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The Alley Reinvents for a New Generation With Father-Daughter Partnership

By Ariel Cheung | September 24, 2015 6:25am
 After 39 years in Lakeview, The Alley and the conjoining Taboo Tabou are getting a makeover, with new partner Alexis Thomas working with her father, Mark Thomas, to add a new edge to the punk store.
The Alley Reinvents After 39 Years
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CENTRAL LAKEVIEW — It's a sunny afternoon at The Alley, and the staff is unpacking fall merchandise, the likes of which the punk store has never seen.

Alexis Thomas pulls out an olive green jacket with leather sleeves, breast pockets and a studded collar and examines it through her thick, tortoiseshell glasses.

"Now this, this is something we would never have bought," points out her father, store owner Mark Thomas. "But these are fantastic." The pocketed gray dress his daughter is wearing is another Alexis find, one that sold out almost immediately.

The building rumbles as construction hums outside.

It's been seven months since Alexis Thomas, 27, came on as a partner at The Alley, which turns 40 next year. In that time, the Thomases have reinvented the store and its lower-level Taboo Tabou to offer cutting edge to a new generation.

"We changed our M.O. I think the clientele for us is going to be those people looking for that accent in their outfit that makes Vogue and Nylon go to Trash And Vaudeville [in New York] — that thing that makes you look different than everyone else shopping at the mall," Alexis Thomas says.

She lifts up her platform Creepers, adorned with daisies.

"Creepers are the ultimate of punk. You always had a pair, just like Doc Martens. But this is an accent that somebody who has a suit job downtown can come home and put on, but not go over the edge," she explains.

Daisy-studded Creepers are just the type of accessory Alexis Thomas thinks will hit it big at The Alley. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Downstairs, Taboo Tabou — named one of the best — has expanded its lingerie, burlesque outfits and toy lines to include higher-end products. Chic party dresses and lace-trimmed corsets are front and center, although more mischievous and flashy get-ups remain. The employees attend trade shows to learn about the latest and greatest toys.

And yet, even the fanciest items are still affordable — a plush low-line bra for $25 would easily cost at least double at a store like Victoria's Secret.

They've also got T-shirts for children and babies. It goes with the neighborhood nowadays, Mark Thomas says.

"We're staying loyal to our core, and on the other hand, the neighborhood has changed. Even 15 years ago, The Alley has metamorphosed with this neighborhood," he explains.

Elegant options at The Alley are part of an overhaul design to attract a new generation after 39 years at Clark and Belmont. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

With neck and knee surgeries over the past year that briefly halted his unsuccessful run for alderman, Mark Thomas was "sliding toward" retirement. He condensed his businesses amid redevelopment on his corner and considered calling it quits for good.

At the same time, daughter Alexis wanted a change after four years with Teach For America in Oklahoma City, Okla.

"I was running so many businesses, The Alley became one of my holdings" and fell behind the times, Mark Thomas says.

"And Alexis said, 'You know what, Dad? It's time for the store to change again. I want to come back,'" he says.

They made a deal: He would stay on for another five years to show her the ropes, and hopefully The Alley could go on for a few more decades.

Together, they gutted the store, trained a new staff and found a pleasant rhythm working as a team.

They're testing out ways to reach new customers and celebrate longtime patrons, with Taboo Tabou classes, Friday mini concerts featuring local punk bands and invitations to local artists to sell their wares for free at The Alley on Saturdays — provided they create some social media buzz.

"We're starting to get the School of the Art Institute people in her, the Columbia [College] kids. For a while there, we were losing our cutting-edge fashion. Now we're getting back to that," Alexis Thomas said.

Within months, sales went up 40 percent. But the Thomases fear being next to a disruptive construction zone for the next 1½ years will hamper their efforts as 3200 N. Clark St. takes shape.

When it's finished, Target will join Starbucks, H&R Block, MB Bank and Marshall's at Clark and Belmont — a troubling trend to Alexis Thomas.

"We need to rally together and save [small businesses], or we're just going to look like the suburbs. We're just going to be so boring. Everyone's just going to look the same," she says.

"We become robots," her father adds.

For now, The Alley hopes it can weather the storm.

"We're trying to create that space for everyone to feel welcome, whatever age you're at," Alexis Thomas says.

A large part of The Alley's overhaul is focused on women. This frayed Ramones T-shirt is among new items geared at attracting a new generation of customers. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

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