are every day. Strong ideas with gentle kindness underneath.” She designs for women in their late 20s up to their 50s and 60s. “No woman is just one thing,” Monley insists. “No one is just flirty dresses or just tough leather. We’re involved in so many different roles in our lives that I think it’s difficult to relate to a line that’s so one-note. I’m more about a philosophy, a lifestyle, than just a line of dresses.”

Monley became acquainted with Carine Roitfeld—the famous former editor of Vogue Paris who has also worked as a model, stylist, entrepreneur and writer—at last year’s Paris Fashion Week where the designer held an intimate showcase. “She taught me the powerful lesson that you can transform yourself, re-envision your path, at any moment. You don’t have to do one thing and stick with it forever,” says Monley, who completed an adult continuing education program in garment design and construction at The Art Institute of Chicago. “People questioned my choice to give up a stable financial career to pursue something creative. But you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to choose change.”  

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Monley curated every detail of the store, right down to the decorative sign with the word “Chicago” spelled out in blazing pink neon.

If 2018 was about the push to open the store, Monley says, 2019 is about assembling her dream team. “It’s important to find the right people, because we have big plans. Hopefully this will not be our only store.” Christina Karin’s sample studio is in Humboldt Park, and Monley, a Boston native from a family of serious art collectors, wants to disrupt the fashion industry in a way that puts Chicago on the map, at least from an advanced contemporary market standpoint. 

Between expanding her business, keeping up with a “see now, buy now” sales model that brings new products to market every six to 10 weeks (“It keeps things fresh and engaging,” she says) and spending lots of time soaking up sweet childhood moments with her son and daughter, Monley describes life as “pretty chaotic, but exciting and stimulating” at the moment. So what keeps her feeling even? Yoga and pilates here and there; traveling with her husband, who works in agriculture developing software for farmers; and, above all, an early bedtime. “People think I’m out at fashion parties every night,” she says. “I mostly just like to cook and be at home. When you go to bed by 9:30, it’s amazing, you feel great the next day.” Ready, in other words, to throw on your superwoman clothes, hit the city and be exactly yourself. 

Christina Karin, 2301 W. North Ave. christinakarin.com

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From tunics to track pants, expect new looks every six to 10 weeks at Christina Karin.