The Windows Talk Politics to Passers-By

Trevian Kutti, an owner of G'bani, lets window shoppers know what upsets her.

Published: January 8, 2006

LISTEN! G'bani, a shoe store in Chicago, appeals to hearts and purses.
THE silvery mannequin in the window sports a sexy black sequined skirt with a butterfly tail and shear fringed halter top, her wrists weighted with $1,000 worth of Swarovski crystal bracelets. But above the matching scarf wrapped around her neck, where the head should be, sits a big red stop sign.

"Stop" as in "Stop Domestic Spying," the white block letters splayed across the plate-glass window.

It seems a strange slogan for selling Italian stilettos with four-figure price tags, but the owners of the exclusive boutique, G'bani, see shocking the shoppers strolling this city's Gold Coast district as part of their mission.

"We can just sell shoes and clothes, or we can do more," said Trevian Kutti, who owns G'bani with her husband, B. J., a native of Nigeria, who, she said, "didn't have any shoes when he was growing up."

"Fashion is really centered on the exterior, but we are more about humanity," Ms. Kutti said. "We do windows that show we are human beings before we are a business."

Inspired by Ms. Kutti's anger over disclosures that the Bush administration has been eavesdropping on the international phone calls and e-mail messages of some Americans since the 2001 terrorist attacks without obtaining court orders, the domestic spying display is one of the tamer G'bani windows.

Before the 2004 presidential election the storefront was filled with dismembered mannequins spattered in fake blood under an Iraqi flag and little signs saying "Oil," with the headline "Vote World Peace." For Black History Month 2004 there were two mannequins, one draped in white, the other in bright fabrics, under "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs. They one-upped that last year, placing a poster-size swastika, a Klansman's portrait and a picture of the burning World Trade Center behind the words "Never Again."

Ms. Kutti said she usually does statement windows only in February and September - "Chicago can only handle it twice a year" - but she could not keep quiet about the eavesdropping.

"For me, literally, he said I'm going to be able to come into your home, listen to your phone calls at will," she said, referring to the president. "I am a citizen. I pay George Bush. Our taxes, business taxes, whether it's a dime or a dollar, it gives me a right to say something about it."

Hers is a highly unconventional strategy for retail merchants, who are usually wary of alienating any shopper. But Ms. Kutti shrugged off that risk, saying, "Our customer is not the conservative Christian right." When a mother complained that the antiwar diorama in 2004 was scaring students at the elementary school nearby, Ms. Kutti said she told her, "What you need to do is think about the children in Iraq who don't see mannequins, who see it for real."

Several retail analysts said G'bani's provocative windows were a blunter, more extreme version of campaigns by companies like Kenneth Cole and Benneton, which weave liberal political messages about poverty, AIDS or racism into their advertising, and they praised the store's bold effort to stand out.

"Somebody who's going to spend $1,400 for a pair of boots that are that high styled has to live in the controversial lane," said Marshal Cohen, the chief analyst for NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y. "It's not for everyone, and that's part of what they want to do. They want to be the brand that's willing to defy."

Howard Davidowitz, a Manhattan retail consultant, said it all comes down to one thing: footsteps through the door. "You're an independent store in a tough, tough field," he said. "You can't be middle of the road. You can't be Macy's. You have to stand for something."

But Maureen Lampert, the president of the Oak Street Council, a business group for the high-price shops around the corner from G'bani, said she "might have an issue with them" if the store were in her jurisdiction. "I never would do anything like that in our store because of offending people," said Ms. Lampert, whose jewelry store windows are filled with, well, jewelry.

Since 1997, when the Kuttis opened G'bani - which is Uruba for independent wealth - business has grown and now tops $2 million in annual sales, Ms. Kutti said. The scent of nag champa, an incense often burned in Buddhist temples, permeates the 2,800-square-foot store, where customers must be buzzed in through the locked door.

Across from the bar where the Kuttis offer clients Champagne, Cognac and occasionally caviar, photographs are posted on a red velvet curtain, of the $50,000 club (yes, purchases a year) and of celebrities like Chris Rock, Mikei Pfeiffer and the members of Destiny's Child who have shopped at the store. The shoe inventory stretches from a Rene Caovilla denim mule on sale for $199 to a Roberto Cavalli boot of forest green pony hair for $1,480. (Fox fur thigh-highs by Rodolphe Menudier at $2,200 are sold out.)

If radical protest seems incongruous with such indulgence, Ms. Kutti said she and her husband are equal parts fashion and passion, and that "it's necessary for us to express how we feel about something."

Julie Nerenberg, 38, a longtime customer searching one afternoon last week for a chocolate brown dress boot, said the she feels "compelled to come" to G'bani not just for the funky fashions but because she shares the owners' philosophy. "You feel that you're supporting people who have the same beliefs," she said. "I think that style is something that's part of you. You dress how you feel."