The celebrities Haj dresses—everyone from Bernie Mac to Mike Tyson—look great in the clothes he makes for them, but the best walking advertisement for this Chicago menswear designer is the man himself. Every detail of Haj’s attire is impeccable, from his coordinating pocket squares to his alligator shoes, from his perfectly hemmed wide-cut pants to the initials stitched discreetly on his shirt cuffs.
“I am my own best customer,” he says. “Even if I wake up in the morning and have nothing to do, I still get dressed for the day. It makes me think better.” Born Elhadi Gueye in Senegal, West Africa, Haj grew up in Paris, where his father moved the family in 1941. A third-generation designer, Haj never buys clothing in stores. “The best thing you can do is have your clothes made to measure,” he says. “I like clothing from designers like Armani and Versace, but I never see pieces that have it all. Either they’ve got great fabric but a not-so-great cut, or they’ve got a beautiful cut but not the right fabric.”
Haj’s feelings on the subject of casual dress in the workplace are emphatically negative. “Don’t you want to look your best?” he asks. “People think jeans and khakis and T-shirts are OK to wear to the office these days, but come on. Please! To me that is unacceptable.” One person who does know what is acceptable,however, is Haj’s 6-year-old daughter, who loves to help her father put together outfits. “I tell her what things go together, and it’s amazing how she remembers,” he says. “She’ll stand in my closet and say,‘Daddy, I want to see you in this!”
CS Magazine "Men of Style" issue - 2004
Elhadij "Haj" Gueye doesn't have enough ears. The Chicago fashion designer's cell phone buzzed incessantly one recent afternoon as he juggled fabric orders and customer demands.
Then the call came. It was Bernie Mac's brother inquiring about ties for the Chicago comedian.
"All good, brother," Gueye said through his thick Senegalese accent. "I got the ties [for] Big Mac." Mac may be the spokesman for the Illinois Lottery, but Gueye, 42, hit the jackpot as his designer. For nearly 15 years, Gueye has been the man behind Mac's larger-than-life image.
Gueye considers Mac the star of his celebrity client roster, which he said extends from San Antonio Spurs guard (and Eva Longoria fiance) Tony Parker to ex- "ER" actor Sharif Atkins. Gueye and other local designers and stylists who dress celebs seem to have it all: the notoriety, the fancy showroom, the Very Important Pals. But these savvy stylists say their life isn't all champagne corks and caviar forks as they labor to meet the varying needs of their famous clients. "For the 5 percent of glamor, there's 95 percent normal," said Maria Pinto, whose designs have been worn by famous people including Michelle Obama, Geena Davis and Courteney Cox Arquette.
Designers like Pinto and Gueye have helped put Chicago on the fashion map. Chicago designs are being sold in stores on both coasts, where the entertainment community is snapping them up. Meanwhile, local designers and stylists are settling here to escape the garment gridlock in New York and L.A.
"It's much easier to get started here," said Melissa Turner, Chicago's fashion arts director. "People really express themselves as individuals in their style here. ... There's really no characteristic look like there is in L.A. and New York; there's a lot more diversity." Turner said the city also is becoming a fashion hot spot because it's entrepreneur-friendly. Pinto agrees. The Chicago native returned to the city after a short jaunt in New York. She started here with accessories design then moved into ready-to-wear clothing. Now she's one of few designers who can say they dress a potential first lady: Pinto has been fashioning gowns and day wear for Michelle Obama for the past two years.
Credit Pinto for the white frock Obama wore to Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball in 2005. The senator's wife also was photographed in Pinto trousers for the February Ebony magazine article proclaiming the Obamas "the hottest couple in America." "It's so interesting to be part of the process that they're going through," Pinto said.
The challenge, she said, is to maintain Obama's signature elegant style but provide her with a versatile wardrobe for hobnobbing at a New York fundraiser one day and shaking hands in Iowa the next.
"Whatever she needs. ... As a designer you want to realize what she represents," Pinto said.
To Pinto, 50, Obama exudes a consistently clean and flattering chic sensibility. The two met a few years ago through a mutual friend, said Pinto, who said she chats with Obama a few times a month. "When she comes in, now it's like we're girlfriends," Pinto said.
The designer said she would love to dress Charlize Theron and Cate Blanchett because they have an "intense sort of mind as well as beautiful bodies." But it would be her dream to create Obama's inauguration gown if the Illinois senator is elected president next year."That would be amazing," Pinto said.
Like Pinto, Lindsay McKay couldn't stay away from Chicago too long. The 27-year-old stylist returned home last year after pit stops in Milan, New York and L.A. Her claim to fame is selecting clothes for rocker Dave Navarro and model Brooke Burke for the reality show "Rock Star: INXS.""It was a dream to work with Brooke. She could wear next to nothing and look spectacular," McKay said."The toughest thing about 'Rock Star' was not allowing it to become trendy," McKay said. "The whole fashion part [of the show] became a really big deal."McKay considers herself a costume stylist, mostly choosing wardrobes for stars on screen, not off.
She also has picked out the on-screen wardrobes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Wyclef Jean and Ryan Gosling in independent films. McKay brought her anti-trend style to Bucktown last year when she opened her menswear boutique, TK Men. She said there's a growing demand for a "Chicago look" -- a middle ground between L.A.'s flash and New York's dark chic. "Fortunately, whatever is designed in Chicago, it will translate to New York and L.A.," McKay said, "Not everything from New York will translate to Chicago."
Unlike McKay and Pinto, Gueye didn't have roots in Chicago when he came here in the late 1980s. A fourth-generation designer, Gueye lived in Senegal and Paris but now spends much of his time at his showroom on Oak Street. Through word-of-mouth he garnered celebrity clients, which have included Bo Jackson, Mike Tyson and Don King, he said.
Atkins, who starred on "ER" and now appears on "The 4400" on the USA Network, said he has been a Gueye client for about three years."Haj is a great personality, always makes his clients feel great and always comes up with the goods. None of the suits, shirts, ties or accessories have I ever been disappointed with," Atkins said in an e-mail to RedEye. "I raved about him so much and was looking so sharp in my suits ... that my father decided to get on board as well." The Atkinses aren't the only father-son duo to rave about Gueye's suits. Parker and his father are regular Gueye customers, too, Tony Parker Sr. told RedEye.
For the last three years, Gueye has designed suits and picked out handkerchiefs and belts for Parker, whose famous son followed suit. "Having a girlfriend like Eva Longoria, [Tony] had to make a few red carpet appearances. Haj's suits came in real handy," Tony Parker Sr. said. Now Gueye is awaiting word whether he will design the NBA star's wardrobe for his upcoming wedding. Gueye flies to San Antonio to fit Parker and jet sets around the country for other clients but said he "lives a simple life."
"I may be around people who live glamorously," Gueye said. "But when I get home it's plain, regular Haj."
By Tracy Swartz, RedEye - April 24, 2007
For Immediate Release Contact Derrick K. Baker, (312) 497-1604, May 16, 2008
N’DIGO Foundation To Honor Six Exceptional Chicago Women At June 21 Gala
Black-Tie Evening Features Grammy-Nominated Neo-Soul Star Ledisi In Concert,
Online Auction and Exclusive Fashions by City’s Top Designers
Six accomplished Chicago women will be honored at the 2008 N’DIGO Foundation Gala on Saturday, June 21 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., as the foundation presents merit-based college scholarships to students, as exclusive, onenight-only fashions by the city’s top designers will be on display. In recognition of their professional and personal achievements and career contributions, the N’DIGO Foundation will honor:
The black-tie Gala regularly attracts a star-studded who’s who from Chicago’s business, corporate, civic, education and government communities, among other fields. This year’s affair will be highlighted by a concert performance by Ledisi, the ultratalented two-time Grammy award nominee who records for the legendary Verve Records. The rising neo-soul superstar’s concerts have led a Billboard critic to call them a "religious experience.” Ledisi made her major-label debut with 2007's “Lost and Found,” and has been nominated for the Best R&B Album Grammy.
Lending to the Gala’s fashion flair will be exclusive and exquisite designs created by Chicago’s leading fashion designers: Reginald Thomas, Pilar Audain-Reid of KREATIVE SOUL, James De Colon of DeColon Designs, Duvall Pettway from the House of Duvall, Jermikko Johnson, Haj Gueye, Barbara Bates of Bates Designs, Maria Pinto of Maria Pinto Designs, Monika Simmons and Ericka Simmons. Harris Bank is the Gala’s fashion sponsor. The foundation will continue its 13-year tradition of presenting merit-based college scholarships to students in partnership with numerous colleges and universities, corporations, foundations, community organizations and generous individuals. All applications are due by May 26. To apply, visit www.ndigo.com. Send questions to email@example.com.