Having probed the malls and department stores of the big DC, our man across the pond Karl McKeever pays a visit to the city that gave us jazz, Al Capone and deep-dish pizzas as well as some of the most exciting retail destinations in the US of A.
Regarded as America's second city, Chicago is massive and sprawling - a true industrial giant. Sitting boldly on the shores of Lake Michigan, and with a skyline as high as its ambitions, this newly famous city is also the former home to President Barack Obama.
With world-class department stores, every major fashion label, many speciality shops and outlet malls, it's little wonder that Chicagoans are every bit as fashionable as the name suggests.
The main attraction downtown is called 'The Magnificent Mile', found on Michigan Avenue. With over 460 major stores, it is Chicago's hub for multiple retailers, department store chains and luxury boutique brands.
For me, this is one of the most appealing things about shopping in this city. No need for confusing public transport changes or taxis, and no exhausting air conditioned mall fatigue. Simply start at one end of 'The Mile' as it's more commonly known, shop, turn around and repeat on the other side - six hours later and you're done! (My top place for a well-earned lunch stop is the California Pizza Kitchen on Ohio Street, which intersects halfway).
Well-established brands like Gap, Club Monaco, Banana Republic and Ann Taylor all have impressive flagship stores here. And, unlike their outlets in other smaller locations, the scale of the stores allows them to deliver their 'biggest and best' brand experiences featuring their latest retail concepts and extended product collections.
In Banana Republic, look out for the premium label 'Monogram'. This trial range, first launched in Spring 2008 in New York City, has recently been extended to the Chicago store. Occupying large areas in both men's and women's departments, this private label collection of stylish and coordinated smart-wear has its own special look and feel. With a distinctly European inspiration, it would sit comfortably alongside brands such as Autograph from Marks & Spencer or House of Fraser's Linea - popular but with a premium twist.
Department stores include names such as Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor and a branch of the eponymous Nordstrom. Michigan Avenue is also home to the multi-floor indoor shopping malls of Water Tower Place and 900 North Michigan shops, which offer a wide variety of stores and relaxing eateries.
At one end of The Mile lies Oak Street, a designer quarter where stores such as Ralph Lauren, Tiffany's and Barneys NY have their exclusive, high-end outposts. Smart boutiques for Gucci, Chanel and three stores for Louis Vuitton alone, confirm the city's wealth, aspirations and designer credentials.
Barneys in particular is a real treat. Small but perfectly formed, it opened in the days when Barneys NY was, and still is, the last word in luxury. Its elegant sweeping staircase and immaculately groomed staff give the impression of a glamorous 1940's Hollywood movie with all the attitude you'd expect. In-store, the retail environment, brands and collections stocked suggests the credit crunch is still considered to have little impact on the consumers here.
The Ralph Lauren store, spread over several floors, is dripping in luxury goods as you'd expect. And as ever, it delivers the highest standards of store presentation and display within its strictly defined rules and protected brand style.
Rich hardwoods, thick carpets and framed paintings all create the opulent country house feel, and form the perfect backdrop to present British Tweed, Scottish Cashmere, and the finest Italian Merino collections. Here, visual merchandising reaches high art, which is convenient when you fancy a change of pace from the 60-plus galleries of the nearby River North Gallery District - the ideal place to buy fine art and antiques.
Travelling out of the downtown area, the neighbourhoods of Bucktown, Wicker Park and Lincoln Park, host some of the most interesting shopping destinations - but on a more modest scale. Mostly smaller, independent boutiques carry both up-and-coming and well-established brands, offering everything from designer clothing, to speciality jewellery and cosmetics brands. This is the perfect location for 'ladies who lunch', as there are world-class delicatessens, food emporiums and restaurants to be found.
The Oakbrook Centre is just 30 minutes from downtown Chicago. This open-air mall features major department stores such as luxurious Neiman Marcus, affordable Sears and world re-knowned Macy's. You'll also find novel speciality stores like 'Land of Nod', a brand developed in partnership with home retailer Crate and Barrel.
Occupying a unique position in the American market, this kids' emporium is excellent. (Think Mothercare but offering a whole lot more). Catering for mums-to-be and kids up to pre-teens, it sells everything from nursery furniture and bedding, to clothing, accessories, toys and early learning products.
The in-store experience is well done, safe and appealing, and designed with a sense of fun and imagination - it provides the sense of trust and confidence that parents find very reassuring. The product presentation shows a certain synergy with easy and inspiring methods similar to the adjacent Crate and Barrel store - no accident, considering the provenance of the brand.
Of course, when you're all shopped out, Chicago offers some great leisure activities too. The Millennium Park is an impressive addition for example. Mayor Richard M. Daley's vision and celebrated architect Frank Gehry's involvement have created wonderful public spaces worthy of Chicago's proud history. With its unprecedented combination of architecture, monumental sculpture and landscape design, the 24.5 acre Millennium Park has become a popular place for locals and tourists alike.