Nigel Barker clearly has an eye for true beauty. His mother was Miss Sri Lanka. His wife is an in-demand fashion model. And he's best known for his role as a judge and photographer for Tyra Banks' "America's Next Top Model" reality series.
He's usually in the Windy City by way of Macy's on State Street (housed inside the historic venue formerly known as the Marshall Field's Building), with his most recent turn promoting his latest photography book, Models of Influence (Harper Collins, 2015). It's his tribute to 50 extraordinary women--from Twiggy to Naomi Campbell to Kate Upton--who were trailblazers and influenced pop culture and the fashion industry throughout the decades.
During Barker's many trips to Chicago, he's observed beauty everywhere he goes, from watching fashionable folks stroll down the Magnificent Mile to appreciating iconic buildings and sculptures like The Bean. We discussed with him some of his favorite picturesque moments.
About Chicago Travel: I heard that you were staying at Soho House Chicago. Was this your first time? What do you think of the experience?
Nigel Baker: I've actually stayed there three times (to date). I first stayed there over the first weeks it opened. I've been a member of the club for many years.
ACT: Did you get an opportunity to check out the "One While Changing" program when a bartender brings around a vintage drink cart to your room to pour you a complimentary cocktail? It's from 6 to 9 p.m.
NB: I'm normally down by the bar. I don't think I've ever been in my room between 6 and 9. I'm always here doing some event or something, so it's probably not something I'd be able to take advantage of. That's very civilized! That's the British for you.
ACT: Do you like Soho House Chicago better than the others in the group that you've visited?
NB: I like them all for sure. I feel (the Chicago location) has a lot of great space and room. As a result of that, the rooms are really nice and big and really well done and really well thought out. The one in New York is great, but you're fighting for a seat, which is good for them but not great for the customer. The one here I was up at the pool for a quick 30 minutes--so I could soak up some of your Chicago rays--and I got a seat by the pool with no problem.
ACT: What was the scene like there?
NB: Young and funky and cool, and I ran into someone I knew. That's what that place is all about: networking within the fashion and media and entertainment (industries).
ACT: Did you realize that Soho House Chicago is also in the hottest neighborhood in Chicago, which is called the West Loop?
NB: I had heard that, and I come from the hottest neighborhood in New York, which is the Meatpacking District in the West Village. I got a feeling of that. I like places like that. That's again the reason why I like staying there. I've always been interested where you see rough and ready sort of meets uptown and posh.
I think that sort of "Sex and the City" vibe of graffiti on one end and really nice bespoke club next to it says a lot about what cities are really like. Any city can be gentrified to a point where it loses its identity or completely run down, but when the two come together that's when you get a great synergy. I feel that that's electric and you feel creative and it's both a little scary and it can be a little intimidating, but at the same time it's uplifting and there's a pulse going on.
ACT: Have you explored any other neighborhoods or dined at any cool places you can remember offhand?
NB: I've been able to roam around a little bit at night when I have time. I've been to RPM Italian and I stayed at the Trump before, which was very nice. I had a great view and I certainly had a great meal (at Sixteen). I loved the terrace as well.
ACT: Have you been to Chicago enough times to really see the city's landmarks?
NB: I certainly love walking down by the river by the canal and looking at the bridges. I tend to just wander around. I love the architecture. For me, the older parts of the city are my favorite parts where you really see the history and you get a sense of where the city has been. Then, of course, there is The Bean, which is fun to see and shows where the city can go.
ACT: As a photographer, do you look at Chicago from a point of view of how you can shoot it?
NB: I think I do that everywhere I go. There probably isn't a professional photographer who doesn't walk into any room or any street and thinks like this. There are certain places that will make you feel that way, from the architecture to lighting to layout to feng shui to the time of the year to everything. For example, I've come to Chicago on a beautiful day and I think about how the people have a spring in their step and how that plays against the backdrop.
ACT: What are some of the historical landmarks that have caught your eye in Chicago?
NB: Walking down the Magnificent Mile is stunning. It's extraordinary. When you see all those stores and shops and buildings and the way they've been dramatically built on either side, you can close your eyes and almost imagine yourself in the 1920s or 1950s. That's always a fascinating thing to think about, the history of any one place and who else walked here and what it must have looked like during that moment. Not all cities can do that.
ACT: When you compare Chicago to some of the great cities around the world, where does it fall in line?
NB: Chicago actually rates very high. People don't always think of Chicago when they think of American cities. They always think of New York or even Washington, D.C.--because it's the capital--but Chicago is a very unique city. It's almost like a miniaturized version of New York.
If you take all the best parts of Manhattan and put them together, it's pretty much what Chicago is. And it's got a really great heartbeat. The people here are hard working, they have a great sense of humor to them and they are very welcoming. That's also charming and something we do not have in New York. I'm a big fan of Chicago and it's right up there as one of the number one cities in America.
ACT: When you think about Chicago's "style," how would you best describe it?
NB: The pulse is electric here. Even when you come in mid-winter--when so many other places shut down--people here still go out and want to experience the city. The restaurants still have a beat to them. People are excited when you go in, and I think that's a really nice thing and it says something about the city. People are proud of this city.