Bronzeville Boutique connects women with trendy Chinese fashion designs

By Wanying Zhao
Medill Reports

China, the world’s largest clothing manufacturer, is also taking a rapid lead in clothing design. At the Bronzeville Boutique on Chicago’s South Side, owner Treva Salaam discovered her favorite land of fashion is Guangzhou, China.

“I go to a lot of clothing shows. I go to major shows in Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York. And the faces I always see are Asian faces. So, why not go where I see the people come from?” Salaam said. She has been working in fashion retailing for three decades, but her trip to Guangzhou in October 2019 proved transformative — she finally got to witness and learn the whole making and trading process in person.

Guangzhou has the largest clothing wholesale market in China and is famous for being the seaport city where millions of cargo ships come and go every day. Salaam and her husband, William Salaam, co-owner of the boutique, spent days exploring different wholesale markets in the city, amazed by the variety of clothing they saw.

“They do fashion for everybody,” she said, “It is really next level. I love Chinese fashion.”

“China makes it all,” William Salaam added. “Whoever makes it all is the first to see it.”

She pointed a metallic silver shirt on the rack. “It’s beautifully made,” Treva Salaam said. “And the quality — I love good quality pieces.”

“I have so many customers that come in for their birthdays. So, I always have to have something sparkly, glitzy and glamorous,” says Treva Salaam. (LilyZhao/Medill)

Already at the front line of production, manufacturers in China also are creating firsts in trends and styles. And for buyers like Salaam, going to where the clothes are produced and now designed means a preview of what will be popular next — before the styles get distributed to retailers.

“If I order from somebody that sends me the pictures, I believe that they ordered from the people in China. Now I don’t have a go-between, so I’m getting direct [access],” said Treva Salaam, who got to know a lot of sellers in Guangzhou and opened up a new channel for stock during the trip.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, an order of 82 pieces of clothing arrived at the Bronzeville Boutique in a large box from Guangzhou. Since the first trip, Salaam has been commuting back and forth in November and December. She has learned to use WeChat, a major Chinese messaging app, to communicate with Chinese sellers, as well as Taobao, a Chinese online shopping website to explore the retailing market in China.

Treva Salaam’s boutique in Bronzeville is “for the person going somewhere,” she said. And she is constantly looking for unique pieces that people would not find elsewhere.

“People shop at the same stores all the time. We look at the same old things, that’s why you go to the boutique. You want something that nobody has,” said Latasha Robinson, who has been a regular customer for five years. She drove all the way from South Shore to the boutique to find a special fashion statement for her 47th birthday dinner.

Treva Salaam returns to China again soon, and she is excited that she will bring back some stylish clothing for summer in Bronzeville.

“I have so many customers that come in for their birthdays. So, I always have to have something sparkly, glitzy and glamorous,” she said.

Photo at top: Treva Salaam loves to style people and started with a flair as a little kid. She launched her first clothing business in Indiana in 1991. (WanyingZhao/MEDILL)