Mixing art and fashion

Mixing art and fashion

By Janice McDuffee

Surrounded by bright green walls and racks of dresses and sweaters from some of the newest designers, Heather Ronkoske sat on a green couch in front of a table covered with big belts and magazines loaded with contemporary fashion.

She consulted with another woman who also sat on the couch and made plans for an upcoming event. This was one of the many meetings that filled her schedule from the moment she drove into Champaign that afternoon.

Ronkoske graduated with a finance degree from the University in December of 1999 and since then, she has rarely had a dull moment.

She recently opened her second boutique called Exhibit, 313 E. Green St., in August.

Ronkoske, 29, and her often-silent partner Jonathan Playford, who also happens to be her boyfriend, live in Chicago where the original boutique is located.

Playford graduated from the University with a degree in industrial design and currently works as Exhibit’s designer.

The boutique in Chicago acts not only as a clothing store, but also as a place to showcase the artwork of artists from around the area, including the work of Playford, who is a photographer.

The Campustown location will soon be selling art as well, primarily from local artists.

The store will offer paintings, sculptures, glasswork and other art.

“We’ll pick up anything if we like it and it is affordable,” Ronkoske said.

She said she excelled at most activities she participated in, but found it hard to commit to one activity.

While in high school in Antioch, Ill., she played sports, joined clubs, was the senior class president and even gave a speech at her graduation.

She said she believes she acquired her father’s entrepreneurial ability and need to immerse himself in what she calls “a little bit of everything.”

He owns both a restaurant – where she spent much of her youth working – and an auto parts store in Chicago.

A self-proclaimed impulsive person, Ronkoske said she decided to come to the University on a whim.

She first attended Parkland, and then transferred to the University.

“I came to visit and stayed,” she said.

While working at Joe’s Brewery, Ronkoske said she noticed the girls’ fashion to be boring and plain. She said she found herself to be one of the only people with a unique style.

“I was wearing kimono shirts and everyone else was wearing Abercrombie and Fitch,” she said. “I think it’s getting better now.”

She describes herself as the “creative” type, and said she knew her life would not be spent in an ordinary finance-related occupation.

“I have my degree, so my parents feel good that I have something to fall back on if I go broke,” she said. “But in finance I would have been bored, or stalled in my career.”

After leaving the University, Ronkoske moved to Mexico and planned events for E! Entertainment and MTV, such as “Wild On Spring Break.”

She referred to her work as running events, which required handling VIP rooms, flying DJ’s in from the United States, making sure the VIP’s were taken care of, cross promoting, finding sponsors, and finding candidates for the dating shows on MTV.

Although the job was exciting, she quit because she said missed the people in her life back home.

Eventually, Ronkoske found an opportunity to work in film production.

She worked at a movie studio for two-and-a-half years, and would eventually work for the John Malkovich film, “Drunkboat” before she decided to open her boutique.

She found herself with enough money and a good deal on a space in Chicago.

“Between signing the lease and the opening, it took four to six weeks to get everything running,” she said.

Ronkoske believes the Chicago store stands out from the other 200 boutique stores in the area because of its unique style and selection of artwork.

She said it gives new artists and designers an opportunity to showcase their work before hitting it big.

With the store’s success and a second location, Ronkoske’s life now consists of moving back and forth between Chicago and Champaign.

This is in addition to her original duties of flying to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York to trade shows in search of new designers and new items to buy for her store.

Ronkoske and Playford are thrilled to have their new store here on campus.

“It’s like coming home again,” Playford said. “We’re excited to be back, and a lot of the people we know are excited for us to be back.”

Ronkoske said she originally thought of the location while she attended school, because there were no boutiques on campus back then.

She said the shopping here improved vastly since those days, and she likes the increasing amount of boutique stores on campus.

Erin Mckernin, junior in ACES, stood behind the green couch where Ronkoske sat while she placed shirts on hangers and organized them into several piles.

Mckernin started working at Exhibit during their opening week.

She said she loves her job because of the low key atmosphere, the ability to browse through the clothes when business is slow and her relationship with Ronkoske.

“Heather is the best boss; she is such a friendly person,” Mckernin said. “She’s acts more like a friend then my boss, so you feel like you’re working for a friend.”

Ronkoske is currently helping produce two TV shows and gearing to launch a new purse line that could be available at Macy’s in July of next year.